So, the head cold that has been looming on the horizon lo these several weeks seems to be blossoming with a vengeance in my sinuses. It’s less the cold that’s bothering me and more the resultant fatigue. I’ve been trying to figure out how to scrap together some semblance of a blog post in this state when I remembered the theme I’ve been tracing through Alexander Elchaninov’s Diary of a Russian Priest–living “life as it actually is” (see this post if you haven’t been following along).
For me, right now, life is a cold. Once again, Fr. Elchaninov delivers:
Sickness is the most favourable time for us to return to our own heart, to God. As soon as our health has improved, the possibility of doing this recedes once more to an infinite distance. (Alexander Elchaninov)
I’m pretty sure he was writing about more life-altering health conditions than a measly cold-that-may-be-a-sinus-infection-but-only-time-will-tell. Still, I have a hard time seeing even more mundane ailments as an opportunity to “return to my heart.” Instead, I often find myself ignoring my fatigue, overindulging in coffee, and pushing the heck through. Also, complain-bragging about it along the way.
But maybe I will try to rest today. Maybe I will take my echinacea tea to my reading chair by the window and watch the snow fall, and thank God for my limitations since they remind me of my need for them. Maybe all of that will grate on my action-oriented nerves, but maybe I will do it anyway.
I wonder why it is that so many of us feel the need to “push through” when sickness strikes. Is it really that we can’t afford to take an afternoon off from our work or busy schedules? Is it really that things will fall apart if we take a time out and take care of ourselves? We could blame it on our cultural conditioning, but I think the real issue here is a latent fear of death.
Allow me to digress (I promise this will probably end up being relevant…)
Depending on which text or rule you follow, it is evident in many versions of Orthodox evening prayers that sleep is to be understood as a mini-death. The way we greet fatigue and relinquish the day in those prayers anticipates and teaches us how to face death later in our lives. Reflecting this, many evening prayers contain a special short prayer at the end intended to be said later, after one has left the icon corner and is actually falling asleep in bed. Take this example from the Orthodox Prayer Book:
Into Your hands, O Lord, I entrust my soul and body. Bless me and have mercy on me, and grant me the grace of eternal life. (Ancient Faith Prayer Book, p. 66)
I confess I am not in the regular habit of praying one of these “as I’m falling asleep” prayers. I’m not sure exactly why, except that I find it rather difficult in general to let go of the day and admit it’s really over. Instead, I lay in bed continuing to think about the previous day or plan for the next; or reading/listening to things in a desperate attempt to extend the day beyond its natural boundaries.
And so, praying a prayer like that just feels so… Final. Feeble. And, if I’m honest, frightening.
It is scary to really “pray into” that sleep-death connection because it means acknowledging death. Actually, it’s more than that. It means inviting the reality of one’s death not only into one’s conscious but also into one’s lived experience.
I think something similar is at work when we are sick. To really see our sickness–however mundane–as an invitation to come back to ourselves and to God requires that we see ourselves as mortal, finite, limited, beings. It means operating outside the myth that we are self-sufficient and self-sustaining–recognizing our creatureliness.
Some would call this “humility,” the foundation for our response to God of “thanksgiving.”
Most of the time, I find all of this rather difficult to put into practice. But today, as the fatigue creeps into my bones, I do find myself rather thankful to just be a creature–to have the chance to come back into my heart, give my mind a rest, and take comfort in all the ways God sustains me in my weakness.
Thanks be to God for cold season.
See all the posts in the Nativity Fast blogathon here!