“For the secunde, come to my mind with contrition, frely without any seking: a wilful desire to have of Gods gifte a bodily sicknes.” 1 Thus does Julian name the second of three gifts she desires of God. In a culture that invests so much in preventing illness and its symptoms, it can seem so strange and alien to witness someone desiring it, inviting it, requesting it. And Julian was not alone in this. 2 Within medieval women’s devotional literature, the raw, traumatic, and indeed, assaultive character of physical illness is frequently identified as an opportunity for spiritual purgation and growth in the virtues. The 13th century guide for female anchoresses, the Ancrene Wisse, teaches: “Sickness is a hot flame to suffer, but nothing cleanses gold so well as it cleanses the soul.” The anonymous author goes on to identify six things that sickness, as sent by God, does: “1) washes the sins that have already been committed, 2) protects one against those that were threatening, 3) tries patience, 4) keeps one humble, 5) increases one’s reward, 6) makes the patient person equal to a martyr.” Because of such benefits, illness is “the soul’s health, a salve for wounds and a shield against receiving more.” 3 At another level illness can be deeply revealing for it “makes a person to understand what they are, to know themselves.” It is a penetrating lens through which to see what is of ultimate value and what is but “frail,” unstable, and passing. 4
Sickness, presented as resource and opportunity for spiritual practice, can also be found in medieval Tibetan literature. In The Book of Kadam, the great teacher Atisa explains to his primary disciple, Dromtönpa, that there is “no better spiritual teacher” than adverse conditions such a sickness: “Where can one find more excellent buddhas than these?” The master then goes on to assert: “Sickness is a great broom for negative karma and defilements.” Developing these themes, Atisa explains, “Since sickness and so on motivates one to perform spiritual practice, they can compel one to engage in Dharma practice. Therefore, they are excellent spiritual teachers” 5
In a commentary on the “Seven-Point Mind Training” teaching of Chekawa Yeshe Dorje (1101-1175), Chekawa’s student, Se Chilbu Chokyi Gyaltsen (1121-89) invites his readers to “[v]iew all illnesses and malevolent forces as embodiments of kindness.” 6 Repeatedly he references and affirms such “kindness.” He celebrates illness as something that interrupts the mind’s tendency to be “embroiled in the chores of this life” which can lead to the accumulation of “negative karma.” Afterall, “[t]his life is but a momentary event.” Se Chilbu invites his reader to reflect:
‘Given that [illnesses and so on] end this [mundane way of life] abruptly and enable me to encounter Dharma, they help me take the essence of this bodily existence.’ View leprosy and sickness with heartfelt, uncontrived joy. Furthermore, think, ‘Sickness and suffering engender true renunciation; for without suffering, there can be no true renunciation. Since they definitely help dispel the afflictions of my mind, they help me realize the teachings’ intent. So they are most kind indeed!’ 7
Se Chilbu also offers this paradoxical teaching for audience’s reflection: “Suffering dispels all my suffering and secures all my happiness and therefore brings me benefit.” In this way, the reader is asked to view all “malevolent elemental forces” as their “’spiritual teachers’” and to “contemplate their great kindness.” To train one’s mind in this way creates the possibility that all that one does, experiences, and encounters “will be transformed” and then one obtains “the spiritual practice that ensures that nothing is wasted.” 8
- Julian of Norwich, The Writings of Julian of Norwich, Eds, Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins. University Park, The Pennsylvania State University Press, ll. 17-18, page 127.
