Monday, June 3, 2013

Losing Her Religion

I have stayed up half the night reading Nora Gallagher's Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic. I read a bit before I went to sleep, and then I woke up 45 minutes later and read some more. I slept a restless sleep for about 5 hours, and then I couldn't fall back asleep. I thought I might get up, read a bit, feel sleepy, and go back to bed. But I never really felt sleepy, so I kept reading.

It's a good book. It tells the story of Gallagher's journey through an illness. She begins losing her peripheral vision, and her doctors can't find the cause. As they do more exploring, they find more cause for concern.

I did something I rarely do, which was to read the last 20 pages before I got very far along in the front of the book. I couldn't take the anxiety.

When I was young, illness narratives didn't disturb me, except for the rare book I'd read about a young mother with cancer--and then, I didn't identify with the mother so much as with the child who would be left motherless.

Now, as I move through midlife, I find myself terrified at the ways that illness cuts us down. Once I assumed I wouldn't face much illness until the last 8-10 years of my life. Now I know it's only the lucky ones who escape that long.

Gallagher paints a vivid picture of how lonely it is to fall through this rabbit hole. She makes me think of all the ways I've failed friends facing similar crises: the one whose house burned, the one who had her hip replaced, all the friends who faced the loss of those they loved. I have tried to be present in the face of tragedy, but it's not a skill that I feel I'm good at it.

And yes, I know that I've thought of becoming a hospice chaplain, and that the skill of being present in the face of tragedy is very necessary.

Obviously the book is compelling, and yet, it left me wanting more. She talks about losing part of her faith, and she gives the outlines of that part of her journey, but I wanted more. Maybe that will come with her next book--but it's such a long wait between books!

As she moves through her journey, she returns to stories of Jesus as healer, particularly his healing of the blind man on the way to Bethsaida.  Jesus mixes dirt and spit and puts the poultice on the man's eyes.  Gallagher notes the simple materials of healing, and she notes Christ's ability to actually slow down and be with the sick man, to take his hands, to heal.

As she moves through her journey of various diagnoses, Gallagher loses patience with the superficiality of Church:  the emptiness of the Creeds, the vacuousness of the conversations, her inability to pray.

Of course, it is her illness that slows her down enough for her to realize her dissatisfaction.

All is not lost, however.  She returns to the smaller community within her church, the base community she describes so compellingly in Things Seen and Unseen.  Some part of her feels like she's not really going to church.  Some of her readers would argue that she's returned to a more ancient form of church, a more legitimate form of church.

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