A friend recently handed me a copy of the “First Prayer-Book of Edward VI” (i.e. 1549). Since, as a newly ordained curate, I am now spending a good bit of time visiting and praying for people in various states of incapacity, my attention was drawn to the pages of the book entitled “The Order for the Visitacion of the Sicke, and the Communion of the Same.” I was particularly struck by a feature of this order that is absent in its more recent versions, namely, the exhortation the minister was to direct towards the “sicke person.”[1]

This exhortation makes some bold claims.

First, being assured that “Almighty God is the Lord of life and death, and of all things to them pertaining,” such as “youth, strength, health, age, weakness, and sickness,” the sick person is urged to know “certainly” that “whatsoever your sickness be…it is God’s visitation.” There are, moreover, at least two possible reasons for which God has sent this sickness. It is either a trial of the sick person’s patience, both for the example of others and that the individual’s faith “may be found, in the day of the Lord, laudable, glorious, and honourable, to the increase of glory and endless felicity.” Or it is sent “to correct and amend in you whatsoever doth offend the eyes of your heavenly Father.” If, therefore, the sick person truly repents of his sins, bears the sickness patiently (“trusting in God’s mercy”), renders to God “humble thanks for his fatherly visitation,” and submits himself wholly to God’s will, then his sickness shall turn to his profit, and help him forward in “the right way that leadeth unto everlasting life.”

Why take this out of contemporary prayer books? I’m sure there are many reasons, but I imagine that one has to do with a fear of receiving the rebuke that was leveled against Job’s “friends.” Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar were confident that they knew the cause of Job’s sufferings. For them, the world is governed by a clear and dependable moral equilibrium: those who do right receive blessing; those who do wrong face adversity. Job simply must have done something wrong. His friends resisted the suggestion that some suffering might be inexplicable, that some pain might exceed the human capacity to assign logic and definition to what happens to us. The reader knows that Job’s friends have missed the mark: Job was “blameless and upright, one who feared God, and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). His suffering is the result of being dragged into a cosmic struggle that none of them could have seen or anticipated or understood. Job himself is confronted with the reality of his own limited vision when the Lord answers him out of the whirlwind, and the subsequent rebuke that his friends receive confirms the reader’s sense that, although their lengthy words to Job may have been well intentioned, it was their initial silence — sitting on the ground and weeping with him for seven days and seven nights — that was probably the more honest and faithful form of consolation.

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It may be that the old exhortation veers a little too close to a sort of excessive wordiness. It might attempt, that is, to say too much, assigning a clear logic and definition to a person’s pain. I resonate with this concern. It often feels a little too self-satisfied and smug for a person to say confidently that they know why someone else is suffering. It somehow trivializes the horror and anguish of it, enabling the person offering such “consolations” to distance himself from the suffering, to achieve some kind of mastery over it by being able to box it up in a neat explanation. But suffering, by definition, is something that overwhelms us, that presses us down under its weight. It’s not something we can master or explain away. It’s just there, somehow possessing us and throwing into dim confusion and hazy befuddlement our tenuous grasp of the world.

It’s important to recognize, though, that the first and most determinative claim that the exhortation makes — namely, that, whatever one’s sickness may be, they may know for certain that it is “God’s visitation” — is something that Job never dismisses or rejects. On the contrary, Job fully accepts that the plight that has come upon him is the visitation of God. It’s just that Job wants God to go away:

What is man, that thou dost make so much of him, and that thou dost set thy mind upon him, dost visit him every morning, and test him every moment? How long wilt thou not look away from me, nor let me alone till I swallow my spittle? If I sin, what do I do to thee, thou watcher of men? Why hast thou made me thy mark? (Job 7:17-20)

The hard truth with which the old exhortation confronts us is a truth that runs straight through the pages of Scripture: God’s visitation might not actually be all that welcome to us (“He came unto his own, and his own received him not”). The actual shape that God’s visitation takes in the material reality of our lives may feel much more like a burden than like a relief. Suffering is often what God’s visitation feels like.

Of course, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. The implicit claim of the exhortation is that the reason God’s visitation feels so unpleasant is because there is something amiss in our souls: we are sinners living in broken world. This is why the exhortation so firmly presses upon the sick person the need for self-examination and repentance, and leads into a prayer that God would “renew in him…whatsoever hath been decayed by the fraud and malice of the devil, or by his own carnal will and frailness.” It’s crucial, though, to distinguish the assumptions underneath the exhortation from those that motivated the “consolations” of Job’s friends. The exhortation is not attempting to give a clear and precise moral calculus explaining what brought about the sickness in order to reassure the sick person that the universe is fair and God is just. Its main thrust, instead, is a claim about what God intends to do in the sick person by means of the sickness. God has sent you this sickness as an aid towards your sanctification, for the healing, strengthening, and confirming of your soul in holiness. This is not the same thing as a somewhat self-satisfied and overly settled vindication of the ways of God in the world. Its focus is in a different direction. It is a call to the sick human being to recognize that his deepest sickness, his most crippling malady, is his failure to become the full human person that God intends him to be, a person “laudable, glorious, and honorable” who is bound for “the increase of glory and endless felicity.”

