Colleen Peters reflects on Advent expectation and the challenge of pain
Although I really don’t enjoy waiting for many things in life (who does?), the ‘waiting’ aspect of Advent is something I anticipate each year. Advent waiting doesn’t focus alone on Jesus Christ’s return at the end of time, but also entails a time of waiting and watching for Christ to appear in my own life today. And He does, at times in astonishing ways if I have eyes to see it. In Frederick Buechner’s words, “I look at what there is to be seen in the world and in myself and hope, trust, believe against all evidence to the contrary that beneath the surface I see there is vastly more that I cannot see.”
Seven years ago during Advent, I began a two month wait for brain biopsy results, and with each day of waiting the fear grew that I wouldn’t live to see another Christmas with Len and the kids. They were critical weeks for me, my mortality crashing into my consciousness every day, and many nights.
Fear Wells up from below… Fear of the unknown …. Fear of the known. Gag to quell it. Gulps of tears to drown the fears. The key of release from the stifling cage … Breathe.
But through the days of Christmas and through to mid February, a peculiar peace settled in my heart, and our home, and at times the memory of it brings me tears. Seven years later the crisis of having to consider tumours and cancer is long past, but the peace has not passed. The peace that carried me through crisis seven years ago, has carried me through chronic illness in the ensuing years providing a ‘chronic’ wellness … a steady presence that permeates all areas of my life, so that my physical decline doesn’t define who I am. That presence, the Spirit of Christ, is powerful and paves my way with a peaceful perspective that colours everything. Lewis’s words in The Weight of Glory ring true for me. “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen; not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
I’ve recently read a book, The Gift of Pain by Dr. Paul Brand, world renowned hand surgeon and leprosy specialist, that served to counter encroaching self-pity. The book is the fruit of Brand’s many years of working with people who suffered from pain and people who suffered from the lack of it. He worked closely with people groups from England, America, and India and their diverse responses to pain informed his thoughts over many years. Though not a pain expert, Dr. Brand’s vast experience allows him to write about managing pain across the board, not just the pain associated with leprosy. He chose the form of a memoir for his book, “with all its loops and detours because that is how I learned about pain: not systematically but experientially. Pain does not occur in the abstract – no sensation is more personal, or more importunate.” Dr. Brand’s book came out of the conviction that, in his words, “Most of us will one day face severe pain… and the attitude we cultivate in advance may well determine how suffering will affect us when it does strike.” The book was a tonic for me, and reading it refreshed my perspectives on several fronts, and perhaps most importantly made me grateful that I’m challenged by Multiple Sclerosis rather than by a much harsher neurological disease like leprosy.
Living with MS, I experience pain in my feet, hands, legs, arms, face and eyes and parts of my back. Besides the surface, or skin pain, my neuropathy also manifests itself at a muscular level, causing weakness and cramp-like pain deep in my muscles, mainly my legs and arms. My legs, more so the left, feel like logs and a slight limp at times seems to be how my body is dealing with this. And yet I’m still running, without a limp, I’ve not fallen recently, and for this joy in my life I give God thanks! My chief grievance is the fact that my neuropathic pain is without respite.
C.S. Lewis was no stranger to pain, directly and vicariously, to both physical and emotional pain and I appreciate his perspective from A Grief Observed:
What is grief compared with physical pain? Whatever fools may say, the body can suffer twenty times more than the mind. The mind has always some power of evasion. At worst, the unbearable thought only comes back and back, but the physical pain can be absolutely continuous. Grief is like a bomber circling round and dropping its bomb each time the circle brings it overhead; physical pain is like the steady barrage on a trench in World War One, hours of it with no let-up for a moment. Thought is never static; pain often is. (C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed)
I thought Lewis’s trench analogy characteristically incisive; and true and tender his perspective on God’s apparent silence when Lewis questions Him about suffering.
When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of “No answer.” It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, “Peace child; you don’t understand.”
There certainly are fragile days when God seems silent, and dangerously distant from my plight, but the sense of well-being remains even so and I am grateful that His peace keeps pace with the challenge of living with the chronic as it did with the challenge of facing the critical.
“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” – Luke 1:78-79
In the Joy of the Season,
Colleen Peters is married to Len, and is a mother of two girls and twin boys. She taught at Winnipeg’s Mennonite Brethren Collegiate Institute before beginning to raise a family, and as her children grew she returned to teaching on a part-time basis. Neurological anomalies surfaced in 2004, and she was eventually diagnosed with Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis, the condition with which she continues to live.