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The Theology of Illness

Jean Hoefling

"Star Trails"  by Marjan Lazarevski is licensed under  CC BY 2.0

"Star Trails" by Marjan Lazarevski is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Through illness, man comes back to himself.
— St. Serpahim of Sarov

Very recently, a three-day illness sent me to the wall. Suffice it to say there were woes and throes and flues and vertigo aplenty, of an intensity I’d never before experienced. For once, I don’t need to resort to hyperbole when I claim that I didn’t move. If I tried to, I immediately checked into another dimension where the ceiling spun above me like time-lapse footage of star trails on steroids. Every minute was an hour, or no time at all, and the slightest noise devolved to cacophony and new frontiers of vertigo. Trying to imagine life outside my closed bedroom door was akin to planning a tea party on the backside of Jupiter. In short, I was completely disoriented.

In his thoughtful book, The Theology of Illness, French philosopher Jean-Claude Larchet says this about the benefit of sickness: “Because it undermines us at the level of our being, illness often challenges our former, false equilibrium, and leads us to question the very foundations of our existence.” I’m happy to agree, for the foundation of my existence was definitely a concern. But what brought that? Only suffering and helplessness; there are no better teachers in the grasp of metaphysical realities. For three days, everything that depended on me no longer did. The family… what family? I had nothing to contribute except tears and frightening emotional purges and absolute silence. The vertigo became a symbol for everything about my life that makes little sense, or leans or tilts or moves too fast without adequate time to regain equilibrium when things become harder than they ought to be, and need a reset. I went to the deep heart of things with God and a box of Kleenex. And then, to a place deeper still that I’d forgotten even existed.

My illness was agonizing but short-lived. It worked its will in me because I yielded to the paradox of death as a requirement for renewed life. St. John of Gaza wrote, “God demands of the sick person nothing other than thanksgiving and endurance.” It was enough to lie in the dark and be, and I’m a walking, talking cliché because of it. The sky really is bluer now, the May air fresher. And it’s true what they say: All you need is love.