Indeed, by far the boldest claim made by the exhortation is a claim that comes directly from Scripture:

For…whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as sons; for what son is he whom the Father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastenment, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons (cf. Hebrews 12:6-8).

The exhortation, we must remember, is an exhortation. It is an attempt to urge those who have been adopted as sons of the living God to embrace and ever hold fast to the inestimable glory with which such an identity clothes them, and yet which will necessarily involve, this side of heaven, walking along a path that is hard and narrow. If you are an adopted son of God, you will suffer, because the world is not what it should be. This is a bold claim, and we can understand why the author of Hebrews goes on to rouse his audience with an encouragement to “lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees.” When we understand what God’s visitation entails, we might be more inclined to say with the psalmist, “Turn your gaze from me, that I may be glad again” (Ps. 39:15).

There is a fine line to walk here, though. This claim is most certainly supposed to be good news. It means that your suffering is neither completely meaningless nor (necessarily and exhaustively) God’s punishment of you for your wickedness. It is rather, more fundamentally, God’s surgery on your soul, God’s firm, incisive, and steady hands re-fashioning you in order that you may shine with the glorious liberty of the sons of God. And yet there is always the danger that this view of sickness can slide into a masochistic glorification of suffering as such. We must remember, therefore, that suffering in itself is not what God desires or intends for us. It is rather merely that, given the brokenness of the world and the present poverty of our souls, there is a purity and radiance that we human beings cannot achieve except through pain.

The paradigm here, of course, is our Lord himself. As the exhortation puts it, “there should be no greater comfort to Christian persons, than to be made like unto Christ, by suffering patiently adversities, troubles, and sicknesses. For He Himself went not up to joy, but first He suffered pain.” Christ’s life shows us the form that a fully realized human life takes in the material circumstances of our broken world, a life that ended hanging on a Cross. He walked perfectly the tight rope that stretches out before us when pain and sickness loom. He didn’t cast about frantically for any and every possible means of avoiding his suffering. Nor did he bitterly resign himself to the inevitable cruelty of the world by telling God to leave him alone with his misery. He prayed for release from the pain but accepted that it couldn’t be so. He kept his gaze fixed on his Father, even when his Father had apparently turned away. He displayed for us the true freedom of a Son of God in this valley of tears: neither a cowardly flight from nor a Stoic impassivity in the face of pain, but rather “an untouchability in the middle of suffering which…can only be defined as fidelity.”[2]

That’s the fidelity to which sick Christians are called. This fidelity does not mean that the sick Christian will be without fear, sorrow, irritability, or lamentation. Bearing sickness patiently, submitting oneself wholly to God’s will, does not exclude an honesty about the anguish that suffering presses upon us, often overwhelmingly so. What it does entail is a deep, habituated conviction that God works all things for good with those who love him. It enables us to accept God’s operation to conform us to the image of his Son, and to receive that destiny with the words of true human freedom: “Be it unto me according to thy word.” The old exhortation reminds us that such fidelity is the goal of our entire lives.

 

The image above is “Brief” (2008) by Brett Jordan. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 


[1] The last American Prayer Book to retain the exhortation was the 1892 revision, from which I quote throughout.

[2] Hans Urs von Balthasar, A Theological Anthropology (Sheed and Ward, 1967), p. 223.

 

About The Author

Fr. Mac Stewart is studying for a doctorate in historical theology at the Catholic University of America, and serves as assistant priest at St. Francis Episcopal Church in Potomac, Maryland.

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You walk a thin line here!

In general I have agreed with Greg Boyd’s rejection of what he calls a “blueprint worldview” where every event is mapped out by God.

If I can sharpen and alter slightly, I’d agree that all circumstances are an opportunity for God’s visitation, and sometimes that is unpleasant, but still good.

Mac, I know I’m a bit late in responding… just got around to reading this. Thanks for your thoughtful reflections on the Visitation of the Sick, and for your sound exegesis of the earlier rite. I’ve heard it claimed more than once that it wasn’t until the ’79 BCP that we finally got rid of the notion that sickness is a direct result of some specific sin. As you (and Charlie) note, there’s a fine line to walk here, but the prayer book ultimately offers us an exhortation to accept our sickness as a means of sanctification. Now that I… Read more »

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