- In medieval spiritual practice, illness was sometimes understood as an opportunity for a deeper union with the suffering Christ, through a form of “imitatio.” Scholar Caroline Walker Bynum contextualizes the significance of sickness for some female practitioners of piety in the Middle Ages: “Illness, self-induced or God-given, was identification with the Crucifixion … We should not be mislead by modern notions of illness … [W]hen the woman sought illness as fact or as metaphor, it was fully active fusing with the death agonies of Christ.” (Women’s Stories, Women’s Symbols: A Critique of Victor Turner’s Theory of Liminality.” Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion. Now York, Zone Books, 1991, page 48.) Professor Bynum provides evidence of medieval women who welcome illness as a resource for spiritual practice: “[M]any [medieval] holy women desired to be ill. Villana de’ Botti [1332-1361] refused prayers for relief from sickness; Gertrude of Helfta [1256–1302] embraced headaches as a source of grace; Beatrice of Nazareth [c. 1200 – 1268], who desired the torments of illness, was healed almost against her wishes; Margaret of Ypres [1216–1237] so desired to join with Christ’s suffering that she prayed for her infirmities to last beyond the grave. Dauphine of Puimichel [1284-1360] … even suggested that if people knew how useful diseases were for self-discipline, they would purchase them in the marketplace.” (Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast, Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1987, page 200. See also Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff, Medieval Women’s Visionary Literature, New York: Oxford University Press, 1986, page 37-44.) Professor Bynum also specifically identifies Julian of Norwich as one who “asked for an received the grace of sickness and death in literal imitatio Christi.” (Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast, Holy Fast, page 200.) All references identified in this note are available through Internet Archive.
- Sr. Benedicta Ward explains that the text, “Ancrene Wisse” – sometimes referred to as “Ancrene Riwle” – is one of a number of medieval texts written for female solitaries “who read neither Latin nor French that is, for simple Christians, not coenobitical nuns … They were written for their use by one or more members of a learned and clerical order … The content of these texts did not come from the solitaries themselves, but was offered for their use by those who knew them well.” (Benedicta Ward, “Preface” in Anchoritic Spirituality: Ancrene Wisse and Associated Words. Translated by Anne Savage and Nicholas Watson. New York: Paulist Press, 1991, page 5).
- “Ancrene Wisse” in Anchoritic Spirituality: Ancrene Wisse and Associated Works. Translated by Anne Savage and Nicholas Watson. New York: Paulist Press, 1991, page 115-116. A fuller quotation: “Sickness is a hot flame to suffer, but nothing cleanses gold so well as it cleanses the soul. Sickness that God sends … does these six things: “1) washes the sins that have already been committed, 2) protects one against those that were threatening, 3) tries patience, 4) keeps one humble, 5) increases one’s reward, 6) makes the patient person equal to a martyr. In this way sickness is the soul’s health, a salve for her wounds and a shield against receiving more … Sickness makes a person to understand what they are, to know themselves; like a good teacher it beats us, the better to teach us how mighty God is, how frail is the world’s joy. Sickness is your goldsmith who, in the joy of heaven, gilds your crown. The greater the sickness is the busier is the goldsmith, and the longer it lasts the more he burnishes it, to be equal to a martyr’s through short-lived pain.” (Ibid.) Middle English: “Seeknesse is a brennynge. hot for to suffren. Ac no fuir ne clanseþ gold. as seeknesse doþ þe soule. ¶ Seeknesse þat god sent … deeþ þeos þre þinges. ¶ Wasscheþ þe sunnes. þat weoren er I.wrouȝte. ¶ Wardeþ to ȝeyn þulke. þat weoren touwardus. ¶ preueþ pacience. ¶ Halt him in muchel soffrynge ¶ En creseþ þe meede ¶ Eueneþ to Martir. þulke þat wel suffereþ. ¶ þus is seeknesse: soule hele. ¶ Salue of hire wounden. ¶ Scheld. þat heo ne chacche mo … Seeknesse makeþ mon. to vunderstonden. what he is. ¶ To knownen himself. And as good mayster. beteþ for to lerne wel. ¶ How miȝti is god. Hou frele. is worldes blisse. ¶ Seeknesses is þi gold smith. þat in þe blisse of heuene: ouer guyldeþ þi croune. So þe sekenesse is more: so þe goldsmith is bisgore. And euer so lengore hit last: so he brihteþ hire swiþere. ¶ Be Martires euenyng. ¶ þorw a wilnynge wo.” (The English Text of the Ancrene Riwle: The ‘Vernon’ Text. Edited by Arne Zettersten and Bernard Diensberg. Published for The Early English Text Society. Oxford, U.K: Oxford University Press, 2000, pages 65-66). All references identified in this note are available through Internet Archive.
