For years now I have lived with a condition known as Coeliac Disease. This is an autoimmune disease. My body is unable to digest the protein known as gluten. As a result, should I ingest the gluten found in wheat, spelt, rye and barley, there would be such damage to my gut that I could not absorb nutrients from the food I eat. The smallest amount of gluten can cause this reaction.
Nowadays many people choose to go on a gluten-free diet, and I’m grateful that they do because it has had a remarkable effect on the availability of gluten-free foods in supermarkets and cafes. But a gluten-free diet is not a lifestyle option for someone with Coeliac disease. It is the difference between thriving and starving.
It is estimated that 50% of Australians live with a chronic illness. I learned this from a webinar that was presented by the radio personality Jacinta Parsons. Jacinta has suffered from Crohn’s Disease, a chronic gut illness unrelated to Coeliac, since her childhood. Recently she wrote a book describing her journey with Crohn’s, Unseen: The Secret World of Chronic Illness.
For Jacinta, and for anyone with a chronic illness, it is indeed a journey, a passage from unwellness, to diagnosis, to treatment of the immediate symptoms, to finding strategies to control long-term effects of the illness. It is also a spiritual journey, a coming to terms with the condition, learning to understand and appreciate what life means through the prism of illness, healing and purpose. In this respect, it is similar to life itself, whether we are chronically ill or not. We all go through phases of illness, healing and reorientation. That is, of course, what the High Holy Days are about. They are a chance to recalibrate our well-being. They involve us in a quest to find new ways to define who we are, what we value and how we can make the most of our limited time on this earth.
Jacinta spoke about confronting her own mortality, a common experience for those who suffer chronic illness. More than once death loomed over her. She sums up her journey with these words, which could easily find a place in our Machzor, Mishkan T’shuvah:
You realise nothing is too big for you. Everything should be encountered with wonder and humility. One of the jewels of illness is that you are so deconstructed that you have an opportunity with the reconstruction. You think, ‘What will I make from this?’
Indeed, what will we make from the “raw timber” of our lives? That is the question for the Days of Awe.
-- Rabbi Fred Morgan, Emeritus, TBI