by Elle Berry | 15 September 2021 |
I was eleven years old when I experienced my first apocalypse.
During September of that year, I developed a rash, followed a few days later with a fever. Assuming this was the flu, my parents kept me home to rest, and things appeared to clear up towards the end of the week. However, the following week the fever recurred along with a sore throat and very swollen lymph glands. A doctor’s visit and blood draw later, I was diagnosed with mononucleosis, an infection caused by the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV).
For the next month I alternated between my bed and the living room sofa, vacillating between constant acetaminophen and a temperature attempting to push north of 103° F. As days became weeks, a small tsunami of get-well cards accumulated across my chest of drawers, filling every quadrant of space.
While I do not remember this moment, my mother tells me that after weeks of sickness I finally looked at her and asked: “Will I ever be well again?’’ For an adult, five weeks is a long time to be ill, but for a child it is an eternity.
However, by the end of October, I did finally begin to recover by degrees. Or at least, the initial infection subsided. For months afterwards I would get winded going up a single flight of stairs, I would develop intense seasonal allergies along with asthma, and throughout high school I would struggle with constant colds, headaches, fatigue, brain fog, anxiety, and depression, most of which I would blame on being a teenager (with a deep fear that the brain fog and fatigue in fact stemmed from laziness). Yet into my twenties these would persist, and eventually manifest in more obscure symptoms that eluded etiology, with complex medical names such as costochondritis, allodynia, vasovagal syncope, vertigo, and solar urticaria (to name a few).
What I did not know at the time (and honestly, what many people didn’t recognize) is that while 90% of the population will contract the Epstein-Barr virus at some point in their life, for a section of the population this particular virus is highly associated with long-term consequences, not unlike what we’ve seen with Covid long-haulers. As the Epstein-Barr virus is a herpes virus, not unlike a cold sore that recurs during stress, the Epstein-Barr virus can also continue to recur, acting as a catalyst for other conditions.
Some of the more serious associations include things like multiple sclerosis, or various lymphomas, but there are also more mild manifestations such as fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome. And while mine seems to have erred in the direction of mild, I nonetheless have always seen my life as pre- versus post-mono, so dramatic was the effect on my physical and emotional health.
Nonetheless, at eleven I did not recognize this as an apocalypse, It would take decades for me to see it as such.
Lest the word “apocalypse” throw you, leading you to believe you’ve entered an alternate reality or fallen into a movie script, allow me to elaborate. In English we often think of the word apocalypse as referring to “the end of days” or “destruction of the world.” But I like to harken back to the old Greek connotation, for the root of apocalypse means to uncover, reveal, lay bare, or disclose. In Biblical terms, we think of Revelation. But as Anne Shirley once said, “There is a book of revelation in everyone’s life.”
And I believe she is right. For each of us will experience seasons of uncovering—times when we come to understand new truths, revelations, and unveilings of things previously hidden. And it is also true that to live such an apocalypse often feels much like “the end of days.” Not unlike my childhood illness, we come to see time as before and after—we come to witness a crumpling of our life as it was perceived. Our once-safe stories become dismantled and we find ourselves nomads in a strange unfamiliar land. As humans we are all vulnerable and susceptible to apocalypse.
Author Sarah Bessey shared her own experience of personal apocalypse in an essay she wrote earlier this year. In it she recounts her miscarriage of a long-prayed-for child, and how she, too, found herself in the dismantling. There she was forced to confront not only the grief that comes when such a tender dream is shattered, but deeper still the shattering of a faith in formulaic prayers, or a genie God who answers them. As she relates, “I became part of the vast company of those with unanswered prayers and it was my own unveiling… What was once hidden is being fully revealed. Apocalypse is revelation.”
In that way, my brush with a nasty viral infection at eleven was my first apocalypse, for in it my own mortality was revealed. I came to see the reality of having a human body that could betray and fail me. I came to see that no human, parent, or grown-up could save me from such physical destruction. I also came to understand that no matter how eager I had been to be baptized the year before, nor how tender my heart might be to God, these things would not save me from becoming ill, nor would they protect me from that illness wreaking havoc in my life for years to come. It was living proof that being good and working hard could not make me well or keep me safe.
Shame for sickness
And while a personal apocalypse may occur in many areas of one’s life, physical vulnerability remains commonplace. For without health, life is a burden. Yet so frequently our world and even our churches are filled with shame for those who are not able-bodied. Even Jesus’ disciples asked, “Why is this man blind? Was it his parents’ fault? Or was it his?” For they could not imagine a world where physical calamity came to a person without just cause. How many of us, even now, still hold this leprosy ethic? How many still believe that illness and suffering are punishments for our wrong choices, while health and well-being are rewards for piety?
Pastor John MacArthur issued an affirmation of this ideology this year. After his church remained open despite Covid-19 lockdowns, he defended his choice saying, “Nothing will come to us except the affirmation that the Lord preserved and protected us through this.” Can he not hear the unspoken accusation in his words here? That he is implying that all those who died of Covid were not preserved or protected by the Lord? How often our statements “affirming faith” shame those who suffer, while likewise being laced with toxic theology.
For Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned… but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” The mystery of our health and suffering remains beyond human understanding. Revelation will not be reduced to a sermon or sound bite.
Illness isn’t the only personal apocalypse I’ve had. In the last five years there have been many unveilings as I’ve come to see the church’s hypocrisy about women’s ordination, its treatment of vulnerable minorities, the close entangling of Adventists with evangelicals, and the wider church’s confabulation with politicians. Yet I admit my first apocalypse has been often on my mind in recent months as I watch the world around me respond to Covid-19.
But what we witness now is not simply a personal apocalypse, but a global one. In a plot twist that feels too cliché to be true, the year 2020 was a year of vision adjustment and our collective unveiling. We are left to see things more clearly than we did before, and many of us are not liking what we’ve come to see. Apocalypse is rattling not only because it unveils the way things are, but because it also is a revelation about who we are.
Apocalypse isn’t the end
Thus, the question that is perhaps most important now is, what do we do with apocalypse? Our faith testifies that revelation is not the end. Though we may smack with the sting of our unveiling, the doldrums are not our permanent home. There is in all this an invitation into the other side of the way things are. And how would we travel there without revelation? We cannot enter kingdom life without first facing the looking glass of our own personhood, and understanding the reality of who we are this side of the eternal.
The cross stands as the ultimate apocalypse. An unveiling so deep that the veil of the temple was not only pulled away but ripped apart. We think apocalypse will end us, and it’s no wonder that this word is associated with mass destruction. Revelations can bring with them deep suffering. Yet it is there where God enters into our suffering and our mortality as Emmanuel—God with us—unveiling reveals the intimacy of eternity.
This age is rife with the allure of being Chicken Little. To succumb to panic and hyperbole and doom is addicting and enticing. Yet, what happens if we encounter this apocalypse not as doom but as an invitation? For in the ending of one thing is the origin story of who you will become—of who we will become—of who the church will become. And we are named as co-creators of the future. What intimate understanding of the Divine will you come to see in this unveiling? And what origin story will you choose? The question of our suffering is not why; the question is, what glory will be revealed in all of us?
Yet in all this we must remember: apocalypse is not the end. It is, in fact, the beginning.
Elle Berry is a writer and nutritionist. She is passionate about creating wellness, maintaining a bottomless cup of tea, and exploring every beautiful vista in the Pacific Northwest. She blogs at ChasingWhippoorwills.com.