- The Book of Kadam: The Core Texts. Attributed to Atisa and Dromtönpa. Translated by Thupten Jinpa. Somerville: Wisdom Publications, 2008, pages 272-274. To provide a fuller sense of the exchange between Atisa and Dromtönpa (Drom), an extended quotation is offered here using a dialogue format: Drom: “[W]hen adverse conditions happen, such as sickness, it is difficult.” Atisa: “Drom what are you saying? There is no better spiritual teacher than these.” Drom: “Are they spiritual teachers or what? They are sent from a malevolent force!” Atisa: “Why do you say this? Where can one find more excellent buddhas than these?” Drom: “A buddha? But it brings such acute pain?” Atisa: “You did not understand, Drom. Sickness is a great broom for negative karma and defilements …. Since sickness and so on motivates one to perform spiritual practice, they can compel one to engage in Dharma practice. Therefore, they are excellent teachers.” (Ibid.)
- Sé Chilbu Chöki Gyaltsen (1121-89) “A Commentary on the ‘Seven-Point Mind Training.” Mind Training: The Great Collection. Compiled by Shonu Gyalchok (ca. fourteenth-fifteenth centuries) and Konchok Gyaltsen (1388-1469). Translated and edited by Thupten Jinpa. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2006, page 108. Internet Archive: Mind Training Great Collection By Shonu Gyalchok Thupten Jinpa Snow Lion : Sahana Choudhary : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive
- Sé Chilbu Chöki Gyaltsen (1121-89) “A Commentary on the ‘Seven-Point Mind Training.” Mind Training: The Great Collection. Compiled by Shonu Gyalchok (ca. fourteenth-fifteenth centuries) and Konchok Gyaltsen (1388-1469). Translated and edited by Thupten Jinpa. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2006, page 109. Sé Chilbu, at this point in his text, also references Shantideva’s 8th century text, The Way of the Bodhisattva, with two quotations from a stanza from the chapter on “Patience”: “Suffering also has its worth. / Through sorrow, pride is driven out / And pity felt for those who wander in samsara; / Evil is avoided; goodness seems delightful.” (Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva: A Translation of the Bodhicharyavatara. Translated from the Tibetan by the Padmakara Translation Group. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1996/2007, chapter 6, verse 21, page 80. Internet Archive: Shantideva Padmakara The Way Of The Bodhisattva UNKNOWN Shambala : Sneha Subramanian : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive ) Regarding “renunciation,” Geshe Lhundup Sopa described it as “the determination to achieve complete emancipation from the suffering of cyclic existence. To achieve this thought of renunciation you need to gain a clear and detailed understanding of the truth of suffering and the truth of the cause of suffering …” (Geshe Lhundub Sopa, Steps on the Path to Enlightenment: A Commentary on Tsongkhapa’s Lamrim Chenmo. Volume 2: Karma. Edited by David Patt. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2005. page 361).
- Sé Chilbu Chöki Gyaltsen (1121-89) “A Commentary on the ‘Seven-Point Mind Training.” Mind Training: The Great Collection. Compiled by Shonu Gyalchok (ca. fourteenth-fifteenth centuries) and Konchok Gyaltsen (1388-1469). Translated and edited by Thupten Jinpa. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2006, page 109. A fuller quotation: “When you learn to train your mind in this manner, all activities of your body, speech, and mind, and everything that appears in the field of your senses will be transformed … From that point onward, you will obtain the spiritual practice that ensures that nothing is wasted.” (Ibid.)
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