Chronic Grace

Finding the Grace in a Life With Chronic Illness

I found out last week that I have been accepted into the Master’s of Theology Program at St. Kate’s! Talk about a boost! I was so terrified–convinced, actually–that I’d be rejected that getting that phone call (the director of the program notified me by phone) felt like I’d suddenly come out into light after walking in darkness for eons. For so many years it’s seemed as though I’ve been dealing with nothing but fibromyalgia, migraines, depression, PTSD, losing my mom…it feels as though this is my reward. My second chance at life. Hopefully, the beginning of a lifetime of using what I’ve learned from my own personal tragedies, as it were, to help people who are hurting and in need of someone to be a loving, listening presence.

N.B. This is partially lifted from my application essay:

People often look at me strangely when I tell them I hope to work as a chaplain. They ask if it isn’t depressing, if I couldn’t make more money in another business [author’s reply: YES I COULD MAKE TONS MORE MONEY ELSEWHERE], why I don’t just volunteer at a hospital once a week, if what I want to do is work with sick people. But for me, it feels like a call, as though it’s exactly the place God wants me to be, the thing that is most true to who I am as a person. What I remember most about my experiences as a chaplain intern is the sense of total honor,to be allowed to companion people during the most sacred, awe-inspiring moments of their lives–including, yes, the moment of their death.

For years, ever since I was first diagnosed with PTSD, I’ve longed, desperately, to somehow find meaning in my suffering by someday using my brokenness to help heal the pain of others. And when I began my first C.P.E. (Clinical Pastoral Education, basically a chaplain internship) at St. Joseph’s Hospital, working with cancer patients, and the following summer at the VA Medical Center working with WWII combat vets still carrying the emotional ravages of all they had seen decades ago, I discovered that I had a certain authenticity. Because I’d been there, too. Maybe I hadn’t had cancer, but I was familiar, through personal experience, with psychic and physical pain, and many of the spiritual questions that inevitably arise from it. I found that mixed in with the sorrow, and my frequent feeling of incompetence and awkwardness, were moments of true connection, of utter holiness. The “thin places,” as my Irish ancestors would say: the mystical moments when earth and heaven meet.

Over ten years ago, after my summer at St. Joseph’s, I wrote a short piece for The Catholic Spirit in answer to their question “Who is my neighbor?”; more than anything else I’ve written here I feel this brief narrative explains why I’ve chosen the ministry I have. And it also shows that in this ministry, so far, I’ve gained far more than I’ve given.

Dwarfed by the hospital bed, surrounded by IVs and beeping monitors, she was a tiny, frail elderly woman with enormous haunted dark eyes dominating a white face. A native of Poland, she spoke little English, but was nonetheless able to understand the diagnosis: inoperable stomach cancer. Six months, maybe less, to live.

I was a chaplain intern with a grand total of three weeks experience, observing my first hospice consult. What could I, a 27-year-old graduate student, possibly say to a lonely frightened dying woman who didn’t even speak English?

As I stood huddled in a corner of the room and watched, a tear formed in one of those dark eyes and slid slowly down her face. Then another. And another. Her fragile body began to shake; and suddenly I found myself far from the safety of my hidden corner, my inexperience forgotten, my arms around her and my face buried against her shoulder, I dug out my little blue plastic rosary, and as we wept and prayed together, the healing love of Christ transcended the gulf between us, overcoming the barriers of language and age, binding us together as fellow pilgrims walking hand in hand on our journey home.

Note: I should explain here, for those who don’t know me well, that I was in the M.Div program at the Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity for about three years in my mid-twenties. I dropped out in 1997 when my fibromyalgia, depression, and PTSD made it too difficult to function, much less handle grad school. It’s been my dream, ever since, to return to school, get my degree, and become a chaplain (hospital or hospice). Incidentally, none of my classes/credits transfer to St. Kate’s, because it’s been over ten years since I did my coursework. This is fine with me, actually, since my memory of those days is hazy, to say the least. It feels great to start afresh!

3 thoughts on “on second chances

  1. Barbara, the piece you wrote is very vivid, and beautiful. Surely, there is much more to come…both in writing and experiences such as this. I look forward to hearing all about it in the years to come.


  2. Whoo-hoo! Congratulations! In my mid-30s — after being laid up for 10 years with your exact symptoms — I applied, was accepted and went back to school, too, for an MFA in Poetry. I can imagine your excitement. It took me a little longer to heal enough to pursue my real goal, which was to help others not suffer the way I did, but I’m doing that now, too. It feels so good, doesn’t it? To be well enough to really achieve and give back? Yes, it feels so good…. Revel in it. Just sit still for a moment and appreciate who you have become. 🙂


  3. Congrats on your acceptance – that is awesome!!! Thanks for sharing that excerpt, it is beautiful.


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