In 2021, the Collegeville Institute hosted a virtual writing workshop led by Dori Baker and Patrice Gopo called Our Own Deep Wells: Writing on Vocation Across Race and Culture. The online workshop began each day listening to participants’ responses to the prompt: “Tell a story about a specific person, practice, or tradition that called you to life.”
This essay by Christine Valters Paintner considers the challenge of chronic illness to pursuing one’s vocation. Click here to read other essays expanded from these responses.
The year I turned 21, I graduated from college and moved from New York to California to join the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. It was a new season of life, full of promise and adventure. I was eager to expand my horizons and be of service.
But soon after I arrived in Sacramento, I started to develop pain in my hands and feet. “You have rheumatoid arthritis” said the doctor flatly. He pointed to my bloodwork, inflammation patterns, and genetic predisposition. My stomach twisted; my heart was a soaked sponge. My mother had developed this same illness at age 35 and already at 50 she had undergone multiple joint replacements. It felt like a dooming sentence and as my pain increased my vision of the future began to narrow.
I plunged into my work, swimming upriver for five years until denial caught up with me. I quit the teaching job I loved because of exhaustion and pain, the joint spaces in my wrists nearly gone.
That year on disability could be excruciating at times. Being 26 with an invisible illness, I was often asked that polite question, “what do you do?” When I responded, people would rush to offer platitudes or remedies instead of sitting with me in the discomfort. I discovered that very few people want to face the reality of bodily vulnerability. If I could be young and disabled, then illness could possibly happen to them. In addition to medication, I tried all sorts of alternative therapies and often encountered treatment providers who would blame me for not trying hard enough or not believing enough if I did not experience relief.
The true grace over time has been deepened intimacy with my body.
Chronic illness asks you to navigate between worlds, the vertical land of the well, or “temporarily able-bodied” as those in the disability community say, and the horizontal world where most hours are spent in bed. This forced convalescence offers a new perspective on the world of rushing and doing. Each flare of my illness became another initiation into the resistance of capitalist expectations of relentless productivity, which demanded I value my life in terms of output.
It has been 30 years since that initial diagnosis. The medications to treat my illness have greatly improved and I count it as a profound grace that I have not been ravaged by it the way my mother was.
The true grace over time has been deepened intimacy with my body, the long hours spent listening to her call me like a lover, asking me to live as a witness to another way of being, one that values slowness, spaciousness, humility, vulnerability. One that knows Sabbath as a stance of opposition to the forces that train us to deplete ourselves. My body’s vulnerability has informed everything I teach and write about contemplative practice. I believe that a slow, intentional life is a radical act of witness to another way of being. I have learned to honor limits and find beauty in that space of surrender and yielding to another way.
My story is not a one-way hero’s journey. I have not overcome or done battle; I don’t want to be anybody’s inspiration. Stories that give the impression that one can achieve victory over the body’s vulnerabilities do a great disservice to the collective imagination by pushing away the discomfort of grief. I want my story to reveal that tenderness and surrender instead of fortitude and domination are signs of strength. I want my story to say that yielding to my body’s needs rather than forcing myself onward is a sign of wisdom.
In the monastic tradition, memento mori – remembering that you will one day die – is considered an essential daily practice to help us to remember to cherish life. I am reminded moment by moment by my body that everything is gift, nothing is to be taken for granted. This window of feeling well will not last forever. Similarly, this physical pain will also subside eventually. And we will all one day cross over the threshold and leave this world. Joy and sorrow are sisters; each carves out room in us to experience the other more deeply.
I have learned to honor limits and find beauty in that space of surrender.
On my good days, I still sometimes do a lot, sometimes beyond my body’s capacity, and I feel the impact. Productivity is seductive. I still have a lot of bad days where most of my hours are spent horizontal despite how well I try to take care of myself. The truth involves very little linear achievement and a lot more mess.
All these years after that first diagnosis, I keep discovering new layers of how my primary vocation is to relish this vessel of flesh, blood, and bone, and to make time for the always erupting griefs. I’m called to serve from a place of rest and abundance rather than exhaustion and scarcity, and to treasure myself apart from all the things I can do.