What's the worst thing that could happen?

Each home has its unbelievers and its believers; and thereby a good war is sent to break a bad peace.  St Jerome

I was born with a minor defect that caused unavoidable and almost constant urinary tract infections. It took many years and doctors for us to discover this, and even then, there wasn’t much that could be done, except to hope I would outgrow it. I was a ruddy, bright, round and feisty little girl; the external picture of health. Not exactly athletic, but exuberant, taking the lead in the school plays, singing gaelic ballads at the top of my lungs, playing make believe fairy sprites with my sister all the summer day long and hunting fireflies at night.

Then Mama would take me to the doctor and I would pee into a cup and wait a long time. Eventually, he would come back in the room where I had thoroughly crinkled the paper cover on the bench with my squirming to say, “Mrs. Willard, your daughter is a very sick little girl.”

Amazingly, my system, under the threat of constant infection, responded by masking the symptoms that would have slowed me down. It was good that I was able, apart from hospital visits, some pain and no bubbles in the bathtub (which seemed a heavy cross at the time!), to have a normal childhood, but the professionals didn’t seem much impressed. Apparently long internal warfare, even in secret, takes its toll. But what could we do?

Mama knew what to do. She told me from the beginning and often that God made me without a mistake, and she didn’t even leave His purpose a mystery. “He is making you compassionate,” she said, with far more assurance than the doctors, putting their learned heads together, could read the test results. When I was held back a year in school, she said it again. When I struggled with a speech impediment, she said it again. When I grew chubby and was made fun of, she said it again. Always she said it without pity and in utter confidence, as the mantel was thrown over Elisha. “Yes, but couldn’t he make someone else compassionate for a little while?” I sometimes thought, but overall, maybe because these things are relatively small, I was thankful and awed. And more than that, it was ingrained into me that affliction is a fertile ground, that meanness is the Worst Thing Ever, that this present life is short (a rare comfort in childhood) and that Jesus loved me. When I was unkind, there was double shame on me. How could I, having suffered, cause suffering? That thought in itself, even just once or twice in a lifetime, is worth the cost.

Well, I did outgrow the defect. It’s an old war story now. We’ve moved on. I learned compassion, like I learned to tie my shoes, right? I went through a hard lesson, and now that experience can carry me gently through the rest of my happy life, right?  Beside ‘patient endurance’ there’s a big check by my name, right?

Wrong. In one of my favorite essays called A Piece of Chalk, G.K. Chesterton says, “But all conservation is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white, you must always be painting it again, that is, you must always be having a revolution. There is a great mystery here. I do not know why some people seem to experience more revolution than others. I have known less affliction than many people of far nobler character than myself. Suffering does not elevate us in Christian experience, but it can purify. It can expose the worldly green briars, the rot of the wood and the weak integrity of our hearts. I may be stretching the analogy too far, but has been helpful for me to think of Chesterton’s fence as surrounding an Inner Sanctum of fellowship with the Triune God, not as barbed wire through an overgrown field, but as a wall protecting something precious. Like a garden.

In my early twenties, when I became symptomatic with Rheumatoid Arthritis, I began to call this image the Shining Barrier. You may recognize the name from the book A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken, though he used it in a different context. The Secret Garden was my favorite movie as a child, and then I read the book and fell in love with it again, especially with Tasha Tudor’s illustrations. The garden at my house was also enclosed when I was little, with a wire fence overgrown with morning glory and trumpet vine, but it was good enough to give me that safe, magical feeling of being held and part of a great secret between friends. It might seem like a childlike sort of mental health exercise, but having an image to meditate on in affliction is undeniably helpful. You just have to be there to understand. The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters…. David’s God of the Green Pastures is the God of my Shining Barrier.

As you may know, Rheumatoid Arthritis is an autoimmune disease, in which the body attacks itself, and in the case of RA, specifically the joints. My symptoms have been comparatively mild— swollen knuckles and tender, weak hands— with many months between flare-ups, and yet I have already known something of the depression that rides on the wake of a chronic disease. The warfare of autoimmunity is maddening. I often pray, when there is conflict in my family or church, for battle outside ourselves, against the real bad guys, like in the great stories. It’s a legitimate prayer. Infighting is shameful business.

When I am tired, not from being a brave Christian in the world, or from raising children or from planting a potato field, but from the conflict of my cells, cells that cannot read The Peacemaker by Ken Sande, cells that receive communion with the rest of me, but refuse to forgive and move on, cells that I cannot command, even with the Holy Spirit, as I can with my mind … when this happens, there is a unique hopelessness that comes to press on the soul. It presses on that weak spot in the Shining Barrier, the loose bricks of my misplaced expectations and self-love. It whispers that it will only get worse, that I will be crippled soon and undesirable, that the best things have already come and gone. “Why don’t you just kill me now?” Moses said, because of his frustrating brothers. My own flesh is Israel, all twelve tribes of them, cramped together in a trailer. During an ice storm.

“What’s the worst thing that could happen?” Mama asked me just the other day, when I was anxious and overwhelmed. This is one of her favorite questions. Thinking over the conflicts without and within, I said, “I could be bitter.” I could let that meanness in the end, overtake me, and that would be the Worst Thing Ever. But there is Good News for Israel. I heard it long ago. Because of Jesus, affliction has become a Green Pasture and beyond this fragile life is unbroken fellowship, is the Shining Barrier I have only seen as in a mirror darkly, but soon— oh soon— face to face.

Sarah Willard

Sarah Willard

Sarah lives in her family’s beautiful woodland home in the foothills of South Carolina. She’s fond of gardening, a good book, afternoon tea and her scruffy dog, Amos. She writes at https://blindmuleblog.com/

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