Fierce, Faithful and Free
By Linda Kay Klein
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I am writing this post from Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City. It is not the romantic getaway I had planned for my Labor Day weekend. At all. In fact, let me tell you just what I had planned because it is just too good not to share: a private writers retreat at the gorgeous New Jersey home of an artist friend I met in grad school, complete with a writing and art studio, deck, hammock, well-stocked wine cellar, and floppy dog hungry for me to walk him during my writing breaks. Four days and five nights of solitude, warm skies, and pages upon pages of my book. Sigh. In other words, a dream. But what do they say? Life is what happens when you’re making other plans?
Three weeks ago I began to feel that old familiar pain; Friday was the MRI; by Saturday I was flat on my back in a hospital bed again.
It has been fifteen years since I first began to experience symptoms of the Crohn’s Disease that keeps me coming back here.
And eighteen years since I asked God for it.
I couldn’t have been more than 15 at the time. Just young and foolish enough to pray that God would allow something horrible to happen to me. “Don’t just give me the milk, Lord,” I used to pray. “Give me the meat.” I was referring to 1 Corinthians 3:1-2.
And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Even now, you are still not ready.
While other girls my age fantasized about finding boyfriends, I fantasized about suffering as my spiritual lover, Jesus Christ, had suffered, so he would know I was willing to go as far for him as he went for me the day he died for my sins. In one of my favorite childhood fantasies I imagined myself a missionary pulled from my home by an angry mob, a gun is pointed at my head. In the fantasy, I was told to deny my Christian faith, or die. I chose death, of course, and was shot on the spot, sprawling romantically on the ground while those I brought to Christ before I died wept over my body.
I ached to be given the opportunity to prove that I was not what the apostle Paul called a “person of the flesh,” nor what my evangelical Christian youth leaders called a “woman of the flesh,” a sexual threat to men. No. I was divorced from my physical form, a woman of the spirit alone. They could do anything to my body; I would never give up my soul.
As an evangelical Christian teenager, I was wholly devoted to a religion that glorifies gore and gorifies God. At the center of the Christian religion is the story of a bodily suffering so terrible that it saved the world. Even Jesus, who lived a perfect life, did less good with it than he did with his death. It was Christ’s suffering, not his joy, that set us free. It was his death, not his life, that allowed us to enter Heaven. So when our bodies were beaten and our hearts broken, my friends and I knew we reflected the perfect life of Christ, whose suffering and death was the hinge upon which God’s plan for the world turned. The more God allowed us to suffer, the more opportunity he gave us to prove our unshakable devotion to him, just as Job, Jonah, Habakkuk and even Jesus had done. Suffering was our opportunity to be someone.
So when I began to experience a mysterious abdominal pain and blood loss from my anus in my late teens, the first thing I did was thank God for the opportunity to praise him through suffering, an experience I was sure would bring Jesus and me closer together, just like Billy Graham said it would. But the second thing I did was schedule an appointment with a doctor. Suffering was all well and good, but God also liked to work miracles from time to time, and often used doctors to do them. The first doctor I saw took one look at me and said my real problem wasn’t pain and blood loss; it was acne. I looked down at my lap, hiding my face in my hair.
Over the past few months, I had been trying to embrace my newly outrageous acne, and was silently cheering on a self-assured classmate rising through the ranks of popularity at my public school despite her own acne outbreaks. That’s right, I would think to myself as I watched her. Our physical appearance shouldn’t dictate our level of confidence. After all, we are creatures of the spirit, not of the flesh alone!
My staunch belief that physical appearance didn’t matter much had become increasingly important to me since I saw a photograph of the supermodel, Shalom Harlow, rocking a “bowl” haircut in a magazine. The haircut perfectly framed her high cheekbones and her eyes looked dark and mysterious peering out from under her thick bangs. I thought she looked like a hot Joan of Arc and cut the photograph out, presenting it to my hairdresser the following week. He shrugged and gave me the cut I requested, shaking his head while he snipped.
Afterward, I did not, in fact, look like Joan of Arc. Nor did I look even remotely hot. Under the mushroom of hair that now sat on top of my acne-ridden face, I looked more like Moe from the Three Stooges. Or a chubby Amish kid. Who just happened to smell like rotten eggs since I had started taking the sulfurous acne medication the first doctor prescribed me.
Too ashamed of the physical appearance I told myself didn’t matter to return to the doctor who wasn’t afraid to call me out on it, I scheduled an appointment with a second doctor. He too dismissed me from his office after a short consultation, but this time with the name of an over-the-counter hemorrhoid medication and of a gastroenterologist. The gastroenterologist diagnosed me with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, a cousin of Crohn’s Disease, but before I left his office, he grabbed hold of my arm and told me that if my symptoms were as severe as I claimed they were, I wouldn’t be smiling so much. Clearly, he had no experience with evangelical Christian girls and our truly outstanding capacity for smiling.
