July 25, 2017

Beginning Again

Kaleidoscope: “an optical instrument in which bits of glass, held loosely at the end of a rotating tube, are shown in continually changing symmetrical patterns by reflection in two or more mirrors set at angles to each other.”(p. 1043, Random House Dictionary of the English Language, 2nd edition, 1987) This is the initial image author Mary Earle uses when she describes what serious or chronic illness does to a person’s life; as an image it works extremely well because she is right when she says that “illness turns the lens whether we want it turned or not.”

The Reverend Mary C. Earle is an Episcopalian cleric whose personal life, parish ministry, and graduate studies were intruded upon rudely in 1995 by an initial attack of pancreatitis. Occasional bouts since, of what is now a chronic condition, have required that she make adjustments in her life, in the way she opts to cope with most everything. So whatever creative and lovely patterns existed in her personal kaleidoscope up to that date, the shifting bits of glass of illness brought unwanted new designs, but ones that have had their own intrigue and beauty. How so?

At about the same time she took ill, Earle discovered the Rule of Benedict, and saw it as a positive way to help her live with her medical condition; to her way of thinking, Benedict’s Rule provides sensible, down-to-earth guidance for living with any serious or chronic illness. Her book presents a reader with the benefits of doing the same.

Earle indicates that her title comes from RB 73:8, and she cites it as “Always we begin again,” from St. Benedict’s Prayer Book for Beginners, published out of Ampleforth Abbey. Earle knows well that any serious or chronic illness is full of new beginnings, and she addresses them honorably. In doing so, she does not ignore the necessary dyings/losses that inevitably accompany the new starts.

Earle delves into the Rule when she considers critical aspects of one’s life that must be adjusted due to illness and allots a chapter to each: work, nutrition, exercise, medication, prayer, and rest. The balance so central to Benedict Earle finds to be just as central when a person is adapting to new regimes demanded by an illness. At the end of each chapter, she provides some suggestions for reflection, questions to ask oneself on that subject, and a closing prayer.

The last portion of the book looks at the monastic vows in light of how they can be applied to living with illness. One is reminded of the kaleidoscope here because the notions of change plus symmetry recall the paradox and challenge of living conversatio and stability, and being obedient to that endeavor. Applying the vows to an illness also compels one to see that the flexibility, resilience, patience, perseverance, and humor required to live those vows must also come into play when living with an illness.

This book is helpful because it is uncompromising in its approach; yet it focuses on the transformative aspects of an illness and the extent to which the afflicted individual can – through illness – be open to “the deepest mystery of our faith”: that in our difficulties “God in Christ is with us,”(25) encouraging us to hallow those difficulties and live them “in a God-ward direction”(122) so one’s life still can bear fruit.

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