Sunday, June 29, 2008

Offer It Up

When I was sick as a small child, my mother would tell me to offer up my suffering for others. Sometimes she was specific, suggesting that I offer it up for the souls in purgatory. For the uninitiated, purgatory is like a holding cell for heaven where those whose lives did not merit being sentenced to spending eternity in hell spend some period of time before earning a place in heaven. I think it's akin to an extended time out where God sends you somewhere to "think about what you did." The nuns and teachers that guided me through my school-age years reinforced this notion of offering up one's suffering during my 12 years of daily religion classes.

When a friend of mine was studying to become and Episcopal priest, I mentioned my affection for the idea of "offering it up." She had never heard of the idea before and was intrigued by the notion. As we spoke I realized how much I had embraced this ideology a a child and carried into into adulthood.

I am not aware of the underlying rationale for this teaching. Perhaps the idea is that there is some finite amount of suffering in the world and that, by enduring your suffering, you reduce some else's burden. Or, maybe, it is simply posing the idea that suffering can be a form of prayer. I cannot decide which of these rationales I prefer. Why would there be a finite amount of suffering in the world? If there's a God, the notion that he imposes a defined about of suffering paints a pretty sadistic picture of him. It also raises the natural question of why suffering is so unevenly distributed. But I find the idea that my suffering reduces some else's through some unseen cosmic exchange system appealing. Then again, the idea of suffering as prayer is also appealing because it makes it a meditative experience.

Bill is like most men: he is not wired to bear pain. I honestly believe that women are biologically programmed to endure pain. How else would we cope with menstruation, pregnancy, and childbirth? Early in my illness I decided to "offer it up" and tried to keep my spoken complaints to a minimum. I reasoned that speaking about my symptoms would not make them go away and complaining about them would make my company a rather unpleasant experience. But when Bill would complain about stubbing his toe or some or minor malady I would get a little irritated, "Just offer it up. Stop complaining. Offer it up for someone worse off. Christ, offer it up for me."

This morning I awoke to my achy muscles. I turned onto my stomach and reached for my sleeping husband's hand. As I lay there I thought about all the starving people around the world. All over the globe people wake every day feeling like I do: hungry, achy, and weak. I thought about the mothers who have to watch their children starve while they stand by helplessly. Unlike them, I have recourse. I have food. I have the possibility that TPN will save my life. So, once again, I found myself offering my suffering up.

How ironic that I sit here in suburban America, in a 3000 square foot home, typing on an expensive laptop computer, slowly starving to death. How strange that I have a kinship with the world's poor. I have always had sympathy for the impoverished, I have been to Africa and I did home health nursing in the poorest neighborhoods in Philadelphia, but I never dreamed I'd have empathy for them. I still do not know what it is to be poor but I now know what it is to be truly hungry and unable to give my body what it needs.

Last week we received a fundraising letter from the NC Food Bank. We usually donate to them around Thanksgiving because it seems appropriate to give at that time of year. But I responded to this letter with a larger check than usual and with much greater mindfulness that here in Durham there are people starving. They do not have my full refrigerator or overstocked pantry. And they probably do not have the glimmer of hope that I have today.

We leave for Charleston in a couple of hours. It is a 5 hour drive and an opportunity for Bill and me to enjoy each other's company. I plan to bring Aidan's scarf to finish en route. And I will spend the drive hoping that the TPN will work and make me well enough to live a longer and more fulfilling life.

If you pray, please keep me in your intentions this week. If you do not pray, please send me your positive thoughts.

With love in cyperspace,

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