What follows is a version of the remarks I gave today on a Good Friday walk for high school students, reflecting on the Stations of the Cross.
It’s really an honor to be with you today, and especially an honor to be here at this parish. I moved to this neighborhood about a year ago and quickly learned what a special place this is. I’m grateful for the opportunity to speak here.
But I want to share with you a story that takes place at another church. This church is a few hundred miles from here, which isn’t important. Unlike where we are today, this church is carpeted, which is important, because like the stations of the cross we just read, this is a story about falling.
It was summer and I was filling in as a singer at a parish in another state. I hadn’t been feeling well for months, but I had been muddling through. I was up on the altar singing throughout mass, sitting for many of the prayers, as I did during this time when illness was making me weaker. Saving energy by sitting during the Creed or the petitions helped get me through the songs I was hired to sing.
Despite this tactic, that afternoon I was winded by communion time. I set the music on the stand and grabbed the same stand for strength. During the second verse spots started swimming in my vision, the edges of which were gray. The blood drained from my head and I started to wobble. Hoping to avoid a scene I stopped at the end of the verse while the organist, in the loft, kept playing. I quietly slipped into the sacristy where I lay down on the floor that was, mercifully, carpeted.
A few weeks later I had another near-catastrophe. I was at Tanglewood rehearsing with the chorus of the BSO when I started to feel lightheaded. I sat quickly and put my head between my legs but I didn’t feel better, and the sopranos around me knew it. They called to our chorus manager who helped me backstage where I collapsed into a white plastic chair. Ms. Felice falls a second time.
The chorus manager looked at me nervously and asked what was wrong. I opened my mouth a few times trying to decide how to explain everything I’d been going through. I finally said “I have a chronic illness” and left it at that. This was true, though it seemed too simplistic an explanation.
Here’s the longer version: About five years ago I developed Crohn’s disease, a chronic illness that has a pattern of flaring and then going into remission. I’m in remission now, so no one has to worry about catching me today, I don’t expect to faint. When the disease is flaring, though, it causes uncontrollable digestive inflammation. For almost a year before my fainting spells I’d barely been able to eat. When I did, I usually threw up. I lost too much weight, a lot of my hair fell out, and I was dangerously anemic. My body was broken. I was broken.
I was angry, too because this brokenness was unexpected and unearned. I thought that because I’d done all the right things I wouldn’t have to worry about my health until some advanced age that was very far away. Because this hardship violated my notions of fairness, I pretended it wasn’t happening. I sang whenever I was hired to, I traveled around the world. I dragged myself to work. And I did all of this in incredible pain.
This went on for about a year until the first really cold night of the winter, one MLK weekend. I had been in agonizing pain for almost a week, non-stop. This was the kind of pain that makes you loopy – that I hope you none of you ever experience. I know it was making me nutty because once I realized I need to go to the hospital I thought about driving myself because my addled brain was really distressed about inconveniencing the ambulance drivers.
Eventually, though after checking my insurance benefits to see if ambulance rides were covered – this will make sense to you younger guys someday, I promise – I went in the ambulance to the ER and was, for the first time in my life, admitted to the hospital. My GI doc came by, and some other wonderful doctors, and they told me that I probably had to have surgery.
I had feared surgery since I was first diagnosed, always picturing it as a defeat. It meant finally acknowledging that I was a “sick person”, and accepting the diagnosis and the brokenness that entailed. But I was broken – food couldn’t pass through my digestive tract anymore, so they had to cut out the section that wasn’t working and staple me back together. This was, as you can imagine, a pretty traumatic surgery in its own right, with a terrible and grueling recovery. But that trauma is what got me into remission, and I will spend the rest of my life contemplating the mystery that the biggest trauma of my life was eventually what saved me.
Through this whole ordeal I kept coming back to a phrase we have heard many times: blessed and broken. Jesus’ example shows us that we can be both at once. Jesus’ example of taking on a frail and vulnerable body, knowing what it would cost him, helps us to see that our bodies, however imperfect or even frail they might be, are holy.
Jesus shows us that our entire messy human experience is holy. We know that he celebrated and we know that he grieved. We know that he argued and we know that he consoled. We know that he ate – and the fact that he almost every encounter recorded after the Resurrection involves food increases my confidence in the heavenly banquet.
Today, though, we remember pain and evil. We do this not to glorify suffering, but to sit with the mystery that such suffering can still end in life.
Someday, something will break you – or maybe it already has. The loss of a parent or sibling or friend, the breakup of a marriage, the acceptance of a disability, a catastrophic injury, a major disappointment, the end of a dream. These tragedies will find you, and they will break you, and you will survive.
I’m here to tell you it’s easier to survive with your sanity, to find blessing in the brokenness, if you have a reservoir of faith from which to draw. I was able to live with the sacrifices of illness because I had trained myself in sacrifice: through Lenten practices , self-discipline and healthy Christian self-denial. I knew how to pray when things were dark because I had incorporated prayer into my life when there was light. And I knew how to invite Jesus to accompany me on my own path of sorrows because I had accompanied him on his, as we are all doing today.
We don’t do these things because we think that God will reward us – I can assure you that’s not how it works – but because they prepare our souls for whatever may come. If we pray when it is easy, it will be easier to pray when it is hard.
We adore you O Christ, and we praise you, because by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world. The mysteries we celebrate today are confusing and confounding, which may be why we say them aloud over and over and over. I’ve never believed that God causes suffering, and I don’t believe it now. I’ve never believed that awful phrase “Everything happens for a reason”, and I certainly don’t believe that now. But because of the example of Jesus I believe that the worst possible things can be vehicles for salvation, and that with God’s grace we can find blessing in brokenness.