Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Invisible Illnesses

There's a somewhat precious meme going around that features a photo of an old bedraggled man sitting on a park bench in the rain.  Paired with the evocative image are the words, "Be kind to everyone you meet, for everyone is fighting a battle." The meme hits home not because of its profundity or aesthetic originality, but because we all sit and respond interiorly when we read it, probably not with our battling neighbor in mind, but our suffering selves. We say to ourselves, "You got that right. Now I wish I could tell someone I'm the guy on the bench."

I suffer from a number of invisible maladies, both physical and mental/emotional.  None are plain to see in a still photograph of me, especially one of me on a good day, when nothing is flaring or being triggered or keeping me homebound.  If you met me, you'd find me focused on your words, not mine, well able to take care of my two children, and you'd likely describe me as energetic and vivacious.  

Suffering is something we mask.  We are not only called to do so, but we know that socially it's impractical and inadvisable to go around in everyday life bleating about our physical pains and mental scars.  Still, chinks in the armor are visible, to those who know us best, and to those strangers who are sometimes the unfortunate brunt of our accidental displays of distress.  During the year my mother was dying, I heard more honks behind me at traffic lights than most drivers do in a lifetime.  I would just space out and not observe that the light had changed.  How annoying I must have been to the people behind me!  I was and am sorry for that.  I remember sitting in my best girlfriend's kitchen, and she alerted me to the fact that I hadn't said a word during the last half hour of our time together.  "I'm not very good company," I said to her.  Immediately I choked up.  We both knew why.  I was sucked dry of the energy and vigor I once had; my mom had just died and I couldn't pull my act together. I couldn't adjust to the ordinary requirements of life without my mother in the physical world.

On a day when I have a migraine, or my IBS is flaring, or I've had a particularly difficult time putting into perspective some of the images that attack me during my active PTSD periods, I'm really not sure how I come off to those around me.  I try to put them first.  I try to hyper-concentrate on them.  That may translate as a little crazy, frenetic, overly affectionate, or compensatory.  Or I may read as lethargic, because the medicine for my IBS makes me so exhausted.  It dries out my throat so I sound hoarse and not very healthy.  

When people are outright nasty to me, I try to keep all of my own past and present sufferings in my heart as I receive their behavior and words.  What battle is this person fighting?  Cancer?  Addiction?  Depression?  Poverty? Spiritual dryness?  What broken vehicle is this person driving, as C.S. Lewis termed it?  More important than the invisible ailment, the invisible thorn in their flesh, is how I can help my neighbor cope with it.  Offering it up works rather well for me.  So does spiritual reading.  Sleep helps, when I can get a peaceful one. A touch helps.  Not a full on embrace, mind you, because often that's enough to start me crying, and sometimes people don't feel comfortable receiving a hug, despite Leo Buscaglia's best efforts at convincing us so.  But a simple squeeze of the arm, a hand on the shoulder can go a long way.  When my suffering has been at its worst, to be very candid, nothing anyone can say will really change anything.  I have to be in that moment of suffering because that's where I am.  And God is with me there, and I know that, and I'm fine, really.  I hope everyone can feel that way, that every moment, even (or especially?) the most pain-filled one, is a moment when you are surrounded by Heavenly friends.  

The Communion of Saints, the angels, particularly your Guardian Angel, are there, at the ready, waiting to aid you.  Jesus is beside you, the Holy Spirit within, and God above on His throne, holding a place that only YOU can fill.  These are our comforts.  These are our truths.  A good cry out to the Father, from deep inside, can bring you through a bad moment.  Falling on your knees, even prostrate on the ground in prayer, can also carry you closer to the place God needs you to be. 

God also has given more mundane gifts that are of great value: people who are trained to help us with medical, social, psychological, and family problems.  Medicines and foods that are healing.  Priests, sisters, deacons, and parish leaders who will listen to us and counsel us. Trusted friends to whom we cannot be too prideful to go to for help.

I used to tell my high school students that if they were feeling depressed, and they often were because of the tumult of that age in one's life, to look in the mirror and make funny faces.  They would scoff, then secretly go home and try it and report back to me how well it worked.  I think part of its effectiveness was just their knowing that I cared enough to give them a tip like that and ask a few days later if they were feeling any better.  I was often disappointed and shocked at how many of them had no adults in their lives to whom they could talk about their suffering -- not a receptive parent, not a relative, not a pastor.  There is a tragic and noteworthy paucity of people who are willing to simply listen to others.  Just listen.  

An invisible woman is a woman whose visible self can look shiny and privileged, but who may be suffering beneath that polished and "together" exterior.  If we can increase our powers of empathy and perception, share in each others' suffering, and if we can, again, say, "I see you," that can treat a host of ailments, for both the giver and the recipient. 

Monday, February 25, 2013

Ralph Ellison, Pope Benedict XVI, Charlie Sheen, and Me

In Ellison's novel Invisible Man, the author deftly handles the complex idea of human identity.  Specifically, he explores how humans assess each other, quickly, rashly, often inaccurately, and based on appearance, possibly combined with whatever few facts are available at an initial meeting.  As a black man, Ellison's protagonist vacillates between suffering from and sardonically enjoying his invisibility.  The judgments made about him based on his color make for life situations ranging from misadventure to physical danger to, at last, isolation.  

