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Prayer in a time of illness

Mark Argent
9 August 2018

A protracted brush with pneumonia a few years ago had some interesting repercussions. At a practical level, it meant that a siesta has took the place of the postprandial jog and my car seemed to know its own way to the local hospital, but what about the spiritual dimension?

A bout of pneumonia is far from being the most serious illness faced by people at that hospital, but it is inevitable that it has an effect on the prayer life. A little while back I found myself talking with my spiritual director about “accidental meditation” — by which I meant what happens when circumstances take you close to a meditative state without by accident. When you are some way short of firing on all cylinders the mind is a lot less inclined to wander off and meditation can feel rather easier.

Maybe it is inevitable that, in trying to “teach” prayer, people end up talking about specific prayer techniques. At its best, this is a way of inviting people to explore ways of praying which others have found helpful and to try new things. But when you are not in good health, you are starting in a different place and things don’t work as they otherwise might. At its worst this is a problem. It is also an invitation into new territory. From that perspective the familiar “ways of prayer” start to look like an invitation to rummage in the rich treasury of things people have found useful, rather than an exhaustive list.

And “Accidental meditation”? An uncharitable person might suggest that, if illness makes it less easy for the mind to wander, then it will also reduce the quality of the meditative space. But that is too harsh. Rather, it is to chose to encounter God from wherever one is, and to let the limitedness be an invitation to explore a new place.

Even the pain and discomfort that go with illness actually present a choice. On the one hand, they are clearly unpleasant. Yet most meditation methods involve focussing on one sense, or one sensation, as an entry point to a meditative state. Something like a burst of chest pain from pneumonia, assuming it isn’t a reason to call an ambulance, is something that focusses the awareness. That’s as good a starting point as any for being present and moving from there into prayer. That isn’t to encourage people to seek pain in order to pray, but it might be quite important to let whatever comes along be something that draws more deeply into God, rather than be processed as something to get in the way.

One of the paradoxes of prayer is that people often try too hard, especially when using new methods of prayer. If illness means that trying too hard is not possible, then it also means there is an invitation simply to be — letting the illness itself be graced, and God encountered in the reality of where one is, rather than where one would be if one were someone else.