For a couple of weeks in early November 1995, I developed the classic diabetic symptoms: constant thirst, frequent urination (about every twenty minutes, and five times a night), and eventually, blurred vision. I recognized the symptoms for what they were, and went to the doctor on November fourteenth. My blood sugar was a staggering 675 (about 90 to 120 is normal--the nurse was astounded that I was both coherent and conscious). So at age 35 I got a glucometer, an 1800-calorie diet, a twice-daily prescription, and a faith crisis.
Health care professionals say that for many people, discovering that you are diabetic is rather like experiencing the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, etc. In my case, I leap-frogged over denial and went directly to anger. I was both surprised and frightened by the strength of my rage, which seems especially silly now after years of living with diabetes. But at the time I was furious at God for giving me this cross, to the point that I refused to sing or respond at mass, or even to receive communion for a whole week. After all, I had given up smoking earlier that year in September and God gave me diabetes just in time for the holidays. Like I didn't have enough rules in monastic life, so now I had to memorize starch exchanges?!
Eventually I realized that I had to resolve my feelings about my condition, because I was scheduled to celebrate the first Sunday of Advent at a nearby parish. I didn't want to stand up in front of the congregation and mouth platitudes about God's love and God's plan when I wasn't too convinced of God's justice. So I turned to the readings for that Sunday, hoping to find a sentence or phrase that would speak to my situation.
The theme running throughout the readings of the day was Christ's coming, both at Christmas and at the end of time. I didn't find anything that moved me until I reached the last line of the gospel: "The Son of Man will come at a time when you least expect it." The words leaped off the page and burned in my mind like the Christmas star. Christ was coming to me at a time and in a way I never expected--in weakness and dependence, as startling and mysterious as his nativity. It was as though I could hear him saying, "Dominic, I would speak now a new language of love, and you will be years in learning it. The helplessness of my infancy I will bring to birth in your own body. I give you weakness so you will have health and strength, a share in my cross so you will have fullness of life."
That Sunday I preached about my experience of anger and reconciliation to the people of the parish and was surprised by the outpouring of support and compassion I received. One of the Sunday school teachers had her students make cards for me. One of them had a doughnut with a circle/slash drawn through it--"Just say no to the BIG O" was the caption. Another little girl wrote: "You Can Do It!!! It will be hard but that's what God wants"--out of the mouths of babes. Others urged me to "Give God another chance" and to "stay in shape and don't get temtachions [sic] and other things." I kept them on the coffee table in my office to keep me inspired throughout the day.
So I spent Advent trying to let the Divine break into my life in new ways and learning how to eat healthy in a season of excess. Two days after I received my diagnosis, a huge platter of doughnuts appeared at the breakfast table, with a glazed cinnamon roll the size of my head at the apex of the mound. I whimpered, bit my knuckle and turned firmly toward the shredded wheat. I thought that perhaps sprinkling Grape Nuts on top would improve the gustatory experience, but the result was like eating a soggy bale of hay with little rocks mixed in. Nevertheless, I have managed to integrate the diabetic diet into my monastic lifestyle, despite occasional “temtachions and other things.”
In the intervening years, I have come to realize what my distress was really about: limiting my consumption. The purpose of monastic discipline is to teach the monk to control his appetites, to regulate the desire for food, for sex, for personal comfort and material possession, so that none of them can threaten to take the place of God. It took a medical crisis to shake me up, to make me look at one more area of my life more closely, and to live more authentically, which is to say, in a more healthy way. I discovered that I had excluded the gospel from my eating habits, but God chose to come in the way that I least expected.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard wrote a reflection on Catholic liturgy called Teaching a Stone to Talk . In it she expresses with both humor and forcefulness the danger in forgetting that God can come to us in alarming ways:
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? It is madness to wear ladies straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.
Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone To Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (Harper and Row, 1982) pp. 40-41