The temptation for the adherent Catholic in 2013 in America is isolation.  Instead of creating the cloister within the heart, as the great saints instruct us, we are wont to gather with like minded folk and hold on for dear life, while we watch materialism, utilitarianism, secularism, Christophobia, intellect worship, idol worship, abortion, promiscuity, corruption, perversion, and all manner of sin grow like mighty oaks around us.  Not weeds, mind you, that can be pulled like the pests they are, but strong trees.  They seem to be in power; they seem to be, as pop curiosity and broken human being Charlie Sheen said, "winning."  Of course there was a tragic irony to Sheen uttering this phrase.  He hasn't won a thing.  He's losing at life.  He's losing his soul, and his body, and even his draw as a novelty act.  But he perceived himself, amazingly, to be victorious, to such a degree that he punctuated his self-appraisal with the teenagerish, "Duh!?"  Implied here is that it is obvious to anyone keeping score that Sheen was in fact winning because he was rich, he was having a lot of sexual intercourse, and he was enjoying drugs.  He had freedom.  

So you can't blame a Catholic who is obedient to the Magisterium and the Pope, who bends to Christ's way of the Cross, for desiring to create a quasi-hermitage.  Look at the view, for gravy's sake.  It's bleak.  Or is it?

So far, the darkest news, the HHS Mandate, the re-election of a pro-abortion President, the scandals within our own ranks, the degeneration of the worlds of news, entertainment, and family, have not broken the ankles of The Church.  She stands stronger than ever in adversity. Not only that, but religious of all stripes are unifying. Former enemies are making friends at warp speed to present a united front in the face of threats to the Natural Law and God's Law.   I'm at a point where each new item that comes on my news feed that should depress me fills me with a little bit more resolve and another dose of confidence in the Profession of Faith I made almost three years ago.  To be Catholic now is to have the One Thing.  It is to stand in the face of my own sin, your sin, and the very public sins of everyone from politicians to pundits to celebrity priests, and say, "What else you got?" 

The devil wants us to give up.  Understand that.  He wants us to become invisible.  He wants us to assess each other as narrow minded Catholic far right wingnuts and limousine liberals.  He wants us to respond to hatred with hatred.  He wants us to use contraception, limit our numbers, spend more money on oursleves, and eventually, die out.  Then God's beautiful and unique creation would lose, and The Church would be a failed experiment.

Except that's impossible.  Because Jesus handed a power to Peter.  And Peter handed it down, and each day the Holy Spirit himself protects us.  We are visible to you, Jesus, and you see us obeying and standing by the Magisterium, and it pleases You.  And this is how we are "winning."  Because true winning doesn't involve looking for a loser.  Its definition is living and walking and speaking in love.  Its manifestation is breaking through the invisibility of the religious person, ignoring the barbs thrown at us, and showing our critics, many and varied, controlling the airways and government offices, that we are lovers and fighters.  Our weapons are the Sacraments, our prayers, and our unity.  Our love for Pope Benedict infuriates some.  Why on earth would that be?  Examine that!  Only hate becomes aggravated by love.  There is no other explanation.  So what would Blessed Teresa say?  If you see a place without love, put love there.  Don't run away and become invisible.  Don't let them look past you.  Make them see you.  That's all any of us wants: to be seen.  

To all of my atheist, lukewarm, agnostic, cafeteria, disobedient friends, and to all my adherent, trying every day friends, and to all my more Catholic than the Pope legalistic friends, to all my Republicatholic friends, to all of my Nuns on the Bus friends: guess what?  I see you.  I see your secret sin.  I have it, too.  It's okay.  Lay it at the Cross.  Jesus will take care of it.  But He will send you away with an admonition: "Go and sin no more." That's what the Pope tells us.  That's why he is passionately hated by some and desperately loved by others.  He speaks with the voice of Jesus.  Reflect on how Jesus was treated.  Now think of our dear Papa, and of the Christian at the office every day, and the Catholic advocating for abstinence in the combox.  How can we fool ourselves into thinking that we all would receive better treatment than Christ Himself?  Not gonna happen, people.  Not yet.  Not this side of Heaven.  

Our Pope is invisible to many already.  They see a caricature, not a servant of the servants of God.  When he enters his life of real "invisibility" in seclusion, we will not be far from him.  All the hearts of all the obedient Catholics in the world beat together.  We all eat the Manna God sends us.  We all pray the same Hail Mary.  We are one, but a one that is grafted to the vine, the Christ, the True God, the Creator of every atom in the Universe.  With Him on your side, you dare be invisible? No.  Let's not allow each other to do that.  Let's speak, always in charity and clarity, what we KNOW to be Truth.  

But to speak it, we must also live it.  Lent is the ideal time of year to make a self-examination.  Am I Christlike in speech, manner, thought, action, almsgiving, mercy, judgment, lawfulness, strength, meekness, virtue, understanding, prudence?  Too much for you?  Okay, go join a rock and roll church, and tell yourself that Heaven is just an extension of this life, of sucking down material things and food and gossip forever and ever.  No, that's Charlie Sheen Heaven, not the Heaven of the Bible, not the Heaven on the Liturgy.

With this blog, which I hope to add to as frequently as my vocation as a mother allows, I have one goal: to tell you that you are not alone.  To tell you that holiness is not only possible, but necessary.  To tell you that joy is sometimes disguised as suffering.  

Every time I read or taught the novel Invisible Man, I found something new in it.  Good literature is that way.  The Church and its teachings are similar, multiplied by about a billion.  There are riches untold.  Sometimes I will focus on a teaching, or a line in Scripture, or a piece of the Catechism.  I am not a Mommy blogger.  I am not a wisecracking blogger.  I'm not a sassy gal blogger.  I will not engage in comboxing matches.  

I'm human, and that's a beautiful thing to be when you know that God Himself shaped you with His Hands.  I'm Catholic, and that's the best thing in the world to be if you want to be so close to Jesus that He literally enters your body.  I'm a wife, and that means I'm subordinate to my husband.  I'm a mother, and that means my job is to get my kids to Heaven.  Maybe along the way, I can help you get there, too.