By Keren Dibbens-Wyatt –
Do you remember difficult anniversaries? In a couple of days it will be 24 years since the last day I was able to work. That night I took myself off to a GP’s appointment, hoping to be signed off for a two weeks, so that I could rest and get rid of the crippling tiredness that had been gaining ground on me for nearly a year. But a fortnight later I was no better, nor a month, nor a year. Nor a decade. Nor two. Even the eventual diagnosis of M.E. made no difference, as no-one knew how to treat it. And so being permanently sick and exhausted gradually became my “normal” and I forgot what it felt like to have any strength or energy. Anything left in the battery went on fighting this disease, and mostly failing. Have you ever asked, as I do, whether God is here, in such immense lack?
Weakness is part of who I am now. I am constantly drained, live most of my life sitting up in bed, playing with words and colours when I am able, dealing with headaches, pain, exhaustion and various system failures as they arise. Can God do anything through or with this wreck of a human being?
The answer to both my questions is yes. Whilst we have the breath of life in us, we have the breath of God in us, flowing back and forth. Whilst my heart continues to beat, albeit weakly or in fits and starts, God is pumping holy life-giving oxygen through my inert body. And whilst these places are no longer part of the world and its hustle and bustle; they have become something different, like an old ruin off to the side of the road, beautiful in its own crumbling way. Soft sandstone revealing fool’s gold in the fading light, a way of being that is not mindful of appearance or achievement, but that sits and listens and waits.
And I hope it encourages you when I tell you that this displacement, this calling out to a quiet, dreaming place, where I have learned to root myself in order to survive, is now my home. I am ill, but I do not feel ill-at-ease. I still have many worldly problems that I need to deal with. There is a great amount I cannot do, and yet I have been shown gifts and talents that were hidden away deep in my heart and soul that I would never have discovered if I had not been coaxed and wooed by God into this most spacious confinement.
Don’t imagine it was easy, or that my ego didn’t have to fall away (is still, and will always be falling away) like the cascading edges of icebergs, or that letting go of everything I thought I was and everything I thought I would be didn’t feel like very real deaths. I am still grieving those things. I am heartbroken that I did not have children (though I have a lovely stepson) and miss the freedom of walking more than I have words for. And don’t imagine I went willingly. I dragged my heels and gritted my teeth and man, did I sulk. But there is a but.
But… Saint Hildegard, Doctor of the Church, tells us that she felt like a feather on the breath of God, and she too suffered from chronic illness.
It is true that I am sustained and carried by his sweet, warm breath, his life-giving words. But if I am indeed a feather, then I have got stuck on barbed wire, like a piece of stray sheep’s wool, and no amount of prayer or pleading has freed me. Maybe this is because I am learning gentleness, brokenness and stillness, watching the flocks in the field. Maybe I am coming to know my own vulnerability and softness, dealing with the harshness of cold winds, of feeling unprotected, of encountering other waifs and strays.
One day perhaps, that warm wind might appear again as if from nowhere and blow me to a new sanctuary, but for now, I am where I am meant to be; learning all kinds of lessons, and praying all kinds of prayers, writing all kinds of everything. I am learning to breathe in and out with God, one moment at a time, and though it is often deeply painful, both physically and emotionally, there is nowhere I would rather be.