In the summer of 2018, I had a migraine lasting four months.
The intensity ebbed and flowed, but the presence remained constant, a looming force that either pressed heavy upon my forehead or burrowed into my temple. Each morning I restarted the process of withering beneath a blaze of fatigue. I learned to distrust my left arm and left leg. But then I would forget their untrustworthiness, right up until I tried to grip a cup of coffee, or walk the length of the house that I barely left for the middle chunk of a year.
During the 120 days almost entirely lost to suffering, my ability to read all but fell away. I would start a book and feel my number on the pain scale increase with each page turn, which often forced me to give up altogether. Sometimes I never started. I didn’t want to feel that devastating sense of defeat again. When I did muster the energy to read, I often returned to similar places in Scripture.
He lets me lie down in green pastures...
If the Lord had not been on our side… then the waters would have engulfed us.
Though not seeing him now, you believe in him.
Otherwise, I saved most of my reading energy for a seminary class that I had begun before the illness hit, and remained determined to finish. One afternoon, while attempting to power through a required text, I found myself overcome by a surprising sense of solidarity with the Christian mystic and philosopher Simone Weil.
“In 1938...I was suffering from splitting headaches; each sound hurt me like a blow…,” Weil wrote. “I discovered the poem...called “Love” [by George Herbert] which I learnt by heart. Often, at the culminating point of a violent headache, I made myself say it over, concentrating all my attention upon it and clinging with all my soul to the tenderness it enshrines. I used to think I was merely reciting it as a beautiful poem, but without my knowing it the recitation had the virtue of a prayer. It was during one of the recitations that Christ himself came down and took possession of me. In my arguments about the insolubility of the problem of God I had never foreseen the possibility of that, of a real contact, person to person, here below, between a human being and God.”
I question the goodness of God too easily. I pray and wish against this tendency, but I can’t seem to shake it. Like Simone, illness unsettled my faith. Yet, I found over time that my soul’s capacity for wonder had been stretched by this very same illness; I too had begun to understand the presence of Jesus in a new, experiential way.
Pain removed the filters that normally stopped me from asking hard questions—I began to let an unknown physical diagnosis lead me to obscure spiritual places. Where might I find the person of Christ? Might He be right here with me, every day? In this house? This bed? Might He have truth to give me, tuck inside me more deeply than I’d previously known?
Intrigued by the mystics’ approach to suffering, I revisited Gerald L. Sittser’s chapter entitled Union: The Spirituality of the Mystics in his Water from a Deep Well. There, I found another fellow companion, another surprise of solidarity in this time of suffering: Julian of Norwich.
“Julian asked God for three gifts—an understanding of the Passion of Christ, a severe physical illness and ‘three wounds’ (true contrition, loving compassion and longing for God),” I read. “She believed that the experience of suffering would allow her to identify with the Passion of Christ and comprehend something of the magnitude of God’s love for her and the world. Her prayer was answered when, at the age of thirty, she fell gravely ill.”
My eyes widened as the similarities struck me. I’m thirty-one, I was terribly sick, and I did not know if or when I would be well again. And here spoke Julian, who in her illness did not despair but rather saw her suffering as a desirable way to understand God's love and compassion.
Julian had prayed that something as severe as illness would occur so she could experience an increasingly intense level of identification with Christ. I don't know what to think about that prayer or the fact that it was seemingly answered. Nonetheless, I do know that Christ met with me, too, in my suffering, even as I wondered why he would choose to sit with me but not to change my circumstances. I discovered in suffering a newfound desperation for the person of Jesus to be real and near as illness removed me from the previous everyday realities of my own life.
I fantasized about running my fingers over the scars in Jesus’s side. I longed to touch the parts of Him that had seared with the agony of physical pain undergone in the name of my belovedness. I pictured Him sitting next to me on my bed, speaking sympathetic words, tears falling with mine. I imagined the tenderness in His eyes never changing as I rambled unhinged, my words swinging between gratitude for His presence and fury over His withholding of a healing touch. I could not make sense of Him, but I also could not ignore that He remained.
Pain forced me to be aware of the physical world in tormenting ways. Every joint in my body radiated, while fatigue stifled my ability to think clearly or remain focused in prayer. I would imagine Jesus near to me—His scars, His soft words, His tender eyes—then lose him to a wave of pain or a deluge of stray thoughts that I lacked the energy to ignore. Longing for Christ’s presence to last, I considered how I could physically accompany my prayers with something other than pain. I do not come from a tradition of icons or symbols, so I chose something that felt elementary: prayer beads.
I ordered a set of beads that I could make myself. When they arrived, I listened to Audrey Assad singing It Is Well with my Soul and Even Unto Death over and over as I strung the prayer beads, the cruciform beads, the invitatory bead, the crucifix. As I prayed with them, I did not find my wandering mind wholly tethered or physical pain displaced, but I felt Christ’s hand over mine as my aching fingers rubbed the beads. I saw the faces of people I love springing to mind, one for each bead, as Jesus and I delighted in the thought of them and interceded for their good. And I found that the tiny gesture of my thumb and forefinger rubbing an ocean blue bead wore down the barriers that had surrounded my soul’s imagination in prayer, increasing my sensitivity to the Spirit’s testimony that Jesus draws near to me.
After Julian of Norwich recovered, she received sixteen “showings” or revelations, “all associated, however loosely, with the Passion of Christ. For example, one ‘showing’ focused on the meaning of the crown of thorns, another on the wonders of heaven, of still another of God’s pure love for humankind” (Water from a Deep Well).
I shy away from the idea that God gives or allows illness or suffering in order to teach us specific lessons, but I cannot ignore that he reveals himself to us in pain. My own soul and my lenses for viewing life have been irreversibly formed by the presence of suffering. I will not be making a bulleted list of principles learned from my four months of constant pain, but I will be a person forever shaped by those weeks.
Pain led me to a more honest struggle with doubt in God’s goodness and a closer sense of the person of Jesus. Through it, I found a sense of mystical kinship with Julian of Norwich and Simone Weil, whose books stack high on my nightstand as I write. And while I still don’t quite understand Jesus as Healer, I want Jesus as Sympathizer with my weaknesses more than ever before.
By Abby J. Perry