In college, I spent hours among the earth-toned desks and warm yellow lights, wafting in the musky, alluring scent of old books. As an odd midwestern kid who grew up with more books as friends than friends themselves, college was an invitation to realizing my dreams and the sense of belonging I never had.
My small, Christian liberal arts college offered safe harbor for my eager love of learning. Instead of creating distance, books connected me to others. As a homesick freshman, I had found my first friend over coffee and the realization we both loved John Donne. The following year I spent hours with other enthusiastic nerds in the wooden booths of the cafeteria after theology lectures musing the mysteries of God’s simultaneous transcendence and immanence, the syrupy cafeteria coffee almost pleasant in the presence of such good company. By my junior year, I was a resident assistant, charged with being a spiritual and emotional support for a group of nearly thirty college women. For the first time in my life I began to feel like I almost belonged.
But midway through junior year, my health failed. I woke up one day unable to grasp a pen, my hands coiled into fists of pain and immobility. Within days, I could barely walk.
The body that had effortlessly carried me through the winding, steep paths of my mountainous college campus could now barely hold itself up in bed. The limbs that climbed limestone cliffs between classes now struggled to walk fourteen steps to the bathroom.
I couldn’t even open the books that held the currency of my connection to others. In my newly weakened body, the promise of education was quickly becoming a taunting memory.
Growing up in an evangelical church and attending a small Christian school, I had digested a lifelong diet of disembodied hope. Though I suspected and secretly hoped the object of Christian faith was not floating on a cloud singing terrible worship music for the remainder of my existence, no one had offered me a more sensible alternative. My first years at Covenant College had anchored my faith in the more compelling and true story of the incarnate God—who came in the flesh to redeem and restore instead of burn and judge. But the residue of singing in the clouds still clung tight.
Learning a more compelling story and believing that story when everything in you aches are two different things. And when sickness invaded my capable, strong body as a junior in college, I had to believe something. And I found my way to belief, and even joy, but not without the pain of shedding dense layers of individualistic striving.
I swelled against becoming unwell—scared and humiliated by the way sickness was changing my relationships. I was used to spending hours a day in the library writing papers, punctuated by meals and coffee dates with women from my dorm. After copious amounts of tea sipped between fervid research binges, I would walk across the dark, quiet campus to my hall, where I would stay up even later attending to the tears of peers getting over breakups or pissed at their roommates. But suddenly the majority of my life consisted of crying tears of my own within the confines of four cinderblock walls, too sick on most days to even leave my bed.
The new, monotonous cadence of my existence exhausted and isolated me, but even inside the austere walls of my dorm room, I was never truly alone.
Sickness has an inelegant way of reversing relationships, and where I had previously played the role of comforter, I found myself learning the harder role of recipient. That year I had a roommate and three suitemates, and these women became my first teachers in the education I never wanted.
The Brokenness of Christ
All my life I subconsciously believed a story of strength—that independent striving was the narrator of success. But unable to cut my own food or drive, I became aware of the stigma and force of weakness. I was ashamed of my vast needs even as I realized I truly was inadequate to meet them on my own. But my four angels of mercy, who had not signed up to be my caregivers, willingly met my needs before I ever asked them to. They gently held my body up to help me walk, carried my books across campus, and even helped feed me when I couldn’t lift my fork.
In the beginning months of illness, I frequently could not sleep from pain and after hours of no relief, I would cry from the excruciation. One suitemate in particular would often find me awake in the middle of the night, weeping on the floor of our shared study room. Instead of turning the other way or quipping how early she had to get up for an exam, she would join me on the floor, massaging my aching hands as I sobbed into her chest.
In the first half of college, I had started to know the gospel story where weakness is welcome and hurt is held. But I did not know it yet in my limbs and ache and shame. The willing condescension of my college suitemates and others, catapulted my body into the healing story of God.
When I went to college, I signed up for an education of books and lectures. But I didn’t realize the education I most needed was the nearness of Christ and his Body to the indignity, brokenness, and shame in my own.
The pain that began ten years ago in a college dorm room has never fully ceased; I have an incurable disease called Ankylosing Spondylitis. In my life of daily pain, my body carries the inheritance of the education I never would have signed up for but have so desperately needed.
The Grace of Christ, in Suffering
This past Sunday, stooped over from pain in a church pew I had barely made it to, I held the mystery of our faith in my ailing body. With my hands awkwardly wrapped around a tiny plastic cup of wine, too inflamed to grasp it properly, I knew the odd wonder of belonging to a God who chose suffering. In my broken body, I received the grace of Christ’s broken body. In my inadequacy to suffer on my own, I absorbed his perfect suffering on my behalf. Afterwards, I cried in front of a friend.