Magazine article The Christian Century

Illness as Hermitage: How Parkinson's Became My Spiritual Practice

Magazine article The Christian Century

Illness as Hermitage: How Parkinson's Became My Spiritual Practice

Article excerpt

SINCE I RECEIVED the diagnosis of Parkinson's disease, I have had to slow down and simplify my life to accommodate my compromised energy. At the same time, new obligations--medical appointments, attention to diet, increased exercise--demand more of that energy I no longer have.

I am required to keep a stringent daily schedule. Finish breakfast at least an hour before the 7 a.m. meds. Practice yoga, but wait until two hours after a meal. Take the yellow pill three times a day, but keep four hours between it and the gray pill. Finish lunch an hour before the 1 p.m. meds. Take this at 4. Do that at 5. Remember this at 7.... Oh, and don't be stressed.

There have been many losses. My self-image as a strong and vibrant woman seems not to fit anymore. I have to pay attention to my balance, think about how I walk, be careful not to fall. Be careful not to fall? When have I ever worried about falling? I have always acted and felt younger than my years. How did I get to be old so young?

I've lost my safety net. I have benefited from the healing powers of Western medicine as well as acupuncture, prayer, yoga, homeopathy, ayurvedic medicine, and healthy foods. But if these are not going to preserve my health, what will keep me safe?

I've lost my spiritual grounding. I can't pray the way I always have. I spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on my body, and there isn't much time left to focus on my spirit. When did I switch from being centered on God to being centered on myself?

I've lost my trust. I can no longer trust my body to do what I want it to do. I've lost the carefree confidence that my brain will always perform as it always has. I feel betrayed by those practices of diet and prayer in which I had put so much trust.

Perhaps the most painful loss of all: I've lost my illusions. I've lost the illusion that I am exempt from the losses and limits that besiege other people. I've lost the illusion that I am in control. I've lost the illusion that if I just do it all right, it will be all right.

At some point in life, whether because of illness, accident, injury, or aging, each of us will experience losses and limitations that invite us to wrestle with the question, how can I be faithful in my new circumstances? A spiritual director suggested to me that the challenges and changes I faced were giving my life a more contemplative shape, a deeper monastic spirit.

In an attempt to feel some control over my new routine, I made a list of what I was supposed to do and when I was supposed to do it. One day, as I looked at this schedule, I saw that it is not unlike the monastic practice of praying the hours, marking the day with eight times of prayer. I inserted the Latin names of the hours of prayer into my daily routine of pills and naps and exercises. Now, each time I check the schedule I'm reminded that my day is permeated with prayer.

Slowly, I began to experience a shift. Instead of fighting the changes and limits, I've begun to embrace them as a choice I am making in order to live faithfully, somewhat like a monk in the world. Instead of fighting Parkinson's so I can have time for my spiritual practice, it has become my spiritual practice. Parkinson's is the hermitage where I slow down, pay attention, and concentrate on what is needful in the moment.

As I focused on my body in a new way, the phrase body prayer kept coming to mind. I started to redefine spiritual practices in ways that served my new circumstances. …

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