Sick as a Dog
Learning about God’s abiding love for the sick and vulnerable
I used to laugh when people said that they were “sick as a dog” — that is, until I began to echo that sentiment. October 2021 was probably the worst month of my life. What began as a sinus infection ended with me being hospitalized for eight days and having major abdominal surgery. I had my appendix and part of my small intestine removed, and I nearly died due to a bowel obstruction. Thankfully, through the intercessory prayers of many faithful people, Our Lady and St. Michael, God spared me and healed me.
I had never been in a hospital before this happened, but I received a crash course in anatomy. I took more tests than in college, and I talked with so many doctors that I probably qualified for their friends and family cellular plan. In the end, though, I am grateful that this experience happened to me. It taught me a great deal about suffering, faith and God’s abiding love for the sick and vulnerable.
As a priest, if you had a dollar for every time someone asked why bad things happen to good people, I imagine that many of us could own a small Mediterranean island. However, it is a question that we all must grapple with in faith.
Since 1992, Feb. 11, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, has also been declared the World Day of Prayer for the Sick. In his 2021 remarks on this commemoration, Pope Francis stated: “Sickness raises the question of life’s meaning, which we bring before God in faith. In seeking a new and deeper direction in our lives, we may not find an immediate answer.”
Suffering is often met with deafening silence. That does not mean that God abandons us or refuses to answer our questions. Instead, suffering invites us to reflect upon the life of Christ and the passion.
In 1984, St. John Paul II wrote an apostolic letter, Salvifici Doloris (“On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering”), in which he reflected upon this concept. John Paul writes, “Christ causes us to enter into the mystery and to discover the ‘why’ of suffering, as far as we are capable of grasping the sublimity of divine love” (No. 13).
Suffering, believe it or not, is a profound invitation into the love of God. Ministering to the sick, or being sick yourself, actually moves us closer to Christ and his salvific plan. Now, I will be the first to admit that I would not readily choose this plan. Who, this side of the asylum, would?
I often think of the words of St. Teresa of Ávila, who during a very onerous journey once said to Christ, “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder why you have so few of them!”
It does not seem fair or just to suffer. However, God never promised us a life of ease or comfort. Instead, he asks us to pick up our cross and follow him. The sick, because they are so closely configured to the Passion, present an opportunity in ministry to grow in love for Our Lord.
Before this experience, hospital ministry was one of my least favorite aspects of being a priest. Hospitals are not comfortable. They often smell bad, create awkward situations and foster a desire to leave as quickly as possible and never return. However, Christ came not for the well, but for the sick in soul and body.
My time in the hospital caused me to feel not only compassion but also empathy and fraternity with those who suffer and struggle. I have learned a great deal about patience, trust and humility along with NG tubes, catheters and the digestive tract. Would I want to do this ever again? No way!
Did I learn a lesson that otherwise I never could have? Absolutely! God’s ways are not our ways, and his plan is definitely not our plan. I am indebted to God for the great mercy and compassion that he has shown me through my illness.
The Book of Job, which brought me great comfort through this, says it best. “For he wounds, but he binds up; / he strikes, but his hands give healing” (5:18). Thank you, Jesus, for teaching me during my weakness, but, please, once is enough; I’m a fast learner!
FATHER MICHAEL ACKERMAN is the parochial vicar at the parish grouping of Holy Sepulcher in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania, and St. Kilian in Butler, Pennsylvania.