"The Rule of St. Benedict is full of homely and practical wisdom. Joan Chittister has commented, 'If we are not spiritual where we are and as we are, we are not spiritual at all.' Benedict's way of living is grounded in reality, in daily life, in care of the body and respect for one another, in the intersection of the commandments to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. As we begin to reflect on living with illness as a rule of life, Benedict's counsel offers some direction and humane encouragement.

"My own rule, before my illness, revolved around myriad activities and varied interests. I prayed and read scripture daily. I tried to live a reflective life that noticed God's presence in the daily minutiae of life with teenage sons, work as a parish priest, marriage to a priest. I was finding new avenues for outreach ministry, interviewing clients at an ecumenical hunger ministry, and becoming involved in interfaith dialogue. Gardening and yoga were also part of my rule. Those simple patterns for putting God at the center were very important to me. And they were completely disrupted and torn apart by the illness and the terrible, slow recovery. I had to begin again and find a new way of ordering my life. I had to take into account a severely weakened physical condition. A whole host of new behaviors needed to be practiced — everything from regular rest to meal planning to having blood tests. Slowly, over the months of waiting for healing, a new rule began to emerge. This was a rule that began with the restrictions caused by the illness. This was a rule whose parameters were determined by a life lived within new limitations, limitations that made me want to rebel, to cry, to give up. Surprisingly, those same limitations became the raw material from which a rule could emerge, once I was guided to see them from a different perspective. I started to apply some creativity and prayer to the enterprise of reshaping my new life.

"As I did this I realized that the illness itself provided the grounding for the new rule. My body, now foreign territory to me in its thoroughly depleted condition, offered the place from which the new rule could grow. Very slowly, I began to see that the rest that the doctor recommended could be one piece of the new rule. The highly restricted diet could be another. Regular ingestion of prescribed medications — something that was tremendously difficult for me in the beginning — became a kind of prayer of the hours. Taking those medications several times daily required a sort of concentration and attention that seemed almost like listening prayer. The rhythm of a day punctuated by times of taking pills was oddly reminiscent of a day marked by praying Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline. The living God who is with us in all circumstances and through all passages began to be surprisingly present in these altered patterns of daily life. So, the rudiments of a new rule of life began to appear in the midst of the wreckage of a life shattered by acute illness. Those rudiments were found in the living with the illness, in the daily recognition of myself as one weakened and afflicted, yet also upheld and sustained by God.

Beginning Again, Again

"The illness forced me to rethink my daily routines and how I live my life. I had to begin again. Since the original attack in 1995, I have had to begin again several times. The fall of 2002 was plagued by sudden flare-ups of pain and concluded with a procedure to open up a restricted duct that was clogged by scar tissue. Most of the plans I'd made for those months were discarded. The recurring bouts of pancreatic disturbance took precedence over any plans, and everything else had to be rearranged. Beginning again, yet again.

"Living with illness is definitely full of surprises, punctuated, sometimes, by setbacks. It is also an ongoing lesson in flexibility, resilience, and perseverance. From the vantage point of my mid-fifties, it seems to me that living with illness offers an intensive course in the rule of life. Illness clarifies what really matters, what is worth spending time on, what is essential. Mid-life offers that course to almost everyone over forty; living with illness focuses and concentrates that instruction. In some ways living with illness reminds me of taking an intensive Italian class in college. Class met every day, and only by showing up for class could we learn the language. Living with illness puts you into the same kind of intensive learning situation. When you 'show up' by paying attention and becoming more aware of the shape of your life with illness, you begin to learn the new 'language.'

"At this point in my life, I live with a pancreas that has healed to a certain extent. I am still taking medication, still following a particular dietary regimen, and am still afflicted from time to time by pancreatic pain. I have also been working with some groups of people who live with illness. Several years ago in a class I taught at St. Mark's, my Episcopal parish in San Antonio, I suggested that we begin to look at the limitations and diminishments of illness as the beginnings of a new rule of life. At first, the participants were jarred by the idea. How could illness be a rule of life? How Could these various indignities and limitations have anything to do with vitality, with liveliness, with choosing life? How could God be at the center of living with the diminishments of illness?

"Together we began to 're-frame' living with illness. We named our various limitations. We listed the 'givens' that each of us lived with. These varied from person to person, from illness to illness. The person whose diabetes required regular insulin injections and checks of blood sugar had different limitations than the person whose five years of coexistence with a lymphoma had resulted in yet another experimental protocol of chemotherapy. Each 'given' traced the outline of life with a particular illness. For example, the dietary routine of an insulin-dependent diabetic gave her the frame from which her rule began. The man recovering from a stroke discovered that his regular physical therapy was the foundation for his rule. These 'givens' that come from living with the illness were the building blocks for a rule of life. Each 'given' also proved to be the starting point for reflecting anew, for finding a rule of life in the midst of the ongoing rounds of tests, exams, hospitalizations."