A Pilgrim’s Progress

God is great, God is good, let us thank him for this food. Amen.

Throughout my childhood, this was the prayer we said before every meal. As thanksgiving approached this year, it frequently came to mind, along with a renewed conviction of gratitude’s galvanic quality, and of the simple truth that, if I am to live my life well, I will live it gratefully.

Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

I find the words “in everything give thanks” easier to swallow when I remind myself that “in” does not mean “for.” Being thankful for everything is a challenge I’ve found difficult to meet. But being thankful in everything doesn’t seem such a tall order, because the bounty in my life is so big it’s not difficult to be thankful even when the bounty is at times overshadowed by lean times, and especially so when I all I have to do is look at the front page news, or down the street, or across the city, to see that the bounty I’ve enjoyed all my life is, by and large, non-existent in most peoples’ lives.

We find by losing. We hold fast by letting go. We become something new by ceasing to be something old. This seems to be close to the heart of that mystery. I know no more now than I ever did about the far side of death as the last letting-go of all, but I begin to know that I do not need to know and that I do not need to be afraid of not knowing. God knows. That is all that matters (Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember).

Buechner‘s words, especially when read in context of his stimulating essay A Room Called Remember, are ripe with philosophical truth about death, but I’ve put them here simply because, for me, they also reflect a practical truth that I’ve come to appreciate in recent weeks. The phrase, “We find by losing,” became significant this summer as I slowly weaned myself off the apparently ineffective gabapentin I’d been taking for two years. By the end of July, when I was finally clean of gabapentin, I’d come to realize that, although gabapentin had been ineffective in removing my neuropathic pain, it had certainly reduced its intensity. But I’m not sure I would have found that truth had I not first lost all neuropathic pain restraint.

By August I’d come to the conclusion that I did not want to endure unbridled neuropathic pain if medication was available to at least curb its intensity, so I decided to try cymbalta. When I saw my neurologist 3 weeks ago, it was evident that the upshot of taking cymbalta was only unwelcome side effects, and we simultaneously concurred that a return to gabapentin was my best option. At present, having been on full dose for just 3 weeks, I’ve yet to notice any decrease in my neuropathic pain, but I expect that with time I will, and hopefully to the extent that I did before I took myself off of it, thinking it was useless.

During the last several months the nature of my pain has changed somewhat in that while the neuropathic pain is persistently present 24/7, the musculoskeletal component of my pain has increased, meaning I’ve become aware of more pain in my muscles and joints than previously. This aspect of MS, spasticity, is both a sustained stiffness, as well as random spasms at night, in my legs, that feel like a sudden and severely painful tightening of my muscles.

Regardless, it is my neuropathic pain, which affects the left side of my body to a greater degree than my right, that the Gabapentin is meant to alleviate. In my case, MRIs indicate several “black-holes,” lesions likely indicative of underlying axonal damage and not merely myelin sheath damage. This explains my lack of improvement and insidious decline since 2004, and substantiates my diagnosis of progressive relapsing MS. My balance continues to deteriorate, as does my ability to navigate while driving or walking.

What I hope to learn from Buechner’s words is to be grateful for whatever’s on my plate, regardless of my circumstances, so that if it should one day not be there, I won’t regret not having valued it. And I have many things to be grateful for. Even under the pall of MS, the list is long, close to the top being my sustained ability to run outside, the tumbles I’ve taken being relatively innocuous.

I believe striving to live gratefully is good exercise, and my prayer in the last few weeks has been an echo of these words of Francis B. James.

Let me pray for the vision of something beyond the sorrows and sufferings of my life. There are disappointments and disabilities from which I cannot escape, frustrations and failures that are hard to bear. But let me seek to learn what they can do for me, and the use which, by God’s grace, I can make of them. Let me gain a glimpse of their meaning and purpose, or better still, of Him Whose loving purpose they are somehow being made to serve.

Then my trouble, whatever it is, will no longer be something I try to get through as easily as I can, but rather something at the heart of which there is a precious secret for me to seek out, a blessing for me to receive. Then will it be indeed a light infliction, light in comparison with that eternal weight of glory, which, here as well as hereafter, it can bring to me …

When I begin to see that realm, that Beyond, my life becomes no longer a purposeless and weary wandering, but a pilgrim’s progress, a homeward journey in which I am supported, protected and companioned all the way, and drawn onward by the thought of that which awaits me at the end of the road.

God is great, God is good. Let us thank Him.


And thank you for your precious prayers,


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