Research for my new book, its working title, Limping Along – Following the Dark Face of God, led me to a slim volume written by a heroic woman, Edith Barfoot (1887 – 1975). For seventy-two years, the chronic of pain of rheumatoid arthritis ravaged her body, despite the failed drugs, surgeries, mineral bath and electrical treatments of her day. Her story touched my fifty-year history with this disease, and I wanted to know more about this woman.

The oldest of four children of hard working devout parents, she lived in East Oxford, England. When barely three years, her mother placed her under the instruction of the Cowley Fathers, an Anglican religious community, known for their schools, spiritual direction, and hospitality. Always frail as a child, she suffered rheumatic fever, but eventually recovered. Three younger brothers completed the family.

Edith attended Cowley St. John H.G. (Higher Grade) School and thrived under the care of the sisters’ teaching. At fourteen, she hired out as a maid to a woman interested in supporting her desire to train as a nurse. But that did not happen. Stresses of her father’s death after a long illness, of her mother’s seventeen-hours- workday to support her children, of poor nutrition inevitably led to the onset of rheumatoid arthritis two years later.

Within a short time, Edith’s body was reduced to a living death, her joints becoming inflamed and contracted. Despite her bedroom walls delineating her outer world, her inner world took fire; she reframed this shocking change as God’s vocation or call to suffering in union with Jesus’s passion and death.

Paradoxically, her cheerful attitude drew many visitors to her bedside. Among them were relatives, nurses, and the Cowley Fathers who became her spiritual directors and brought Holy Communion every week.

In 1928, when Edith was forty-one, Father Wallis asked her to compose reflections on her suffering for a retreat he was preparing. With alacrity, she asked her mother for her writing case, and words flowed onto sheet after sheet. Within a few days, she had composed The Witness of Edith Barfoot –The Joyful Vocation to Suffering. It was published the same year for the Fellowship of St. John, then reprinted in 1931, 1957, and in 1977.

Edith’s language reflects the redemptive theology of her time, but is still relevant to the sufferer of today. Stripped of everything but chronic joint pain, she entered into it, discovered her companion-God sustaining her in anguish, moment by moment, day and night. Years passed. Her joy deepened, paradoxically, in her later acceptance of blindness and the loss of most of her hearing. Still, she remained faithful to her vocation to suffering, childlike in her ultimate trust in her God she called Father. Having been fired within the furnace of His love, her soul slipped into eternal life. As Stella Robins testified, “… I saw her clearly seeing Someone … saying, ‘Come! Now!’ … then she quietly went, leaving a now perfect-looking form behind – a picture which most certainly will never fade. It was 5:15 in the morning, April 30, 1975.”