Saturday, December 03, 2005

Disease, Identity & God's Providence

I was 20 years old when I had my first seizure. Talk about the worst time in life to learn that you have a chronic disease! Just when I was finally coming to some sense of who I was, who I was suddenly changed! There was no cure. The doctors couldn’t even identify precisely what was wrong. But, they said, I was probably going to have to get used to the fact that I was probably going to be this way the rest of my life. And, oh yeah, if I wanted to be healthy I was going to have to also probably take medication for the rest of my life, and there could be side effects. I didn’t take it well.

Instead, I was stubborn. If they couldn’t even tell me what was wrong (and if they didn’t even know precisely how the medication worked, just that it did), how could they say that this was going to be a lifetime condition! It could just be a freak occurrence. For a while I took the medication. But, since I was embarrassed to have a disease, I was very tight-lipped about it. Nobody needed to know how weak I’d become. I tried to pretend I wasn’t really sick. After a while on the medication, I convinced myself I wasn’t and stopped taking it. Things went OK for a couple of years after that, but then the seizures came back, three in quick succession. I missed a job interview, and later almost blinded myself in a racquetball game (thank God for safety goggles!). Eventually I resigned myself to going back on the medication permanently. And I started to admit to myself and to others that I had a disease. And I started asking God: why me?

When you suffer from epilepsy, it becomes part of your identity. Once you accept it, there’s always that possibility lurking that despite the fact that the medication has it under control, a seizure could always strike without warning. I live with the fear that one day, some trauma or strange sequence of events might set off a serious epileptic fit that might cause permanent damage. It can’t not be part of who I am. And once I did accept it, I discovered freedom, and even a reason.

Suddenly, I started having these seemingly coincidental encounters with people who, for unknown reasons, would share with me that they suffered from seizures. And it became clear to me that I had been placed in this situation to share my own experience of vulnerability and disease with them. I discovered the immediate intimacy, the holy intimacy, that can come from encountering someone who suffers as you do. No one else can speak to your situation in the same way. It started to become apparent that God aimed to bring some good out of my disease. That’s when I stopped asking God to take it away.

When I realized that God was calling me to become a priest, I was afraid my epilepsy might get in the way. Was a chronic illness an impediment to becoming a priest? I was almost afraid to ask, for fear that the answer might be yes. But I did ask, and I was assured that as long as my seizures were under control, it would not be a problem. God wasn’t setting me up for a disappointment.

While I generally don’t run around telling everyone I’m an epileptic, I find in many ways that my own experience of weakness and dependency as a result of it makes me a better minister to God’s people. Especially with those who are stubbornly facing the new reality of their weakness and disease as I did so many years ago. And, most especially, with people who are epileptic, as I am. I am amazed and humbled by how often God places me in these people’s lives and allows me to bring Christ to them.

My vocation as a Jesuit and my call to be a priest are so important in my life, and that vocation has been so enhanced by my experience of illness, I can hardly conceive of my identity without any of these things. If my epilepsy had been an impediment back then, or if for some reason it were to go out of control and prevent me from becoming a priest now, I would be crushed, I would be heartbroken. I would wonder how God would be so cruel to have led me on as he did. And I wouldn’t know who I am. These things are so inextricably linked to the core of my identity and, at least thus far, a clear indication of God’s providence. That’s why, though it may seem strange, I thank God for the gift of my disease, for the gift of my vocation and for the great privilege of serving God and his people. And I look forward to continuing to do so.


Blogger Christine said...

I have epilepsy too, though only petit mal, and though I do not have to take meds these days, it's still a part of my makeup. I know that should the seizures come again, which though unlikely, could happen, I'd be on medication for the rest of my life. I have a friend I met only eight or nine years ago who also has epilepsy and she was so instrumental in helping me understand and appreciate the role the disease has played in my life. Thank you for being that for others too. Blessings and prayers, C.

4:42 AM  
Anonymous Tom Mohan said...

