Beginning Again: Benedictine Wisdom for Living with Illness
by Mary C. Earle
New York, NY: Morehouse, 2004.
Reviewed by Christie Bates McKaskle
Beginning Again is about building a spiritual practice out of the daily circumstances of chronic illness. It is about letting go of the old life, when illness comes to stay, but it is also about being open to the “strange gifts” offered by the new life that comes with illness.
Author Mary C. Earle is a spiritual director, retreat leader, writer, and Episcopal priest whose life was turned upside down in 1995 by an attack of acute pancreatitis. Already a practitioner of the “Rule of Life” recommended by St. Benedict, she uses this wisdom to become aware of the divine presence in the enforced routines of her radically altered life.
Beginning Again is written for the chronically ill reader. The concise writing style is fitting given the subject and theme of the book. It is as if both writer and reader must use time and energy wisely. According to the rhythm of her quiet but rich new life, Earle patiently and painstakingly considers all of the daily realities of living with illness and shows how each one can be a point of prayer and communion. Even the routine of taking medications becomes a prayerful, meditative practice. One is reminded of the way an open, innocent child studiously considers all sides of a rock polished by a stream. The tone of the book, then, is not cheerful in the usual frenetic sense of that word, but it is still a voice of gratitude and hope.
For the physically healthy person, Beginning Again presents a worthwhile but definite challenge. It forces us to see our arrogant impatience with illness as the fear it really is. The power of even the healthiest body will eventually fade, and Earle’s work offers reassurance and evidence that God is there in strength and in weakness. As a resource for companioning people with chronic illness or pain, this book gives the reader permission to look for the gifts that illness can bring and permission to let go of fighting what is.
All people, even if physically healthy, have conditions in life that are—or seem to be—chronic and immovable. The same wisdom for the sick that infuses Beginning Again also points the way to live within the limits (and therefore, surprisingly, the freedoms) imposed by other chronic circumstances such as addiction, mental or emotional disorders, the illness of a loved one, or even chronically limited financial resources. Through a variety of limits, human beings are granted freedom from the treadmill of the “do-it-all, have-it-all” lifestyle we too often feel trapped by. Earle shows us how even the most painful, frustrating limits, when used as the raw material of a life of faith, can set us free.
Christie Bates McKaskle is a former counselor and church elder turned full-time writer. Her first book, Accepting Your Resurrection is due to be published in 2005. She occasionally offers “Journaling Your Resurrection” workshops for those interested in writing as spiritual practice. She lives with her husband and two daughters in Tennessee, USA.