The Spirituality Of Illness
I remember the first time I prayed in a long time; I was in my mid-20s and I was dealing with a year of uveitis flare-ups, I had been through a volatile breakup, and I lost my job. My friends were all dealing with their own issues, and we were 20-somethings in New York City, all of us earnestly trying to figure out our place as people and creatives.
I walked into a church on First and 14th in the East Village and sat on a pew and cried. I was pulled in by some otherworldly force — compelled by some ancestral or childhood impulse. I needed comfort, sacredness, silence; I needed the hum of meaning and I needed to feel small, humbled, and reminded that there is something bigger or wiser at play.
All of this is to say, I wasn't and am not religious, although I am spiritual. I was raised Catholic but parted ways with my belief system. While I bring many of the Catholic offerings into an eclectic secular spiritual practice (prayer, a love for ritual, symbols of faith, poetic prayer), I don't feel any deeper connection to the religion.
It reminded me of the power of hope
And yet there was something in me that felt a sense of comfort in the church and felt reminded of the power of hope. (I also believe it's okay to have this sort of messy relationship to belief).
I was so confused about my body then. What was happening to it? Why was I sick? What would happen to me? I felt as though I needed to contemplate the great mystery of what it meant to be alive — and how, in our brief life here, we are infallible. It felt like the right moment to simply yield to that reality. And a church felt like the right place to say, "I'm not sure why this is happening, but I understand it does."
Prayer has helped me
Over the years, a prayer practice has still helped me through the grief of sickness. While I am not sure if I am praying to energy, my higher self, a god, nature and DNA itself, or an archetype or symbol of strength and resilience — and while I also don't feel the need to label it — I find the ritual of it is incredibly helpful in allowing me to sort through my thoughts, find presence, and put my intentions and hopes into the universe.
But it's not a substitute for medicine
When prayer becomes a problem is when people say it should be used over medication, that we can pray sickness away, or that if we were more spiritual our bodies wouldn't be sick. Ever been told that your suffering is all part of God's plan? Even if it's meant with good intentions, it doesn't validate a lived experience and reduces a person's suffering. That is called spiritual bypassing and it can be highly problematic and reductive to people's suffering.
That said, prayer is so personal. It can look like anything. Breathing. Writing letters to your body. Opening the window and staring at the sky. Creating a ritual before bed. Reading a psalm. Writing your own prayer. "Prayer" can be called anything else, and is called by many other names.
I think whatever gets us through is what matters — be it religious in nature or not at all. I think prayer is a way of focusing energy and intention and giving in to the great massive mystery of everything.
For you, that may mean working with saints or archangels. For me, that might look like praying to my higher self or the energy of the universe for strength. And that's okay.
Do you embrace spirituality or religion to help you through painful days?
Does reading AxSpA patient stories help you in your journey?