Thanksgiving in Suffering

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‘As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more. But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear Him, and His righteousness unto children’s children’

For the last six weeks I’ve had gastrointestinal issues (mostly abdominal pain) and fatigue. I don’t know exactly why yet – different tests have given different results: elevated tTG, low ferritin, but negative EMA, healthy-looking organs and intestines in an ultrasound and endoscopy, and still waiting for the results of a biopsy. Thank God, it doesn’t look to be anything dangerous, though. And, now off a “gluten challenge” and back on a gluten-free diet and an iron supplement, I’m starting to feeling better 🙂

I missed church on Sunday because I was particularly unwell, but I wanted to light a candle to thank God for getting me through my endoscopy okay and for the good result of that, so I dropped into the Catholic church in my town (the closest thing to an Orthodox church there) on my walk home to light a candle and pray.

I prayed the Jesus Prayer for a while, and reflected on different things in my life at the moment. I was in some pain, and so I reflected partly on that. And I realised that I haven’t been approaching this season of suffering quite right. I remembered that suffering and pain and ill health are as much a gift from God as good health, and that we should serve God in and through our illnesses. But, I don’t yet understand that deeply. I don’t yet know much about what the Church teaches about that, nor how exactly I should rejoice in my sufferings and use them to serve God. This is something I want and need to read more about, and pray to God to enlighten me further. I have heard that illness tames our flesh, like ascetic practices (such as fasting) do; but there is so much more for me to learn.

Walking home, I thought over the ways I can – already – see that God has given me opportunities and blessings through this time of ill health. I realised that illness:

+ Helps protect me from particular sins, especially gluttony and lust, as when in pain I often don’t feel tempted by either.

+ Teaches me to deny the incessant clamouring of my flesh, and teaches me strength, resilience, endurance, persistence, as I try to ignore pain and fatigue and fulfil my duties.

+ Prompts me to turn to God. When I am scared, or in pain, or worn out, or worried, or lonely, or feeling weak and lacking the necessary strength to complete my duties, no-one can comfort me the way God can – His peace is the only thing that can utterly soothe and reassure me. When I was worried about worst case scenarios, when I hope for healing and for some answers, modern medicine cannot make full and infallible promises, and it is slow to diagnose; but I know everything is in God’s Hands, and I can ask Him for his help and healing, and trust in Him that whatever happens He will not let go of me if I cling to Him. Death is not to be feared, for Christ has overcome it. Pain and suffering are not to be feared, for Christ has overcome them too, and He grants us the Grace to endure them. All that is to be feared is rejecting Christ and choosing to spend eternity without Him; but He is merciful and forgiving, and welcomes the repentant sinner and never turns away from those who cry out to Him to save them. Illness, and the fear of its consequences, have reminded me of these things, and taught them to me more deeply than before. Perhaps they sound like clichés when written down here, but over the last few weeks I have learned them more deeply, both in the darkness of fear and doubt and sin, and in the light of repentance and God’s mercy and grace.

+ Teaches me to be grateful for things I usually take for granted. Good health, when I have it. The health I do have, even now – in many ways, and compared to a lot of people, I am very healthy and this is something to be very grateful for. Little things, like waking up to sunny mornings – your world becomes smaller when you are ill. Times when pain lessens or disappears, or fatigue lifts, and the enjoyment of those times – like a sunny half-hour walk today, which I would have struggle to manage many days over the last few weeks. Modern medicine, and the comforts of my life, both of which I usually take for granted, but which are such blessings.

+ The love and kindness and care I have experienced from others. From my family, my boyfriend, some of my friends, who have shown me great compassion and patience which has touched me, strengthened and deepened my relationships with them and my trust of them, and made me very grateful – it is something to outweigh any minor irritation I’m tempted to feel next time they commit a small fault. From the doctors and nurses I have seen, who have invariably been cheerful, considerate, and helpful.

+ Prompts me to take better care of my body, which is entrusted to me by God. To make sure I eat enough to gain back the weight I have lost. To take iron supplements. To exercise regularly, and come up with a manageable plan for this, which I stick to. To go to bed at a sensible time consistently, and get enough sleep. Not to take pain-killers unless I absolutely need to (they irritate the digestive system, which probably doesn’t help my gastro-intestinal issues). To be more careful about sticking to a gluten-free diet. To pace myself, and make sure I do fulfil my commitments and do things I enjoy and see my friends, but not to overcommit or squeeze more into a short period of time than is sensible and end up drained.

+ To give thanks for every blessing. Because you never know what lies round the corner. I have been ungrateful and lazy sometimes about the responsibilities I have which are actually gifts, such as the research I do. Now I am reminded to be grateful to have been put in a position where I am able to do such fulfilling and exciting things.

+ To have greater compassion on those who are ill, especially those who are in a lot of pain or dangerously ill (whose sufferings are unimaginably more great than mine), and to pray for them and those who care for them.

+ To have more fear of hell, and remember that whatever pain I suffer here is a trifle compared to an eternity spent away from the presence of God, so I must strive always to set my focus on the Lord and work out my salvation with fear and trembling.

+ To be more grateful for what Christ suffered for us. His sufferings on the cross were unimaginably greater than my little sufferings. He suffered deeply physically and also bore all the sin of humanity – He who was sinless and God Himself – which is beyond human comprehension in the utter pain He endured (for the deepest pain of all is to be cut off, even partially, from God, as I know from times when I have sinned gravely). He chose to suffer this, to save us, unworthy though we are. He would have done this even for one sinner, even just for me. How great is the love of our God!

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