This looked like a very ordinary week. It was, in fact, the sort of week in which I began to ask myself: "What in the world will I write about this week?" I should know by now that when I ask that, something always gets supplied. In this case what got supplied was a virus.
At least I assume that it is a virus. I suppose we'll never really know if it was viral or bacterial or something else, nor is it all that important to know. It began like an ordinary cold, but it has ended with that very enervating weakness that sometimes accompanies the flu or other viruses. At first I just pushed on, of course: "I need to get my jobs done - can't leave them for other people who are already busy enough." Then on Friday morning (or maybe it was even Thursday), while I was getting breakfast set out for a large group, I all of a sudden couldn't go any further. I was completely out of energy, and I couldn't force myself one more step. So I left the job with a generous Junior, and went to bed.
Now you have to know that being in bed with a cold has been a real source of difficulty for me for a long time. When I'm feeling well, I sometimes even long for a nice gentle cold, so that I can go to bed for a while. I think of the wonderful hours available to meditate, for quiet contemplation, for spiritual reading. At times when my schedule is so pressed that I'm having trouble with finding any time for prayer I do yearn for a convenient virus.
But the reality is quite different. When I actually have my longed-for virus, do I meditate for endless hours? Do I consult learned books on the Spiritual Path? Do I strive to enter the Cloud of Unknowing? Are you kidding? I look at the ceiling. I listen to PBS. I read useless novels (and I choose the word 'useless' deliberately). The time goes by without my doing any of the things that I yearn for. It's been like this for years. I beat myself up internally because of it. I have this ideal of having endless hours for prayer; why can't I do something about it?
It finally got uncomfortable enough that I asked Jose, my meditation teacher, about it. I did this at the Inquiry period at the end of our Wednesday night Meditation session, and I didn't miss the appreciative chuckles from the group which means that I'm not the only person for whom this is an issue. I had stumbled onto a Common Problem.
Jose is wise. He is genuinely wise. And he frequently says something that I wouldn't have predicted in a million years. Many, many times in the decade that I've been part of his circle I've been amazed and stimulated by his unexpected response to what I thought was a question that I knew the answer to: in this case I expected something like: "Take it seriously - get to work - you're not being dedicated enough." And that wasn't the answer. At least it wasn't Jose's answer. He said that of course that was my experience. I was, in fact, experiencing the reality that I didn't have the energy to pursue my ideals. Most of my energy was going into being sick. We weren't talking about lack of moral fiber or a failure of the will. We were talking about how much energy is available when one is sick. And then he said: "You can, of course, use what energy you have to attend to what is happening. And that is worth dong. Just attend to your illness. Befriend it. Follow its path. But don't expect any great insights. It's not the time for that."
Thomas Merton said that at times when he met with answers like this one he felt like he'd missed a train.
But even if I thought I'd really missed the point for a long time, I did remember that conversation. I don't get many colds; this is the first one in two or three years, so I haven't had the opportunity to practice this particular line of inquiry. But I did keep it in mind, and when I took to bed this time I left my ideals at the door, but I did take my mind with me. And I just observed what was occurring. I followed it with the sort of attention that I've learned through years of meditation: I looked at what was happening, and what it felt like. I observed it with such openness as I could manage, and without judgment - when I could manage that. I just followed my cold through the sore throat, into the running nose and on into the coughing and chest part of it, and the nights when my head and chest were so active that I couldn't sleep. The pattern is very familiar - a day for the throat, a day for the nose, a day for the chest. That, I assumed would be the end of it, but it wasn't. I woke up this morning feeling very much better, but also with a very great weakness that seems to come from the center of me, the kind of weakness that warns that there is not much left in the way of reserves. "Be careful" it says, "don't push this too far." It the kind of weakness that sometimes comes at the end of a bout of flu, which makes me think 'virus'.
Now I'll have to be honest and tell you that I was not doing this exploration in the hopes of any great Spiritual Experience. I was just doing it because it seemed like the thing to do. I've pursued meditation long enough to know that, for whatever long-term spiritual benefits it may have, it is also a good thing in and of itself. It's a good path to walk, and it's a good way to approach a day - any day. I did it mostly on blind instinct, and because of that conversation with my teacher.
I describe the result as remarkable because it was unexpected. It was also so plain and so obvious. I found that this illness was simply my path for these few days. It wasn't an interruption, it wasn't a failure, it wasn't an inconvenience. It was simply where I was, and I was having the grace to be where I was. I can't tell you what a difference this makes. I seem to have dropped a whole layer of baggage about the task of being sick and being in bed. It's where I belong right now. It's what life has given me to be lived. It is a full experience all on its own, some of it unpleasant and some of it less so. It isn't to be judged from the point of view of 'what I could be doing if I wasn't in this damn bed'. It's where I am, and it is good to be where I am, because God is where I am, not in some fantasy of where I should be.
And I found that the ability to be in that space really did feel like meditating. In spite of the warning that Jose gave me about having expectations, I really did have some insight. I learned that being where I am, even if it's in bed with a virus, is the task of my life for now, and it actually feels much better to be doing my task than longing for another one.
I hate - I really hate - using the word "Spiritual" for every little revelation that happens to come along. But this does feel like learning something about the spiritual life. Or maybe I need just to take seriously the advice I gave to someone years ago, and which she keeps reminding me of from time to time: "There really isn't any such thing as a 'Spiritual Life' ", I apparently said to her, "you just have your Life, and you need to pay attention to how to live it."
In any case, life with a virus has helped to wake me up.
And, I have to add a small PS, just to show you how ambiguous these things are. I am very weak this morning, but I did go to Mass. After all, it's Sunday. You have to understand that I come from a time and a place when Sunday Church was regarded as one of the facts of life. Not an obligation, mind you: after all, you never asked the sun if it had an obligation to come up every morning, it was just a fact of the universe. And so was Sunday Mass. If you knew the world was going to end at 10:30 on Sunday morning and there was Mass at 9:00, at 9:00 you went to Mass. You just did. So I just did. And it was fine. I'm a bit weaker, maybe, but it's ok. To be there, to have the Sacrament, that's mostly what I'm about, anyway.
And of course I'm doing this writing, and that's ok too. This gives me energy, and feels like what today is about, just as much as it's about the closing part of this viral journey.