Saints and Sickness – What Is the Correlation?
For the past few years, I have received daily emails with the Saint of the Day from Franciscan Media. I don’t spend a lot of time reading these. If I’m too busy or miss a couple of days, I might delete a few without reading but for the most part I do at least a cursory reading, getting the gist of the substance if not every fine point. I figure if I do this on a regular basis, I can’t help but soak up some wisdom and maybe even be subconsciously changed bit by bit. As you think, so you feel, so you are. Lately, I’ve been struck by saints and sickness and the number of saints who have experienced months of pain, illness, as well as chronic pain. I ask myself, what is the correlation?
Specific Saints and Sickness
Sometimes a period of being confined to bed is a source of conversion. It was after a long convalescence that Ignatius Loyola came up with what became the basis for his spiritual exercises.
Theresa of Lisieux, the Little Flower, died at the age of 24 from tuberculosis. Bernadette Soubirous of Lourdes was a sickly child, suffering from asthma. She had chronic health problems throughout her life and died when she was 35. Many miracles were attributed to the waters at the shrine where this young woman saw Mary, yet she herself never experienced healing in her own life as was so often the case for these saints.
Paul is said to have been afflicted with epilepsy. He prayed that God might relieve him of his affliction. When that didn’t happen, he accepted his suffering. Teresa of Avila complained of numerous aches and pains, and these are just some of the more well-known of the saints.
Lesser Known Saints
Julie Billiart, at thirty was paralyzed and confined to bed for twenty-two years. She even lost the ability to speak for a while. And yet she managed to give visitors spiritual guidance from her prone position. For Cresentia Hoess, bodily afflictions and pain were always with her. First it was headaches and toothaches. Then she lost the ability to walk, her hands and feet gradually becoming so crippled that her body curled up into a fetal position. In the spirit of Francis she cried out, “Oh, you bodily members, praise God that he has given you the capacity to suffer.” Despite her sufferings she was filled with peace and joy as she died on Easter Sunday in 1744.
Anthony Grassi was reportedly cured of chronic indigestion by being hit by lightning. As someone who suffers from indigestion, this is enough to tempt me to go out on the golf course during a thunderstorm.
These are but a few of the many examples of saints and sickness.
What Does this Mean for Us Today?
As I reflected on these stories, I wondered, was it their suffering through sickness and chronic health problems that made them holy? Or were they simply regular people like you and I, who rose above their sickness to sainthood?
After reading these stories I recognized that it was no easier for these men and women to be kind and raise above their affliction than it is for me to do so when I’m sick. It pushes me to realize that if they can do it, maybe I can too. The saints didn’t wait until they felt 100% better to do good or offer comfort to those in pain. They did so in the midst of discomfort and illness.
And I look back on my life and realize there was always something. Whether killer cramps in my teens and twenties, PMS, menopause, indigestion, foot pain, or just your average cold or the aches and pain of overdoing yard work, there has always been something at different times robbing me of that perfect health I crave. Do any of us feel healthy all of the time? Not likely.
I can use this as an excuse to be grumpy and irritable, or I can rise above.
Learning to Rise Above
As I get older it would be easy to sit back and say I’ve done my part. Easy to say I don’t have the energy to rise above whatever may be bothering me to help another. Yet in extending myself to help others, I often forget my discomfort, at least for that moment.
Perhaps that is what pushed the saints to do for others despite their illnesses – knowledge that in forgetting ourselves in service to others, we also forget our pain.
This isn’t to say we don’t take care of ourselves, or ignore our own physical needs to the point that it harms us. It is to say that sometimes, like the saints, we need to just push through sickness, or push aside our own problems in service to others. What greater example do we have than Jesus, in the midst of carrying his cross, stopping to comfort weeping women? Therein lies holiness any of us can achieve.
What physical ailment are you dealing with today? How might the example of the saints help you?
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