My wife had 2 serious seizures 1 when pregnant with our youngest (now age 13) and 1 during labor with him, his birth was a challenge but turned out fine; about 5 years ago she had the smaller type but could not drive for about 1.5 years as the meds got figured out [we have nominal mass transit in Detroit metro area] so I was driving Julie to work- which was a good season as far as prayer/talking together goes.

We have seen and see how medicine, medication and prayer all work together and I agree that you are being a blessing by sharing your story with others.

7:25 AM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Mark, you offer a really powerful reflection.

In particular, the way in which you note how acknowledging your epilepsy (in this case, for reasons that will become evident in the next few lines, I would say as a difference not as an illness) has had a powerful positive influence on the depth and authenticity of your service to and accompaniment of God's people.

While not an exact parallel, it strikes me just the same how when priests (and other ministers in the Church) accept themselves as sexual beings, albeit celibate and whether heterosexual or homosexual, they too are empowered to serve more effectively God's people.

This reality unfortunately has been omitted from much of the public official "talk" of Vatican officials when dealing with the topic of candidates for the ordained priesthood and questions of sexuality and celibacy.

The point I offer here, however, is not at all contrary to Church teaching, and I hope that as a faith community we will be able to move beyond the surface of the "Instruccione" and be able to get at the heart of God's heart.

For one, we need also to take the "Instruccione" in its context. While out of context, especially as reported via soundbites in the secular media, it can be damaging on the personal level, we should be cautious not to give it more authority than it canonically has. This will be a valid point on which bishops will be able to re-address the matter with the Vatican.

In the meantime, this is an important teaching moment on so many levels. I pray that the bishops will take the lead in catechizing the faithful and society on the depth and richness of the Church's teaching on sexuality, including homosexuality, and not allow the secular media to represent the teaching as pathologizing homosexuality as "objectively disordered" in a psychological sense as is often misunderstood in our contemporary US society.

More on this in the near future on my blog,


11:51 AM  
Blogger ~m2~ said...

i think this puts you, as a priest, in a very unique position to be able to minister to your congregation in times where other priests may not be *gifted* to do so. i have often said (and you don't portray yourself as "wounded," but you'll get my drift) that we minister to others and meet at the wound.

just like all those "coincidences" of meeting others with the same unique challenge as yours. who'da thought?


12:05 PM  
Blogger Peter Nixon said...

A beautiful reflection, Mark. Thank you!

6:10 PM  
Anonymous Hector said...

Mark, thanks for your deep reflection. How interesting that "bad" and "unfair" things happen to us in life and later we see that without them we wouldn't be able to truly serve God's calling. I'm glad that you now see God's hand in this. Thanks so much for valueing your vocation so much.

6:54 PM  
Blogger Jonathan St.Andre, T.O.R. said...

Thank you for your words. You remind me of how many saints experienced their first transformations through unexpected illness. May the Lord continue to use you in your weakness!

8:37 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Sorry, in my earlier post, I mis-typed the reference to my blog. It should have been:
(And thanks to Peter for catching my typo!)

9:49 PM  
Blogger Gashwin said...

Mark, thanks so much for those powerful reflections. Indeed, as St. Paul said, God's power is made perfect in weakness!

2:15 AM  
Blogger angelmeg said...

We found out our Hannah had epilepsy when she woke us up on Easter morning having a Grand Mal seisure when she was 13. Praise God it was the only large seizure she has had. Medication has become a daily part of her routine, and she has had to come to terms with this as a part of who she is. She will be 16 tomorrow, and is trying to each day live the life that God has chosen for her. We are in awe of her in many ways.

Thanks for sharing this, I will ask her to read it, it will help her I am sure.


11:22 AM  
Blogger Debi said...

I've also found throughout my own life, that it's the struggles and hardships I've endured that enable me to be most helpful to others. It is in these moments that I have the opportunity to do His will. I belive that through these struggles and hardships, He uses us to His glory - even though we're not always aware of it.

May God continue to bless you!

12:55 PM  

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