My girlfriends and I knew it was our responsibility to represent Jesus to the non-Christian world. The word “Christian,” after all, meant “Christ-like.” So if we were a drag, people would assume that Jesus was a drag. But if we were fun, people may just become Christians, which would save them from eternal damnation. And so, even while we suffered, especially while we suffered, we smiled. We laughed. We wrote people encouragement cards. I even made Christmas cookies and dropped them off at every storefront open on Christmas Eve one year. And when my friends and I got home from a long day of smiling goodness, our smile got even bigger, because we knew it was also our role to be what our pastor called “cheerleaders” for the “football players” in our lives, the evangelical Christian men who faced battles we could not even imagine. You never saw a group of teenage girls so…happy.
The gastroenterologist’s implication that I was someone who would exaggerate her symptoms for—what?—attention?—haunted me for months afterward. I didn’t ever want to be the kind of girl who would ever do such a selfish thing. I wanted to be good, a good Christian girl. Maybe this is a reasonable amount of pain I’m experiencing, I thought. Nothing to complain about it all. Deep inside, I knew something was seriously wrong with me, but when the little voice inside—the one that some call our intuition and that I now call the Holy Spirit—whispered that all three doctors’ diagnoses were wrong and that I would have to fight to be taken seriously or my symptoms would grow out of control, I told it to shut up. I was suffering, I insisted, not because there was some big thing wrong with me, but because I was special.
I decided I would never complain about my pain again, no matter what. I would show them! I would be so good and uncomplaining that I would die if it came to that. I imagined my church friends finding my dead limp body sprawled over a chair in the youth group room and flagellating themselves for having judged me so often when all the while I had been silently suffering, a martyr of their righteous oppression, just as Jesus had suffered at the hands of the “religious” Pharisees.
Eventually, I left for college across the country. By the middle of my freshman year, I was bleeding a quarter cup of blood and intestinal lining into the toilet every ten minutes and had lost so much blood that I had tumbled off of the toilet and onto my college dorm’s bathroom floor. I managed to pull my pants up but I was too weak to stand or even get back onto the toilet to continue bleeding into it. I heard my friend Sebastian’s voice in the hall and called out to him. When he entered, he discovered me curled in a ball in front of the toilet. Helping me to my feet and supporting me under his shoulder, he called a cab and together we went to the emergency room.
After a week at a hospital near my college, I was flow to Mayo Clinic. Within a few days, the head gastroenterologist brought a team of interns into my room to discuss my case. He told them that my entire large intestine had been ravaged beyond recognition and that even some of my small intestine was in ruins. I was not responding to any form of treatment which meant that I either had one of the most advanced cases of Crohn’s Disease he had seen or an undocumented illness. Either way, it wasn’t good. The surgeon would be removing my entire large intestine the following morning.
Crohn’s Disease is an autoimmune disease. Like all autoimmune diseases (Multiple Sclerosis, Lupus, some forms of Diabetes and others) it results from an organism’s failure to recognize a particular part of its body as a part of itself. With Multiple Sclerosis, the immune system attempts to eradicate the nervous system from the body, mistaking it for a foreign entity. With Lupus, the immune system attacks the kidneys, heart, lungs and other organs. With Crohn’s Disease, it’s the intestines.
And so, while my mind told my guts to shut up, to not be such a bother, my immune system attacked them physically. Neither my mind nor my immune system understood at the time that every part of me was a part of me. We cannot separate our bodies from our spirits from our minds from our hearts. We are one entity and each part must care for the others. If we fail to do this, in one way or another, we get sick. Sometimes even really sick.
My surgeon was one of the best in the country, but my intestines were so devastated at the time of surgery that infection spread throughout my body. In the weeks afterward, the pain grew worse, at some points becoming so severe that I would shake uncontrollably, my teeth banging against one another as I pressed a button to release pain killers into my blood stream again and again. Twice the nurses ran in, shooting a pain killer into me until my body grew still before rushing me into emergency surgery. One surgery became two, became three, became four.
Each night, I bled my bed the way children pee theirs, blood and intestinal lining pouring out of my anus from my unhealed intestines. I would wake and press a button for my nurse, who would come in with a sad look on his or her face and say, “Did it happen again?” before lifting me out of the pool of blood and intestinal lining in my bed, changing my sheets, my blankets and my hospital gown and placing me lightly back in. One nurse tried placing a bed-pan beneath me while I slept to catch the blood but lying on it bent my body back, tearing at my wounds. Another tried dressing me in diapers, but it ran out the edges, pooling beneath me again. Finally, the Kegel exercises they had taught me began to work and my anal muscles grew strong enough to hold the blood in, even while I slept.
