"[I]n a sense sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it's always a place where there's no company, where nobody can follow. Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who don't have it miss one of God's mercies." (Flannery O'Connor, in a letter published in The Habit of Being)
I hate hearing things like this. I just cringe a bit at the thought of debilitating sickness, much less sickness unto death. But perhaps that is because I haven't truly known it like O'Connor did, or perhaps it stems from a too small faith. Maybe both.
For thirteen years prior to her death at the age of 39, Flannery O'Connor knew she was dying, ever since she had received the diagnosis of lupus erythematosus, the disease that had killed her father. She lived with pain, and frequent hospitalizations, and in the last year or so before death, she could not even do the thing that God called her to do, that is, write. So, that she could say it was a part of God's mercy to her is insanity or else a true experience that it is just difficult for many of us to relate to.
What I remember about my own sickness and hospitalizations is a great deal of anxiety, self-centeredness (worry does that), and a discovery of the shocking fact that the only promise God made to me is that of his unseen presence with me and the sure hope of eternal life in a difficult to envision Heaven -- like a place someone told you about but then refused to give details about. I remember thinking that, well, it all comes down to these two things that I could not see. By God's grace, I held on to those things with my mind, but my emotions were all over the map. I had to resolve that I believed God.
O'Connor said sickness is a place where "nobody can follow," and that's true. There is some comfort from friends and family but, ultimately, when they leave, when you lie in bed alone, you are alone. It is really just you and God. I say that as if that isn't enough. It certainly is enough. But it doesn't feel like enough at the time.
Nevertheless, I kniow that what O'Connor is saying is not a rare experience. Many Christians who have endured suffering speak of this as God's mercy to them -- not a grin and bear it kind of mercy. Not a grin at all, in fact. But I suppose it puts reality into Paul's admonistion that "we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us" (2 Cor. 4:7). That treasure is the Gospel -- the Gospel shines through frail,weak bodies that have no power in themselves.
O'Connor knew the promise of the Gospel. Her daily prayer for the the three weeks before her death ended with an image of heaven as a home "beyond the region of thunder, in a land that is always peaceful, always serene and bright with the resplendent glory of God." Now that's what I need to hear. When the sickness unto death comes, by God's grace I hope I hold that vision.