My mentor, friend, and rabbi, Rabbi Rachel Berenblat, writes under the nom de blog The Velveteen Rabbi. She has just written a reflection on what we may ask of our common Maker. What does it mean to ask God to heal us or a loved being? What does it mean to ask God for what we cannot have because finally there is no hope. We are not immortal except in the memories of those who love and remember us. What does it mean when God has to say No, that I cannot do. It is that person’s time.
God, please let my wife not die.
God, spare the life of my child.
God, give me back the body I had when I was 35.
God, take this misery from me.
God, do the impossible.
And knowing that the prayer is for what is impossible may breed in us a profound resentment, even a hatred and contempt, of God for not doing what we plead for. There is sometimes a non-answer: Shit happens. Things happen just because.
Consider the Biblical hero Samson as presented to us in Camille Saint-Saens’ great opera-oratorio, Samson et Dalila. A Judge over Israel, Samson has given himself, soul and body, to Dalila, the drop-dead gorgeous Philistine priestess who has seduced him away from his vows to his people. She needs to know the secret of his superhuman strength so his power can be overcome and Philistia can again enslave Israel. So, prompted by the High Priest of Dagon, she gets him drunk (and in this alone he violates a vow not to drink wine) and basically screws the secret out of him: It’s my long hair, mon amour. As long as I don’t trim or cut it, I’ll be the baddest dude in the Valley of Sorek. And when he passes out, she clips his hair and calls the Philistine soldiers. They take him without effort and gouge out his eyes. They re-enslave him and his people, then chain him to the millstone at Gaza. It’s his wake-up call, and it’s frightful. At last he is led before the assemblage in Dagon’s temple for a great feast, and is mocked. Your sight is gone. Your strength is gone. You can do nothing to us. Dalila herself pretended to love you and has brought you down. Chained between the two pillars supporting the temple, Samson–now fatally penitent–prays for one last time.
Remember your servant from whom you have removed light. Allow me this last time to overcome my weakness. Let me crush everyone in this place!
Not I’m sorry, God. Fix everything that was and is wrong with me. But Give me my former strength one last time so I may die with my enemies.
And this time, because of Samson’s tormented humility, God hears him. Samson seizes the pillars and rocks them out of their foundations. The temple crashes down and kills everyone inside. As he expects it will, the wreck takes Samson with it. There are no easy outs. Here is the supremely great tenor Placido Domingo, along with the late and truly lamented mezzo Shirley Verrett (d. 11/5/2010), at the San Francisco Opera in 1981. Domingo was entering the 1980s, probably his greatest decade.
So now, what of we human beings with chronic pain and illness? What pillars may we shake?
How often have I prayed for relief? More: how often have I prayed that this medication will be it, that that epidural injection will fix my legs, that Tramadol will remove the pain once and for all, that this will be the thing that will relieve my pain. So how many times have I been left disappointed and even heartbroken because it was not it. That the pain might be ameliorated somewhat, for awhile, but it eventually would finally be pissed out of my body with the next bathroom run.
The answer to How Often? I can’t count that high.
What then do I do? What does anyone do who has chronic illness and pain?
What is the answer? Get over it? Man up and deal with it? That’s not much of a comfort, is it? It indeed fosters resentment and even hatred. Not simply of God but of the body I cannot control, the body that has begun to prey on itself. When we finally know we’re not going to get better, how do we face it?
I was once able to run every day. I loved it. Then at age 63, only seven years ago, my body began to fail me. I’ve had to accept that I’m not going to run in the next Boston Marathon in April. That I will be bound to one of those hideous electric carts in the supermarket–the ones I call “CripMobiles.” That I have to think of myself as physically handicapped without thinking of myself as an outright cripple. That I have limitations born of an illness I cannot reverse or even necessarily control. Because that is the road to self-pity, and that destination will almost certainly kill me. I can’t afford to feel sorry for myself. Not for very long. My years in AA have taught me that my first lesson is to accept who and what I am. I don’t have to like it. I’m surely enjoined to fight against it. But I may not ever deny it, not even for a moment.
So I guess I’ll tear up that application for the Boston Marathon….