Today's meditation was written by Cathy Self, Senior Vice President for the Baptist Healing Trust.
I spent the evening sitting with a friend who is enduring unspeakable pain and deep sadness. When she spoke, though it was not often, she noted how helpless she feels, how out of control life had become. "It's hard to be cared for," she quietly noted, "and I can't find the words I need." My thoughts later that night drifted to words written years ago by author Virginia Woolf.
In 1925, wanting to begin work on a dreamed-of autobiographical novel, Woolf instead lay ill for several months, producing an essay on illness itself. It first appeared in T. S. Elliots New Criterion. She began her essay with these words:
"Considering how common illeness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and desets of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to light, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us in the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers--when we think of this and infinitely more, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature" (Essays 4:317).
One barrier to the inclusion of illness as a part of life and as reflected in literature may be, as my friend struggled to articulate, the very limitations of language needed to truly describe the experience. Woolf goes on to write:
"English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache. . . . The merest school-girl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare, Donne, Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry. . . . In illness words seem to possess a mystic quality . . . In health meaning has encroached upon sound. Our intelligence domineers over our senses. But in illness, with the ploci off duty, we creep beneath some obscure poem . . . some phrase in Latin or Greek, and the words give out their scent, and ripple like leaves, and chequer us with light and shadow, and then, if we at last grasp the meaning, it is all the richer for having traveled slowly up with the bloom upon the wings" (Essays 4:196).
What startles me most in Woolf's words is how she identified illness with a needed and desired solitary realm: "Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way. There is a virgin forest in each; a snow field where even the print of birds' feet is unknown. Here we go alone, and like it better so. Always to have sympathy, always to be accompanied, always to be understood would be intolerable."
Stopping to consider the inner life of the one in our care gives rise to so many questions--how does this person experience life now? How might she feel about being dependant on me for her care? What words does she need to express her pain or her experience of this moment? Does she, like Woolf, desperately wish she could just be alone again with times in the virgin forest? How does Love respond to these questions?