Jesuits have always ventured in places others avoid. Ignatius ministered to prostitutes in Rome. Francis Xavier sailed to India and Japan. As Archbishop, Pope Francis famously visited Buenos Aires’ shantytowns.
Eager to live up to my forebears, I jumped at the opportunity to visit Honduras. My grandfather expressed serious concerns, backed up with receipts from the New York Times. But fellow Jesuits assured me that my particular destination was safe from gang violence. Two of my Jesuit brothers, Conan and David, would be accompanying me. Best of all, I’d have the opportunity to work at a theater, one of my passions.
I had barely deplaned before being brought into the theater. I spent my whole first day with actors, absorbing the rehearsal in an abandoned United Fruit Company storehouse. Despite my mediocre Spanish, I picked up most of the story after just a few run-thrus. I ached to return the next day.
I woke up on the second day unable to eat breakfast. I forced down some delicious eggs and beans and found myself running to the dingy bathroom as the eggs and beans forced themselves back up. Spiritually, I fell into an embarrassed despair.
“You can’t even make it through two days without getting sick?” This Evil Spirit asked me with the tone of a particularly sarcastic childhood bully. “Francis Xavier took a boat from Spain to Japan, and you can’t make the ten-minute drive to the theater? They’re all going to think you’re weak. Conan’s already been here ten days and he’s fine.”
As my stomach wrestled with the little I’d eaten, my soul tried to fight against this equally violent movement of the Evil Spirit. “You’re wrong,” I shot back incredulously. “I’m just getting used to the climate and the food. I can miss one day!”
Bedridden by my GI tract and busy quieting the Evil Spirit, I stayed home for the day. Between bouts with the toilet, I rested.
When the tropical birds woke me up the next morning, I felt fine. In contrast to Evil Spirit’s predictions, no one questioned my character, instead, they seemed surprised I made it back to the theater so quickly. I wrote down how the Evil Spirit had tricked me in my journal.
A few weeks later, that same unpleasant feeling returned over a similarly lovely plate of eggs and beans. This time I had learned how to respond so the Evil Spirit didn’t stand a chance. “I need to stay home today,” I told my companions, “I feel like I’ve lost control of my stomach again.” I rested more easily that day although the toilet got ample use.
Woken up again by the morning birds, I got back to the theater and started again. The actors welcomed me warmly, including a few knowing looks about the state of my toilet.
When I woke up with the usual warning signs again a few days later, I ignored them. Sure, I felt tired, but I had been up late the night before! Sure, I felt really hot, but it was a blistering day! Sure, my bathroom trips were getting ever more numerous, but that was just a holdover from the last time. Ignatius wouldn’t have bailed on the prostitutes with just a few days left.
But everyone else could tell I was ill. The actors asked me, “are you alright?” “Do you need to go home?” “Do you want to take a break?”
I resisted their offers of assistance, forcing myself to accompany them as they walked around the dusty town selling tickets. I sweltered in the blazing heat. After an hour in the sun I collapsed upon returning to rehearsal.
The director rushed me home where I assured my fellow Jesuits that I could heal myself without them. “All I need is a big glass of water and some time in bed,” I explained. “I’m fine.” The Evil Spirit was back, taunting me with grand ideas about how Pope Francis had never been such a burden to his companions. “Are you that weak? They’ll never invite YOU back!”
After twenty minutes, I wasn’t fine. My temperature was stuck at 104ºF despite ice packs cooling my face and air conditioning bathing my body. I finally relented and let my companions rush me to the medical clinic.
In the Emergency Room, they started to run tests for Dengue Fever among other serious tropical diseases. Contrary to my self-assessment, I was legitimately sick. We waited anxiously for the test results to come back.
The minutes lingered as I reflected on how I had gotten to this plain hospital room in a provincial town in Honduras. I saw all the faces of the people–the director, the actors, my brother Jesuits–who had wanted to help me in a time of genuine need. I reflected on my response, desperately avoiding looking weak among all these people who loved me. Why was I blind to their care?
After what felt like hours but was probably only minutes, the doctor returned. Conan held my hand as we braced for the news. The doctor’s serious fears were assuaged, I just had a run-of-the-mill parasite that had gotten out of control in the heat. I’d be released in a few hours with a regimen of antibiotics.
Gripping Conan’s hand more tightly, the dam of my resistance broke. The doctor’s external confirmation of my physical weakness allowed me to acknowledge it.
It’s ok for me to get sick. I’m a human being and human beings get sick. Francis Xavier surely got seasick a few times on the long boat ride. Jesus, who took on our human condition except for sin, certainly experienced food poisoning or else he’d have chosen to come to Earth after the invention of refrigeration. Ignatius’ whole conversion story centers around him being in a sick bed for nine months!
I wept tears of relief as I imagined Ignatius, Francis Xavier, and Jesus smiling down on me admitting, at last, my frail humanity.