A holy, mundane essence: Lessons of confinement

Living with a chronic illness is much like Henry David Thoreau's experiment on Walden Pond: life is pared down to essentials. The difference is that Thoreau chose the constitutive limits of Walden Pond as part of an experiment in "living essentially," while my confinement is unbidden.

The spiritual practice of Lent is nothing less than an invitation to live essentially, whether one is healthy or chronically ill. Lent, with its introspection and sparseness, aims at stripping life down to its holy, mundane essence so that bits of heaven on earth might be discovered: without and within. For those whose physical limitations constrict them to the footpath of home, Lent's discipline is a familiar one.

The freedom to choose—so central to Thoreau's experiment—is typically among the first liberties eliminated by chronic disease. My limitations began with difficulty swallowing and escalated into the slurring of words, fatigued neck flexors and breathlessness. My vocation as a homiletics professor relied upon the strength to speak, but by noon each day I felt as if my muscles had been peeled from my bones: the effort to speak a word or to smile at a student felt Herculean. Little by little, the grid upon which I lived shrank to that of a postage stamp.