by Fr. Dennis Gonzales
At the end of the second year of our studies and formation at the seminary, we are sent to different hospitals for our clinical pastoral education (CPE). CPE is part of the seminary curriculum that offers training to future ministers to provide pastoral and spiritual care to individuals and families who encounter crisis, particularly those that are caused by illnesses. Through this experience, we gained a broader understanding of ministry, and develop skills in collaborative working relationships with patients, family members and the healthcare team to promote holistic healing.
One of my assignments during my CPE was in a pediatric oncology unit, where I met patients as young as two years old who suffered from devastating illnesses. These children underwent specialized diagnostic and treatment procedures like chemotherapy and organ transplantation in hopes of improving their health, and saving their lives. Some responded well to treatments. However, others developed serious complications and died.
On my first day in the unit, I met Gregory Smith (not his real name) and his family. Gregory was admitted to the hospital for a bone marrow transplant. Mr. and Mrs. Smith confided that they have been in and out of the hospital since Gregory was diagnosed. His illness kept on recurring.
While they were attending to their son, Mr. and Mrs. Smith were also struggling to meet the needs of their other children. They grappled time to be at their home, at their other children’s school and to be with Gregory at the hospital.
Gregory underwent a bone marrow transplant and continued with his supplemental treatment that lasted for several days. Everything went well, until one afternoon, he suddenly became very sick. His skin color paled and he ran a high fever. The doctors ordered several tests. A few hours later, his primary attending physician came back with a sad news. Gregory’s body rejected the transplant. The cancer has also spread to both lungs and liver. The doctor told Mr. and Mrs. Smith that they had done their best. All medical options were exhausted. There seemed to be no other way to treat Gregory. Two days later, Gregory died. All the events that unfolded during Gregory’s hospitalization were unimaginably heart-wrenching.
Amid the difficulties and challenges brought about by illness, patients and their families may sometimes raise questions that may challenge their faith: Why does God allow sickness, pain and suffering to happen, especially in an untimely manner? If it is true that God is a healer and savior, why doesn’t He heal our loved ones from a devastating illness?
The questions that may seem to imply doubt and discouragement reflect the difficulties and frustrations experienced by patients and their families in enduring a serious illness. Understanding the situation of the sick and their families may help us realize what illness really means and how important it is to respond to the sick with compassion.
Beyond the medical and scientific aspects of illness, we can further reflect on the human meaning of this phenomenon by asking what it means to be sick. To be sick means to suffer from pain, discomfort, and inadequate functioning of the body systems. Illness brings up restrictions of one’s physical and social activities.
A sick person may also suffer from social isolation. He/She may become disconnected from his/her friends, work, family members and loved ones. Family members often have changes in roles and functions to accommodate the sick. For instance, the oldest daughter might assume the role of a mother, or the father assumes the roles of both parents. These role changes may be temporary or permanent, depending on the recovery or outcome of an illness. Moreover, illness also brings an increased financial burden. All these difficulties may lead to psychological and spiritual exhaustion.
In reflecting upon these dimensions of illness, it becomes quite clear that illness is more than a physiological and medical phenomenon. When one is sick, his or her total well-being is challenged. An experience of illness may provide the stimulus we need to also reflect on more enduring and substantive issues in life. While illness can lead to anguish and self-absorption, or even despair and revolt against God, it also can lead to a deeper search for God and a return to Him.
We do not delude ourselves that we have to suffer or to get sick to be closer to God. However, when it comes our way, we have to use our illness as an opportunity to achieve greater things. God may use sickness and suffering to get through our humanity as an important reflection on the real meaning and purpose of our temporal existence. Such event can bring the sick and the community together to a deeper appreciation of their relationship with God. Our illness may also enable us to help others see and reflect on the fragility and temporariness of human life. I once had a patient who suffered from leukemia, and told me that that illness might have been what he and his family needed at that moment. His illness, though difficult, brought his family together and to God. It might have been the situation he needed so that he would be ready to face his Maker.
Despite the uncertainties of illness, many find consolation on their faith. Faith offers them serenity and comfort. Faith gives them an optimistic perspective of their suffering. Faith helps them curtail the possible extreme physical, emotional, and spiritual burdens of illness.
In the end, the person of faith understands that the need for an inner spiritual healing is more important than a cure of physical illness alone.
Not everyone is cured from an illness. However, if healing is understood to mean cure of the totality and fullness of being, healing can be experienced in ways that do not always involve physical cure. Oftentimes, healing involves discovering peace during an illness or a difficult diagnosis.
In its entirety, healing is not so much about focusing on the solutions that we wanted for ourselves, but also welcoming and finding peace on God’s will for us. Beyond a person’s struggles and efforts to regain health, something extraordinary does happen when the apprehension brought about by illness and death does not devastate one’s faith.
Healing is achieved when the sick and his/her loved ones express readiness to accept God’s plan, whether there is a physical cure or not. This may not what most of us will consider a “miracle,” but the experience of having an “inner peace” is indeed an awe-inspiring effect of God’s grace, which transcends in our ordinary human experiences. After all, we will pass this temporal world at the time God has allotted for us.