In new book, Father Joncas reflects on suffering from rare disorder

| November 7, 2017 | 0 Comments

In 2003, prolific composer, professor and priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis Father Michael Joncas was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks the nervous system. He wrote about the experience in “On Eagle’s Wings: A Journey Through Illness Toward Healing,” released last month by Twenty-Third Publications. The Catholic Spirit interviewed him by email. The responses have been edited for length and clarity.

On Eagle's WingsQ. In a nutshell, what’s this book about?
A. The book uses my experience of suffering from Guillain-Barré Syndrome in 2003-2004 to explore catastrophic and chronic illness under five headings: Chaos and Confusion, Diagnosis, The Abyss, Therapy and A New Life. For each heading I give a fairly detailed account of what I remember from that stage in the process, reflections on how undergoing that stage impacted my spiritual life, and links to one of my compositions written since the experience that I believe arises from and mirrors that stage.

Q. What compelled you to write it now?
A. Three things. First, according to my doctors, I have now reached a plateau in recovery and so will most probably live with some residuals from GBS for the rest of my life. Second, I’ve made a few presentations on my bout of GBS and so have a sense of what might be helpful for other people. And third, I wanted to offer mature reflections on the experience before I forget too many details.

Q. What do you hope readers take away from your story?
A. That suffering can be a time for deepening one’s emotional and spiritual life; that it can teach new ways of praying; that one’s family and friends can become incredibly important as advocates and supporters during the onslaught; that an “attitude of gratitude” can become an almost permanent result of having gone through an ordeal; and that just as the experience has given me new insights for my ministry, so illness can deepen one’s empathy for other human beings.

Book signingFather Joncas will read from “On Eagle’s Wings: A Journey Through Illness Toward Healing” and sign copies of the book 4–6 p.m. Nov. 28 in the O’Shaughnessy Room of the O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library at the University of St. Thomas, 2115 Summit Ave., St. Paul.

Q. How did autobiographical writing compare to other things you have written?
A. I’ve written five earlier books, but they are all on fairly technical topics in liturgy and music. This is a very different kind of writing for me, more like a conversation than an academic treatise, and with a new kind of writing comes all sorts of insecurities: Have I presented my experience accurately, will anyone be interested, will any of my insights be useful for other folks? I think I just decided it was about time to take the plunge into a different form of sharing.

Q. Why did you choose to express your story in writing, and not in song?
A. I chose to write about the experience because I hope struggling with language to describe the experience and its meanings will reach more people than the indirect focus on suffering, transformation and healing that is communicated in my music. But as I mentioned, the book invites a reader to listen to some of my compositions to get a different perspective on how GBS and its aftermath affected me.

Q. What other projects are you working on?
A. Almost too many to count. In terms of musical compositions, I’ve just finished a new Mass and hymn in honor of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne. I’m about one-third of the way through a project where I am writing a hymn text based on the lectionary readings for three-year cycle of Sundays and Solemnities, and about two-thirds of the way through a similar project trying to write a responsorial psalm for each of these feasts as well. Future writing might include reflections on Psalm 23, a history of Roman Catholic liturgical music in the 20th century and exploring artistic representations of Christ on the cross as a key to understanding shifts in piety. I’m happy to say that I continue to make presentations on a variety of topics both within the archdiocese and in other parts of the country.

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Category: Faith and Culture