"Happy Families" is a simple card game, which has entertained many of us on dark, wet nights. Each family is identified by the employment of its bread winner, in some ways the defining member of the family. Notice how people thought of Jesus,
"This is the carpenter's son, surely?
Is not his mother the woman called Mary?"
(Matt. 13. 55).
That got me doing some hard thinking. What happens when we no longer have a job? Perhaps we can't get employment, or we've been made redundant, become chronically ill, or have retired. What do people think of us then? More important, what do we think of ourselves? Does being unemployed mean we lose our own and other people's respect? Because we can no longer be defined by a job do we fear we have become non-persons? Can we still be happy members of our families or communities when we can no longer hold down a job? These can be very real, painful questions.
Many of you will have had to try to come to terms with enforced unemployment. That was certainly true for me when aged thirty I picked up a tropical illness, which it was thought, would mean that I would never be able to work again.
As I imagined the years, the decades ahead, my future looked very bleak. I had to ask myself whether my Dominican vocation was determined by what I did as a member of the Order of Preachers. In other words, had I become a lesser Dominican because I was no longer an active one? At times I felt like a goldfish trapped in a small bowl as I watched life, and saw my active brethren dash past me, leaving me behind.
This was a very critical time for me. I hit rock bottom. At times I felt full of despair -a useless burden to myself and everyone else. My years of Dominican training could not have prepared me to face such a crisis. As a matter of personal survival I had to find a positive approach to my enforced inactivity and self-doubts.
Very gradually I came to realize that there was much more to being a Dominican than being an active preacher. Gradually I came to recognize that God was calling me to a special expression of our Dominican vocation. As members of the Order of Preachers we are called to witness to the Good News of salvation through the suffering, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
That, I realized, could be done in a special way by frail and sick people, including me. Although I couldn't be actively involved in preaching at home or abroad, my prayers could support those who were on the front line. All who are frail and sick can play a vital part in the life and mission of the Church. This is a difficult, but very special vocation. St. Therese of Liseaux used to say, "Being sick is hard work." It is, indeed!
But St Paul goes much further and reassures us with the words,
"I am now rejoicing in my suffering for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of His body, that is the Church,"
(Colossians 1. 24).
What on earth could that mean? Certainly Jesus didn't fail to do sufficient to save the human race from the power of sin and death -with the implication that we had to make up the deficit.
But if the Church as a whole is to share in Christ's victory over evil she must first identify with Him in the suffering through which He gained that triumph. For Christ and for us, His followers, the cross is the way to glory. Those who suffer can identify with the crucified Christ in a unique way. With Him they can offer their afflictions for the salvation of the world. They don't just talk eloquently about the pain of Christ, but witness to it's value by sharing in it.
Paradoxically, Jesus achieved most when He was utterly helpless, apparently a useless failure. Knowing that should makes us revise our ideas about who is a success or failure. Who, in fact, are the real achievers? Certainly we shouldn't value other people, or ourselves, according to the amount of work they and we can do.
I've been fortunate in that unexpectedly I've made a remarkable recovery and have been able to do a considerable amount of work. Now old age is restricting my activities and I can't do nearly as much as my younger brethren.
But I do hope that my experience has enabled me to empathize with those who suffer, and that I can convince them of the special value of their lives. I am certain that illness modifies, but does not change our identities. It doesn't make us any less a person. With God's grace it can even make us a better one.
Today the aged and chronically sick are increasingly seen as being a disposable burden on the community. But my personal experience has taught me that we have a special dignity, deserving respect. We have a unique way of identifying with the crucified Christ. Through our weakness and suffering we meet Him in a special way, and share in His work of salvation. Those who are active and healthy can help us to become fulfilled and happy members of the human family by showing us the dignity and respect they -we -deserve.
God has shown me that His special way for me to meet Him is through the suffering and death of his Son, Jesus. Then it's been up to me to decide whether I can accept this as being my way of meeting God. For me this is God's way, my way, for finding peace, meaning ...my God-given identity!
In a fortnight's time Isidore will reflect on meeting God in "Llamas, Polar Bears and the Baby Jesus"