October 22, 2019

The Ministry of Kidney Stones

Agate Beach (Grand Marais, MI)

Therefore thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion, a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation: ‘Whoever believes will not be in haste.’ (Isaiah 28:16)

Another great family vacation to northern Michigan was in the books. We returned home with a day to recover before the work week started again. As if life is ever that simple. In actuality, a daughter was fretting over a car purchase she had made, and how she was going to return it if not for dealerships being closed on Sundays and her having to return to Iowa that day as well. Drama is never really nothing new in a house with three daughters; life’s catastrophes from boyfriend to iPhone issues play out often in my house. Knowing that Dad’s input on the car issue was not really wanted I went into survival mode and turned in to bed.

I don’t recall what woke me up at 2 am that morning but, as I arose from bed I received that unique signature “hello” from an old friend of mine. Yes, that sharp pain in the left side told me a kidney stone had returned to join the fun. My personal way of diagnosing a kidney stone is to take some ibuprofen and if the pain doesn’t go away then it is a stone. I was already past this point on the pain scale anyway. Knowing that if I took anything at home it would lessen the dosage of the really good painkillers in the ER, I addressed my next quandary: “how bad is it?” I basically had two choices (1) go back to bed and hope the pain subsides or (2) go the ER. The drawback of the first option is that if the stone was there the pain was going to get worse and I just lost a few hours of being on better pain killers. The drawback of the second option is having an already tired wife drive me to the ER while my attempting all sort of gyrations and yoga positions to  minimize discomfort. I learned years earlier with my first stone that ambulance rides are too torturous – they tie you down to one spot during transport.

I chose the ER. Fortunately, the ER was not busy and it was not too long before the CT Scan report confirmed a large kidney stone was the source of my pain. My typical protocol at this point is to return home with several pain medicines and hope that with enough whimpering and crying like a baby, the stone will pass shortly.

Perhaps from a summer of introducing myself to Ignatian Spirituality, I laughed to myself after the previous night of painful periods. I thought to myself, where is God in a kidney stone? From childhood catechism I did offer up my pain for the poor souls in purgatory but it had to mean more for this in an Ignatian way. I was also guessing that dropping to my knees and thinking “Oh God” every time the pain cringes is not what Ignatius defined as “contemplative prayer.” Yet, if the mantra is “finding God in all things” then God must be present in my kidney stone experiences as well. But where?

Writing at Ignatian Spirituality, Andy Otto suggests five ways in finding God in all things. (aside from the Examen prayer):

  1. Micro-Awareness. Let each small action you take become your primary purpose in the moment.
  2. Writing down the experiences, thoughts and feelings of your day in an attempt to uncover unseen moments of God’s presence you initially missed.
  3. Do something the “old fashioned way.” Move away from our smart phone/social media society for a bit and look for a more meaningful interaction or experience. And slowing down lets you acknowledge God’s presence more easily.
  4. Listen. Be present in the moment, God speaks when we pause long enough to listen.
  5. Say “God is here.” Sometimes saying “God is here” is the best way to snap into an awareness that God dwells not just within you but alongside you in every moment, mundane or grand.

Let’s see where a kidney stone fits in here.

  1. Micro-Awareness: My micro awareness is the pain throbbing in my back. God? Mostly I thank God for the chemist who discovered Vicodin.
  2. Journal: No, it is really rather hard to write when on the floor in the fetal position.
  3. Do something the “old fashioned way:” I am guessing the old fashioned way is to skip the drugs. Ah, no.
  4. Listen: I think of Elisha and hearing God in the quiet. Hard to hear anything while in pain.
  5. Say “God is here.” Yes, he is. But I am guessing issues of famine, war and poverty are a little higher on his list than my failing to drink enough water.

My focus narrows to listening. During my kidney stone ordeal I still attempted praying the breviary during the designated hour of the day. I became aware how difficult it was to concentrate on the prayers and the Psalms. Normally, my challenge in the breviary is time constraints. That is, trying to get the office done during a busy work day. My challenge here was simply being able to focus on anything during a pain episode or my desire for a drug induced coma. Is there a message here? I’m guessing any related message here is more in my inadequacy in praying the Office than in a kidney stone.

Sorry, Mr. Otto, I love your five suggestions but I still feel I am missing something. I could easily chalk it up to “Greg 1, Ignatius 0” and walk away. Such shortcuts are all too prevalent in today’s society. Deep in my heart I know Ignatius is right. God is in all things, I’ve just gone tone death in hearing him. Perhaps, a new tact is needed.

Christian spiritualties have a common professing for a need of humility before God. Ignatius was no different in professing a need to humble ourselves and seek a new humility in lifestyle. Mmm, Is there a kidney stone in this? Perhaps in noting a 1 mm grain of calcium oxalate will drop the largest, most well-conditioned warrior to his knees there is something humbling here. We go on with our lives as if nothing will trip us up. All those participation trophies teach us that. Kidney stones don’t really care. They don’t check our outlook calendar to schedule a time to take us down. They will give you the sweats no matter how cool we set the air conditioner and the chills no matter how many layers we put on. This entire foolish notion on how “in control” we are gets taken down by a 1 mm crystal. Take that Goliath.

What a deceptive ministry my little subset of Group II metals chemistry has. It didn’t take long for my stone to remind me that when we think we are in control, we are not. Only a few moments in reflection reminded me that my prayer in the Divine Office is weak. A little more perspective can properly place my pain in a world full of hurt. Like all prophets, kidney stones carry a difficult message for us to hear; such as humbling ourselves. No one’s favorite message to be reminded of.

Look for God in all things. A wonderful way to see his presence in us.

Then he took a large stone and set it up there under the oak that was in the sanctuary of the LORD.  And Joshua said to all the people, “This stone shall be our witness, for it has heard all the words which the LORD spoke to us. It shall be a witness against you, should you wish to deny your God.” (Jos 24:26-27)

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Written by
Deacon Gregory Webster

REVEREND DR. GREGORY WEBSTER is a permanent deacon of the Archdiocese of Chicago. He was ordained to the Permanent Diaconate by Francis Cardinal George in May 2014 and is assigned to St. Raphael the Archangel Parish in Old Mill Creek, Illinois. Deacon Greg holds a Ph.D. in Analytical Chemistry from Northern Illinois University, M.A. in Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary and an M.A. in Bioethics and Health Policy from Loyola University of Chicago. Deacon Greg and his wife have been married more than twenty-five years and are blessed with three beautiful daughters and two pretty cool terriers.

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Written by Deacon Gregory Webster
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