Monday, January 25, 2010

'Rejoice For Me' ~ Attaining the Kingdom of God through Illness


Dear Parish Faithful,

Here is a particularly powerful and deeply moving meditation by an Orthodox priest who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. Ralph first shared this with me, and I asked him to ask Fr. if he would be willing to share it. Ralph's response prefaces the actual meditation. As you will read his reflection below, it may bring to mind the recently heard Gospel parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, and the movement from pride to humility, which Fr. understands to come from God so as to bring him closer to our Crucified Lord. In one way or another, or "sooner or later," the Lord will teach us humility. It is a blessing, if we can receive this as a "gift" — hard as that might be — as Fr. does so movingly below. This is a great witness that will remind us that what the "world" understands as a meaningless and debilitating condition can actually be a means of attaining the Kingdom of God.

Fr. Steven

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Dear Father Steven,

Fr. gave his blessing, and I have taken the liberty of making some simple edits to remove names and references to preserve his privacy and anonymity. Here is what I came up with:

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Rejoice for Me

This is a copy of a message I sent to good friends here who were inquiring about the status of my Alzheimer's Disease and were wondering if it is even even appropriate to ask. After I wrote it I though I would share it with you and a few others, and you may share it with anyone you think might also be interested. Here is the message, below:


It's quite all right for you to ask. I am very open about my illness, and do not hide anything or keep any secrets. And I have very little false pride about my limitations any more—I've already been through "that phase" and have been able to embrace my disease in the shadow of the Cross. More than that, I have begun the slow process of climbing up onto the Cross with our Lord, and sharing now in His Passion. This is incredibly sanctifying; I don't know how else to describe it. So although I don't talk much about my illness, it's not out of secrecy or pride or sensitivity, but only because I am keeping the Lord on the cross as close to my heart as I can. And He will get me through. It has frankly become as much a spiritual experience as a mental one.

So, I want to take this opportunity to share with you, since we haven't really talked about it much. I have discussed it on several occasions with D. and J., and they are wonderfully and appropriately sympathetic and helpful. They are more than relatives; they are good friends. I will talk more about it with my other siblings when we have a family reunion this summer. My children are completely on the same page with me already, but for them it is too painful to talk about much.

This illness is the oddest feeling of being somehow detached and experiencing a slow metamorphosis from being one person into another; not dramatic, but disconnected, and yet still able to pray, read, do email, recognize others (although my short term memory and my malapropisms have gotten worse over the last week). But at the same time it's oddly not depressing. (I went through the depressing stage last year.) In fact, I woke up this morning with Finn (my cat) having crawled up and curled into my left arm, and at the same time I had the most intense longing for heaven, which made me very happy.

The neurologist told me some time ago that there is a small percentage of AD victims who in some way consciously "know," all the way through, what is happening to them, and he thinks I am one of them. I don't know if that's a blessing or not, but I do think it's a blessing that I can share with others the various stages of this illness as long as possible. That sharing is helpful to me, and perhaps for others if they see that there is a spiritual way to "do" something that is otherwise so awful.

As you know, Alzheimer's is a long and slow process, for which reason it's called "the long goodbye." But I read Patty Davis' fine book about her father, President Reagan, "The Long Goodbye," and she said that he remained cheerful, happy and polite as a three year old, right to the end. And I also know about the Alzheimer's of some great and holy Elders of our time, who were able to serve Liturgy and say the Jesus Prayer right to the end, even when they no longer recognized anyone else. So Alzheimer's doesn't have to be grueling and ugly, the way it is so often portrayed. I think that the perceived "terribleness" of this disease is at least in part a reflection of our incredibly morally and spiritually bankrupt culture.

With drugs and medical help, and a very good caregiver, I have had three years of relatively slow deterioration, and I think that "slowness" will continue yet for some years. Right now is a different phase, though. I am very blessed to be in monastic life and here with the Fathers and Brothers just down the road, who stay in contact and are very affectionately supportive. I feel safe and well cared for. There are many in my condition who cannot say that. M. is a good friend, caretaker, intellectual and spiritual companion, but you and T. will have to help her to harden her heart as time goes on and my symptoms become worse. I have already spoken to her about this, too. She is very tender-hearted and quietly suffers over my illness, although she's no drama-queen about it, as you can well believe. That's not her style. She only quietly says, "I don't like it," and that, coming from her, actually says a great deal.

From a purely spiritual standpoint I want to share with you the insight I believe God gave me from the time of my diagnosis. My greatest and overriding sin--indeed, even vice--has always been pride. Pride of mind, of "knowing better" and judging others inappropriately, sometimes thinking of them as being less than I am. This is a most grievous sin, and one that many people don't even recognize in themselves, but it is the one sin that will, above all, consign us to hell if we don't overcome it! It was the sin of Satan, the sin of Adam and Eve.

I understand fully how I got this way. I have throughout my life been inordinately proud of my mind, my intellect, my ability to think clearly about difficult and complicated things, to speak and write well, understand, process, and explain difficult things, etc. Growing up, I wasn't good at sports, I wasn't attractive to the ladies, I couldn't dance, I was an intellectual bookworm and loner, I had no other skill than my brain, and I used it and developed it as far as I possibly could, although actually I wasn't particularly academically brilliant, as all of that just seemed like some kind of superficial "game" to me. But that was my path in life. And although I have put these gifts to the service of Christ and the Church, as best I could, the pride has still been there.

Now the Lord has offered me a chance to mortify and humble down that pride, by accepting without complaint the slow crumbling of my mind. And I do accept this, with my whole heart, even if with the occasional tear, as a gift from Him for my salvation. So it sometimes "feels" as though this dying of various parts of my mind is also a dying of self, a dying of ego, a dying to pride. And isn't that the purpose of spiritual life, after all, anyway? The Lord looked down and saw that I wasn't going to do it any other way, and so, because He loves me very much (unworthy as I am) and wants me to be with Him forever, He offered me this incredible opportunity to die to self. I see this as a great, if sometimes painful, blessing!

Well, these are my few thoughts about it. Never hesitate to ask me how I'm doing. I will tell you honestly. But never feel sorry for me, or pity, as I do not for myself, but rather rejoice for me that I am on a sure path to the Kingdom of Heaven. I believe this with all my heart.

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