Like the foolish king who wished that everything he touched would turn to gold and wound up killing all he loved in the process, as even his daughter turned into a golden statue, I had made a foolish wish, the wish of a child. I had prayed that God would allow me to suffer, and suffer he had allowed me to do.
Martyrdom of the kind I had been courting has been taken to extremes among Christian followers for centuries, especially among women and girls. Nuns have a long history of causing themselves physical harm in order to feel the pain of the God with whom they have entered into marriage. In college I was regaled in religious studies classes by stories of nuns sleeping with spiked clamps on their legs or wearing an item of clothing that pierces them under their habits have been surprisingly common throughout history.
Yet even those of us who do not live cloistered lives, those of us who shop at the Mall of America and take our kids to see Disney on Ice, sometimes silently endure incredible levels of preventable pain. Because religion and society alike often teach women that their worth is in making other people happy—particularly their husbands and kids—their suffering can take on a holy quality, leading some of us to keep even the most dangerous secrets to ourselves for too long.
Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker wrote a beautiful book about this called Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us. In it they write: “The traditional notion that suffering is supposed to bring one closer to God” has gone so far as to make some women “participate in their own abuse.”
And when our suffering is finally admitted, our secrets can sometimes be re-silenced by the very religious communities to whom we come for support. Christian leaders have come a long way over the years, but I know from the years I spent funding gender work in the world’s major religious traditions that it is still all too common for religious leaders to cover up sexual abuse and insist that women stay in violent marriages, caring for their husbands even as they are beaten by them as an example of God’s unconditional love.
After a year and a half, my body healed, and I was able to return to college and to my life—only occasionally finding myself back in the hospital, as I am today.
Today, as I lie in bed awaiting my release from the hospital, I am haunted by the strange attraction I had toward suffering as an adolescent. It seems so odd now, this notion I had (and, I’ll admit, still sometimes have) that suffering could somehow prove me good, or even make me good? Less threatening in others’ eyes, because I would be less capable of threat. More respected for having suffered in silence—an odd thing for our culture to value as highly as it does. And most importantly, more like Jesus.
I am reminded of a conversation I once recorded with a friend of mine whose father, a fundamentalist Christian, who suffered tremendously from physical ailments and had taken to analyzing it spiritually, even writing his mDiv thesis on the subject of suffering. I recorded the story during the three years of interviews I did with young women who were raised in the evangelical Christian church. In the interview she tells me:
“He had this whole, you know, apparatus for thinking about suffering that was about being like Christ. Like, I think that he really believed that his suffering meant something. And of course it had to. It had to mean something because it was insane. Like, doctors were saying, "Why is this happening? How is he still alive?"
“What do you think he thought it meant?” I asked her.
“I think that…well, that’s the thing. It only meant that he was like Christ. And…maybe he thought that it gave other people the opportunity to serve God because they were taking care of him. Like my mother, you know? She became a full-time nurse when her adult life was just beginning. But in some ways, that’s a really good question, right? Like, what does it really mean that your suffering means something because you’re like Christ. I don’t really know. Meaning is a really hard thing to define, you know? But I think it’s this mimesis, this imitation, of Jesus on the cross, you know? My body is getting punished; my body is getting cut apart; my body is hurting like Jesus’s did. And it’s this logic: Jesus’s suffering saved the world, right? So, it’s meaningful. So my suffering, if it is like his, must be saving…something….”
Linda Kay Klein is a writer, speaker, and spiritual strongwoman based in New York City. She is a frequent speaker at colleges, universities, conferences and nonprofits, and has been featured by outlets such as NPR, PRN, and the American Prospect.
Linda urges authentic engagement around life’s biggest questions—be it in her role as a former evangelical Christian who now gathers stories from young evangelical and ex-evangelical women about sex and gender, or as the Director of Work on Purpose at Echoing Green's program to equip Millennials to do work that is right for them and good for the world.
Linda has worked for a number of progressive religious organizations—from the multifaith gender equality foundation, The Sister Fund, to the young women’s spiritual leadership movement, REVEAL: Young Women Defining the Divine. She was the assistant writer for “Testimony,” a documentary theater piece on the religious culture wars which was incubated by Princeton University, and she sits on the advisory board of our very own Feminist.com’s “Our Inner Lives” religion and spirituality project.
Linda holds a Masters in religious studies and creative writing from NYU, where she focused on American Evangelical sex and gender education, and a bachelor’s degree in creative writing and theater from Sarah Lawrence College.
For more information, check out her blog at www.manmadegirls.com.
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