Spiritual writer finds new faith amid illness

When Nora Gallagher got sick, she did what any writer would do: She started taking notes. Compulsively. As she always had, about everything.

Gallagher writes books and articles about spirituality and faith, and is preacher-in-residence at Trinity Episcopal Church in Santa Barbara, Calif. She was born and spent some of her childhood in Albuquerque, and attended St. John’s College.

In 2009, the author was living what she calls the “onward and upward” life when she noticed a little blur at the periphery of her right eye. That little blur launched her on a journey that at first defined itself as a medical crisis. Soon it became clear the blur also was the harbinger of a crisis of faith.

“I had the uncanny feeling of being behind a glass wall that had slid down out of the sky and separated me from the rest of the people on the street,’’ Gallagher writes. “My body … was no longer possible to ignore. It was in the before. Now I was in after, a country that I could do nothing to leave, for which I was completely unprepared, for which I had no map.”

Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic chronicles the course of Gallagher’s crisis, the interminable visits to doctors — good and bad, humane and indifferent, each with his or her own theory about her loss of sight — and the seemingly endless tests. With great clarity, she describes her responses to this circus. She often had “the feeling of being a thing to test, not a person to heal.” She realized for the first time that, “Like other people who live a middle-class professional life, I had thought I could manage to control or contain or overcome almost anything.” Instead, she discovered she was powerless.

She stopped going to Sunday church services when she found she could no longer faithfully say the Episcopal creed and could not tolerate being present in the crowd in the sanctuary. She raged at God and at people who weren’t sick and who didn’t know just how tenuous their hold on life really was.

And then … grace. Someone suggested she go to the famous Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. There, Gallagher found a medical system that treats patients humanely, one that operates by a collective and rational team model. Finally, she got an accurate diagnosis of sarcoidosis, a rare autoimmune disorder. With it came hope.

“I am and am not who I was,” she writes near the end of the book. “I have lost part of my vision, part of my hearing, and part of my faith.”

Yet faith continues to be central to her life. Gallagher now attends her church’s small group activities, including twice-weekly meditations and a weekly “base community” service, including communion. Gallagher also continues to preach, and recently offered a sermon at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

In an interview, she said her sermon focused on how our lives represent narratives that can be broken, as hers was by illness, or by the loss of a job, a death or other life crises. One of the unavoidable results of a broken narrative is extreme vulnerability.

“I’m still very much aware of my vulnerability,’’ she said. “It’s not all the time, and it’s not the way it was [during the illness].” But her understanding of life, of the world, remains changed on a very deep level, Gallagher said. She finds herself identifying with people who are suffering in a way she didn’t in the past. She understands that things are not always going to be OK. She agrees with Susan Sontag’s assessment in her classic Illness as Metaphor that “suffering doesn’t always have meaning and it isn’t always ennobling at all.”

“All that aside, I did find that I know a lot more about my mortal life, I know a lot more about staying in the present, I know a lot more about meditation and its enormous gifts. I would not say it was worth it, but I certainly am right on a line between was it, or was it not?”

Occasionally, Gallagher said, she has moments in which she forgets what she has learned, when she feels once again innocent and oblivious. “It’s like a vacation,” she said. “I glide back. And in that gliding back, I think I can push myself too hard and forget what my body is telling me.

“I don’t want to go back to ‘onward and upward.’ It’s a tremendous gift to know that we are vulnerable — that it’s a disorder to imagine that we are not — and that we are also resilient. Those things are rock- bottom truths that I now know.”

Arthur Frank, in At The Will of the Body: Reflections on Illness, suggests that “recovery deserves a ritual.” When Gallagher was well enough to write again, she returned to work on a memoir for which she had a previous contract. But that memoir “started to morph,” she said. “I realized this was the book.” Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic proved to be her ritual of recovery.

Hollis Walker is an interfaith minister, spiritual coach and chaplain who lives in Santa Fe. She can be reached at hollisadairwalker@gmail.com.