Recently, I spent a few days in hospital with a serious illness. Thank God I have recovered fully, but it could have been worse—even fatal. Such a brush with death makes you think deeper and changes your perspective. You move into a different space that is already occupied by millions of sick people whose plight you were aware of but did not consider as much as you should. Here I share a few thoughts from this experience of illness and how it impacts on our call to evangelize.
We hear much about the institutions of society that are the shapers of culture—the media, universities, politics, TV, the internet, movies, art, music, literature, etc. It may seem odd to describe hospitals as shapers of culture, but the truth is that they not only care for people who are sick but remind society that we human beings are weak, limited, and vulnerable. They ground us in what’s true—namely, that we are mortal and that suffering is part of our existence, despite modern attempts to avoid it. In those days in hospital, I felt in intimate contact with what is real, with an acute sense of my own mortality. For this I was grateful. Sickness evaporated illusions of invincibility and any traces of pride that makes you think that sickness occurs to others but not to me. I also appreciated how every moment we exist is a miracle given to us by God’s grace. There are millions of parts of the body, and if one of them stops working, our well-being and lives are under threat. At all times we depend on the harmony of all the component parts to work together to stay healthy and well. Such a harmony we take for granted so often. Only when illness strikes do we appreciate this unity of the body and its connection with the soul.
Through all this time of illness, I felt that God was close. In fact, I felt that he was close in the measure that I saw myself with a new understanding of human fragility. My illness was a disruption, a breakthrough of grace, a shattering of presumptions, and a new appreciation of the miracle of life that God gives us at every moment. I began to appreciate those beautiful words of St. Augustine as he recounted Jesus’ meeting with the woman taken in adultery (John 8:1-11): “the two of them remained alone: mercy with misery” (On the Gospel of John, 33, 5). I sensed that God through Christ has united himself to our humanity, even when we are sick. I also thought of the times when Jesus himself may have been sick, even though the Gospels don’t mention those moments. I contemplated his compassion for the sick when he moved into their space in order to reach them out of love.
I also began to understand that the separation between this life and eternal life, mortality and immortality, is but a narrow stream. So often we think of death as something in the future, in the far distance. We mistakenly think of the life hereafter as something that awaits us only when we die. In contrast, sickness teaches us that death is not a distant stranger but a friend that walks by our side. The truth is that we are always, even those who are most healthy and fit, only a hair’s breath from death. This is not meant to scare us but to anchor us in what’s true and what is real.
God’s providence decrees that we are on this side of the narrow stream instead of the other, for now. Every time I walk on the beach near my house, I am reminded of this truth. As I walk on the shore, I see the land on my left and the sea on my right as I walk on the margin between them. Looking at the sea reminds me of eternity, of God, and of the communion of saints who are intimately close. Looking at the land symbolizes this life—all that I know and all that is familiar to me. Walking along the beach is like walking side by side with both worlds that interpenetrate as the waves of the sea meet the shore. It is a metaphor that teaches how we are at once grounded in this world but always transcending it to a higher world that we are also connected to.
Another insight I had at the time of illness is the power of intercessory prayer born of solidarity with fellow patients. If you break your arm, it may be painful and inconvenient, but when you meet someone in the hospital suffering from cancer, your broken arm is put in perspective. You begin to see your own sickness in solidarity with others more gravely ill and through faith offer up your suffering out of love for them.
Again, Jesus himself is our inspiration as our priest. On the way to Calvary and on the cross, the Lord moved into spaces occupied by the lost, the sinner, and those in terrible pain. He made his own the experience of severe suffering so that he could reach others in the depths of their pain. As Hebrews puts it:
“It was only right that God who creates and preserves all things, should make Jesus perfect through suffering in order to bring many children to share his glory” (Heb. 2:10).
In the light of this, I began to realize that being ill was not a suspension of my priesthood but an intense expression of it, inspired by Jesus our High Priest, who never stops interceding for us by moving into our space out of loving solidarity and compassion. And because he unites himself to us in our illness, he changes us to become more loving people like himself. In times of suffering, St. Elizabeth of the Trinity invites us to “believe that at those times he is hollowing out in your soul capacities to receive him, capacities that are, in a way, as infinite as he himself. Try then to will to be wholly joyful under the hand that crucifies you” (Letter 249).
Sickness can and does hollow out our pride to make more space for God. It also moves us into a new space where we are close to our brothers and sisters who are weak, afraid, and in need of hope.
The experience of illness has strengthened my desire to evangelize and to make Christ known and loved. But perhaps in a different way than before. The light of the Gospel needs to be shared from within our fragile and mortal existence that is sustained by God’s providence at every moment of every day. The Good News is that God has united himself to our humanity even when we are ill. Our sick bodies are still the receptacle of God’s presence and transforming power. A close encounter with death might be scary, but it makes us more grateful for every day and warns us never to take life for granted. None of us have a right to tomorrow. And while we exist in space and time, we know that eternal life with God and his saints is very close. The good that comes from illness is that we are closer to our brothers and sisters who are weak, sick, and vulnerable. We offer them the Good News of God’s love not from a distance but with them and as one of them. I thank God for my recovery and thank him for these valuable lessons learned through illness.
Fr. Billy Swan is a priest of the Diocese of Ferns, Ireland. He holds a degree in chemistry and worked for a number of years for a pharmaceutical company before entering seminary. Ordained in 1998, he served for four years as an associate pastor before further studies in Rome where he was awarded a Licentiate and Doctorate in Systematic Theology from the Gregorian University. He served for four years as the Director of Seminary Formation at the Pontifical Irish College, Rome. He is currently based at St Aidan’s Cathedral, Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford.