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Living My Faith: How Spirituality Helps Me Cope with Chronic Illness

COPD Basics

December 11, 2023

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Photography by Abby Mortenson/Stocksy United

Photography by Abby Mortenson/Stocksy United

by Ashley Harris


Medically Reviewed by:

Bethany Juby, PsyD


by Ashley Harris


Medically Reviewed by:

Bethany Juby, PsyD


My religion helps me find comfort, gratitude, and community while navigating the life changes brought by chronic illness.

For most of my life, I followed the Christian faith tradition but attended church only sporadically. I sampled various denominations — I’d been an Episcopalian, a Presbyterian, and sometimes a Methodist.

Through the years, I also veered outside my upbringing by meditating with a Buddhist monk, and even studied the “I Ching” — the ancient Chinese divination philosophy.

While I believed in God, I rarely prayed, and I never felt as if God spoke to me. I envied people who claimed to have a personal relationship with God.

My multiple sclerosis (MS) diagnosis at age 31 had been a major blow, but I soldiered through the ups and downs through the years on my own. Although I occasionally wobbled, I still walked unassisted. All things considered, and especially when compared with other people I knew, I felt as if life had worked out OK for me.

I thought I didn’t need God.

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Learning to listen

When I turned 49, I realized I’d been missing something. Walking in the forest one day, I heard the song of a wood thrush, a three-part repetition of the notes “ee-oh-lay.

The wood thrush is famous for its Y-shaped voice box, which splits the final note of his song in two, and on that very special day, the vibration stirred my body and soul. The sound brought to mind something that my husband J.P. once told me. He had read in an old book that the three parts of the wood thrush’s song resemble the words: “Come to me. Here I am. Right near you.”

This ethereal melody, I suddenly realized, was the voice of God. No question about it. Who else could have made such an amazing creature, a little bird with a Y-shaped voice box? Another realization washed over me. Whether I thought I needed him or not, God had been here all along. I just needed to stop, be still, be present, and listen.

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A new world

The truth is that my life hadn’t been easy. I had been through a difficult marriage before I met J.P., and I endured many stresses in a deadline-driven marketing career. Although I tried to shrug off MS as a “mild case” to myself and others, there’s no such thing as a mild case of a serious neurological disease.

My MS brought — and still brings — enormous challenges. I grew accustomed to freaky symptoms such as the burning sensation in my legs and back, and my chronic fatigue, but weak legs made me vulnerable and I had fallen many times.

Once, I tripped on gravel and nearly struck my head on a wheelbarrow on the way down. I have also stumbled on a staircase more times than I can count, risking a serious fall and breaking my neck. But I survived.

The “words” of this little song in the forest brought new meaning to my life. “Come to me. Here I am. Right near you.”

“Thank you, God,” I said, humbled by the knowledge that God had been with me all this time. Not only had I avoided a serious injury caused by MS, but I eventually found love again, retired early from a hectic job, and moved to a house in the deep woods where I enjoy the music of birds like the wood thrush.

By denying God, however, I had been missing out on an abundance of other gifts. That day in the forest opened the door to a new world.

The “words” of this little song in the forest brought new meaning to my life. “Come to me. Here I am. Right near you.”

Not long afterward, I officially joined Science Hill Friends Meeting, which is part of the Quaker denomination in the Christian faith. Being a “Friend,” as Quakers call themselves, has helped me build a true relationship with God along with a community of people who are like family to me.

I now pray regularly and seek God’s help in all aspects of my life, especially my health.

Opening to spirituality

I recently learned that I have chronic lymphocytic leukemia (or CLL). The good news is that I am at Stage Zero, and if detected early, CLL is treatable, with a high survival rate. Nonetheless, like MS, CLL will never go away and there’s no cure. To navigate this new territory, I now realize that I will need God more than ever.

If you live with a disease and feel that something is missing from your life, consider discovering your spiritual side.

Faith takes many forms, and you don’t have to practice a specific religion to realize the countless benefits. All it takes is the ability to trust that there is a higher power in the world and that you are part of a greater plan.

Below are some of the rewards that I’ve experienced since rejuvenating my spirituality, but they’re accessible to anyone who chooses to live in faith.


I truly believe that I am on the earth for a reason and that God is looking over me.

Rabbi Pinchas Taylor, hospital chaplain and director of the American Faith Coalition, says: “With the knowledge that one’s life has purpose, it becomes easier to accept a medical condition and maintain strength amidst the struggle. When I counsel people, I remind them that man was created in the image of God. We are important to God, and our lives matter.”

My MS brings daily challenges, and some days my fatigue makes me feel like crawling under a rock, but the steadfast belief that I have a role in the universe helps me power through.

The smallest actions on my part — sending a text to check on a friend, sharing a poem with someone in need, even offering a smile to a stranger in the grocery store — might be the difference that helps someone else persevere.


I frequently pray, but I also find comfort in studying the Bible. Isaiah 41:10 offers me special solace: “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be afraid for I am your God.”

The universal wisdom in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible gives me sustenance and anchors me during my MS exacerbations and other rough spots in my life.

Many faiths offer guides and mantras that provide comfort as well as wisdom to their followers. For example, the Torah, or the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (known to Christians as the Old Testament), is the foundation of Judaism.

Followers of Hinduism read the Bhagavad Gita, and adherents of Buddhism study sacred texts germane to the many sects of this faith, such as the Sutta Pitaka. People of other faiths also pray or meditate, a ritual that helps them transcend the present moment and ask for divine assistance to endure or overcome suffering.


Since reviving my faith, I am grateful for the littlest of things, such as the morning sun, the soft belly of my puppy, and even the profusion of fallen leaves on my driveway in autumn. While the untidiness annoys me, I remind myself that the leaves come from our very own trees, which shelter us from the sun during the summer and release a glorious palette of color in the fall.

The act of being grateful has brought enormous joy to my life. It has also revealed the silver lining underneath the clouds in my life.

For example, had I not had MS, which requires blood tests every 3 months, my leukemia might have gone undetected until it was too late. My MS has also made me much more compassionate toward other people, and I see this change as a true blessing.

Many people experience gratitude simply by sitting quietly and observing the world around them. This, too, is a form of faith. The littlest moments of gratitude bring joy and contentment, which not only improves your mind but can also bring health benefits such as improved breathing and a lower heart rate.


In my former life, I was plagued by worry. With MS, my future is uncertain, and I would often fret about losing my mobility, or worse, my independence. But I have since replaced my fears with hope.

I take heart from the New Testament’s Book of Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” To me, this means that just because there isn’t a cure for MS now doesn’t mean there won’t be one in the future. Hope has freed me from despair.

Embracing faith allows people to move beyond their current situation and imagine a better future.


As a member of Science Hill Friends Meeting, I feel accepted for who I am, disease and all. I may stumble from time to time, but no one judges me. I have asked other people to pray for me, but more importantly, I pray for others. It feels good to turn my thoughts toward someone else and join a collective prayer for healing.

As a community, we also pray for our nation and for those in need across the globe. We do things together as a church, from hosting meals to special events. During our annual “Trunk or Treat” on Halloween, we invite people in the community to join us for supper, and we open decorated car trunks and give candy to trick-or-treaters, thus offering a safe outing for area youth.

It feels good to turn my thoughts toward someone else and join a collective prayer for healing.

Joining a faith community brings fellowship, structure, and purpose. With MS, I never know exactly what each day will bring, but I can count on Sunday morning worship service and the friendly faces waiting to greet me at 10 a.m.

Knowing that other people depend on me, whether it’s producing our weekly bulletins or streaming the service on Facebook for people unable to leave home, makes me feel needed and valued.

Special occasions

Many faiths celebrate special occasions, which give followers opportunities to deepen their faith by reinforcing their traditions.

For example, the Jewish community celebrates Hanukkah, commemorating the recovery of the Holy Temple and the miracle of one day’s worth of oil lasting for 8 days and nights during the process. Traditions involve lighting candles for 8 consecutive nights, eating foods fried in oil, and playing games with family and friends.

Followers of the global Bahá’í faith meet once each month for the “Nineteen Day Feast” to pray, discuss community affairs, and socialize, depending on the customs of the local chapter.

Muslims, who follow Islam, observe Ramadan, a month of fasting, prayer, reflection, and community that commemorates Muhammad receiving the first revelations of the Quran, the holy book for Muslims.


My congregation has less than 100 people, but our hearts are big. We support a mission in Jamaica with a group of other churches, and every month we collect funds for those in need within our community, whether it’s for a child’s brain surgery or helping a homeless man get back on his feet.

It just feels good to do something to help others.

One of our biggest missions happens at Christmas, in the weeks leading up to December 25, which is when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, whom we believe to be the son of God. In the tradition of the wise men who brought gifts to Jesus so many years ago, we fulfill the wish lists of area children from low-income families and help brighten their hearts at Christmas.

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The takeaway

“Time and again, when speaking with people of all faith backgrounds, I see that those who have a spiritual path or religious life are much more resilient,” says Taylor. “We look to God as our healer, and even if the disease remains with us, we are comforted knowing that God is holding our hand through the journey.”

It would not be an exaggeration to say that God flew into my life as a little bird, but that day in the forest showed me God has always been there.

Nonetheless, living my faith doesn’t mean that my life is perfect. Far from it. But having a robust belief system makes the challenges so much easier to bear.

As we approach the holiday season, I encourage you to pursue your own spirituality, and if you already do, consider embracing it more fully.

May you find comfort, gratitude, community, and more — perhaps even things you may not have thought to pray for.

Medically reviewed on December 11, 2023

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About the author

Ashley Harris

Ashley Harris lives in southwestern Randolph County, North Carolina, surrounded by the mystical Uwharrie Mountains. She writes about gardening, exercise, self-care, and life with MS. She has also written for Real Simple, Wired, and The Independent and authored a poetry collection, Waiting for the Wood Thrush (Finishing Line Press 2019). She’s currently working on a memoir of linked essays exploring love, faith, and serenity while living with multiple sclerosis. For more, you can visit her website.

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