What Lent Taught Me About Chronic Illness
March 16, 2017 | Posted in: Chronic Life, Faith
I grew up in a church that didn’t celebrate Lent. We were big on Christmas. BIG. Like, goody-bags-for-all-the-kids-and-real-animals-in-the-Christmas-pageant big.
Lent was something my Catholic grandmother participated in, and to be honest, we all thought she was kinda weird. She’d fast and pray and take extra time after mass to kneel and light a candle. As a young girl, I couldn’t fathom why someone would turn down food (especially dessert) on purpose.
Weren’t there enough bad things that happened without deciding to give up my dad’s roast chicken on Fridays, too?
I discovered Lent a few years before I was diagnosed with Celiac disease. (I say that like I was Magellan or something, when really I just stumbled into an Anglican church in the middle of March and was stopped dead in my tracks by a verse of “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord.”)
Each Sunday throughout Lent’s 40 days I sat in the pews, fascinated by the somber faces around me. These people were sad. They were serious.
The worship band wasn’t playing dirges, but there sure wasn’t any peppy upbeat stuff either.
Everyone I talked to was fasting from something. Caffeine. Alcohol. Sugar. Meat.
Yet I found myself strangely drawn in among them, part cultural-anthropologist, part fellow Christian. Could it be that they were showing me another side of God that I hadn’t really known before? A side that came to earth to live among us with all the discomfort, hunger, pain, and loneliness that being a human brings with it?
By Good Friday, when the pastor preached on the death of Jesus, people knelt and cried. I found myself among them, weeping over the death of my Lord in a way I never had before. Of course, we knew the Resurrection was coming. Like every Christian in the past 2,000 years, we’d read ahead.
Yet for those Good Friday hours, we let ourselves sit in the tension, as the poet T.S. Eliot wrote, “between dying and birth.” We believed Jesus had suffered for us. We believed Jesus had died for us.
In September of 2010, we learned that gluten was my enemy. For years it had been shredding my intestines, responsible for a laundry list of symptoms that resolved, almost magically, as soon as I eliminated wheat and all its cousins from my diet.
Unlike many folks with chronic illnesses, I don’t need surgery or expensive medications. I’m not in and out of the hospital. You can’t tell that I’m sick and, in fact, I’m usually not, as long as I watch what I put in my mouth with the strictness of someone with food-OCD. (“Yes, I’m LOTS of fun at restaurants,” she said, sarcastically.)
Yet I give things up every day. Convenience. Taste. Simplicity. The ability to duck into a new corner cafe and order with doing buckets of research first. The ease of being able to grab a bite to eat at a fast food restaurant, an airport, a church potluck, a buffet.
But do you know what? Turns out I’d been preparing for this for years.
As I live in the tension “between dying and birth,” I’m thankful for the school of Lent. It taught me to give up and let go years before I had to release my beloved Oreos and Indian naan bread.
It teaches me to look with hope to the return of my Lord, when there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, no more illness-ravaged bodies, no more friends who suffer because of Lyme or Lupus, ALS or HIV, arthritis or Alzheimer’s. When we will each be healed and whole.
Until then, I’m thankful for My Lord, and I’m thankful for Lent.