"Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world...for I was sick and you took care of me..." (Mt 25:34,36)
"I was sick and you took care of me..." Was I ever...
On Christmas Eve this past December, at Midnight Mass, while serving at the altar, I was suddenly overcome with what seemed to be flu-like symptoms and had to leave the church in the middle of that beautiful service. On Christmas Day I assumed I had the flu and planned a trip to the doctor the next day. At that appointment I was told that I had cellulitis (which, frankly I had never heard of), that there were antibiotics to take care of such things and that I would be just fine...as long as the problem area did not get infected. Well it did, and on New Year's Day, my health situation began to degenerate so quickly that at about 9:30 at night, I found myself being wheeled into the operating room to have a fairly large section of my lower abdomen surgically removed in an effort to halt the spread of the infection.
Thanks be to God, I am on my way to making a full recovery as I write this in mid-March. I was about to make it to the age of 50 (in April) without having had a serious illness. I've had my share of colds and flus - but nothing dramatic or life-threatening. This illness, however, was a very different case. And it was hit home to me while laying in the ER that being a monk does not exempt me from fear, physical pain, confusion, or all the other attendant emotions that are experienced by a person in an emergency medical situation.
Having taken my solemn vows (a life commitment in a monastic community) last April, I found myself, while waiting for the on-call surgeon to arrive, thinking about the community: Was I really only going to have less than a year to be a fully committed monk? What impact would a several months recovery have on the community? What would happen if the operation did not go well and we had to face an even longer recovery? What if I didn't make it off the table? And, in thinking about "community" who exactly was I including in that group of people? It's curious the things that go through your head at a time like this. And in having time these last several months to think back on those questions, and to consider the fact that it was these specific questions that came to mind in this particular situation, I wanted to share some reflections with you.
One of my core beliefs is that Christ's Incarnation was, among other things, God acting in order to unite humanity once and for all, by calling all of us into a community which is headed by Christ. This community is what Matthew is referring to when he wrote about the kingdom being "prepared for you" from the very beginning of time ("the foundation of the world"). It seems to me that the mysteries of Christmas, Good Friday and Easter are all tied up with God's longing for his children to be united in a community of peace-makers. Jesus tells us, in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew, how to live into that community, that peace-making: we are to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit those in prison. If we do those things - both their literal and their figurative realizations - we are building the kingdom that belongs to the Prince of Peace, or in other words, we are building our Christian community.
And that is exactly what happened during my convalescence. It has been amazing to me during this nearly three month illness how central to my healing the Christian community that surrounds me has been. First, my monastic brothers who have cared for me in various ways day in and day out. My family , friends, those who minister to me and those I minister to, have given so much of their time and energy to assist in that care and in those visits to me. Again, never having been sick for a long period of time, I was stunned how much a card, or an email, a phone call or visit could mean to me from people near and far. Not because those cards and emails and visits meant so much in and of themselves, but because they represent an individual's and an entire community's prayer and love that lifted me, the one who needed caring for, up to God.
And so, surrounded by community, I was surrounded by Christ: Christ's healing, Christ's forgiveness, Christ's love. This is one of the great wonders of our faith. When we act (e.g. "care for the sick") for the weakest, the defenseless, the marginalized, we become Christ for the other. A whole community of Christs can do incredible things to advance the cause of peace and love; the cause of Christ.
I know that I am a person who is especially blessed to have a loving monastic community, family, friends, and colleagues, who more than rose to the occasion. Even we, those who are surrounded by such loving people, become those in need from time to time. As I heal and begin to "reemerge" into the world, I can't help but think of all those people who are not quite so blessed, who have smaller or non-existent communities around them. People both near and far. I will recommit to them as part of my thanksgiving to God for his leading me through this ordeal. I invite you to consider the plight of the loneliest, the hungriest, the sickest, the imprisoned, and perhaps take a cue from my experience. Prayer and a card, email, phone call or visit can do wonders to heal the world, and to advance the cause of Peace. Pax.