This article appears in the February 2003 edition of the Catholic Medical Quarterly

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Does Illness Stop Us Praying?

Anthony Emmanuel

The probably apocryphal anecdote that floats around circles of those who attend at major emergencies, particularly at scenes of major disasters, is that American victims are often found in plane crashes and other catastrophic situations with a metallic coin in their mouths or clenched in their hands. The suggestion is that because American coins bear on them the rubric �In God We Trust�, this final act, in the few seconds of life that remain, serves as a lasting and fervent final prayer by those who quite plainly know that they are doomed and are fully aware that their time has indeed come to meet their Maker.

The subtle implication behind this is that people tend to pray, even if they have rarely prayed before, and to pray more fervently than they ever did if they have prayed before, when they find themselves in serious peril and in danger of their lives. Many indeed would vouch to this from personal experience and would confirm that the imminent danger of death thoroughly concentrates the mind and the soul to seek solace and demand assistance from the Supreme Being who can indeed help. A surge of hope and faith occurs, and a miracle is called for with the conviction, felt to be a justified aspiration, that the laws of nature will be suspended on that occasion and that the Almighty will find a way out for them and lead them out of the valley of the shadow of death. The phrases De profundis clamavi and Incline aurem tuam et audi acquire a begging sense of great urgency and immediacy.

There can be little arguing with this, and we all, I am sure, speak to God and ask Him for assistance, when we find ourselves in a tight corner, before commencing something very demanding, and when we discover that we are actually meandering along the edge of what we have only just discovered to be an abyss and not simply a mountain pass in real or metaphorical terms.

This surge of feelings may be sound and correct when we have all our faculties intact, and when we have been feeling physically well and mentally lucid till the moment that something has befallen us or is about to befall us. But what if we are not well physically at the time? What if our mental powers are not what they normally are when illness or accident strikes? Recently, completely out of the blue, I acutely felt very unwell, and when it was discovered that micro-organisms had decided to migrate from the facial abscess that I had developed into my blood stream, and attempt to become permanent squatters there and make it their permanent home, I suddenly felt extremely poorly. During this period, particularly in the course of the recovery period, I could think about many things, including work and leisure activities, and many many thoughts tumbled and rotated somewhat aimlessly, illogically and haphazardly in my mind, like clothes in the wash; but prayer did not come at all easily, indeed initially, not at all. God faded into the shadows of the hospital room like mist in the morning sun while the antibiotics were poured down my veins. I had plenty of time on my hands when! was awake, but my faith and hope in God slowly dissipated and ebbed away completely, and my thoughts were on everything else except, what I felt in retrospect, should really have mattered most.

My illness was sudden, indeed abrupt and brief, and I have mused to myself ever since, what had it been longer? Would God have still so shimmered away into the background, and for days on end, that I could no longer think of him and converse with him, and feel Him around me? My personal relationship with Him who knows me by my name, suddenly fell apart; the oasis rich in the water of life in the vast desert was reduced to a mirage. This surely is not what happened to Job, who afflicted with several ailments and serious personal tragedies, still had time for God, and prayed. This is not what happened to soldier-about-town, Ignatius, recovering from a cannon shot to his leg in Pamplona, who sought and found solace in the Gospels and the lives of saints, and thereby rekindled his spirituality and evolved the rudiments of his Exercises. This is not what happened to Sister Theresa dying of consumption.

However, what if everyone else feels just like me, with only a lower order colourless belt in spirituality, and not possessed of virtues to a heroic grade, when he or she is acutely ill, or worse when they are seriously and chronically ill? Or was it just I, constructed of poor fabric and fibre and unresilient spirit, who have been tested and found totally wanting? But if my spiritual feelings - or lack of them - were those of many others, would it then not be of assistance to bring these others somehow once again closer to the best Friend and Ally they ever had? If that is what is required, are we doing enough in this respect? How can the cycle be broken, and the hope and faith that was once healthy and vibrant be resurrected and enlivened at crucially important times?

A friendly face in the Almighty King's garden must surely be the thief dying at Jesus' side on Golgotha. His simple prayer expressing faith and hope and remorse, uttered at a time when he himself was racked with extreme pain, breathlessness and hypercarbia from the effects of crucifixion, won him Paradise: "remember me when You come into Your Kingdom!" Would that be enough to save me at the time of my death? A sobering and ponderous thought!

Anthony Emmanuel is nom de plume of a Consultant Pathologist.

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