Volume 28 Number Two Summer 2007, pages 10-12
Christmas morning is a time of light and life, but I awoke this Christmas to the blinding images of a threat to mine, revealed just over a year ago. I had vivid recall of the doctor’s tone of voice and exact words. “We have a problem. It’s cancer.” The siege is over now, and I dare say that I have emerged much stronger than before in all respects. Why, then, was I reliving the trauma of a dreaded diagnosis in the midst of the beauty of Christmas morning? Ah, yes. Light has a way of illuminating anything that is unlike itself. Enveloped in the Messiah’s light, I was facing darkness.
CANCER VS. SHAME
I had always thought that cancer must be the worst thing that could happen to a person. I knew there were people who had gone on to live long and happy lives after even the most dire prognoses, but my immediate association with the disease was death. I thought I was dying. Stumbling from the doctor’s office to the parking lot, it occurred to me that relief comes with death. I had long been harboring deep and abiding shame, handed down through generations. The thought of being released from such a painful burden was momentarily consoling. By the time I reached my car, my intentionwas clear. Though shame was decidedly worse than cancer, I wasn’t done yet. I also realized that I was not going to survive. Rather, I was going to live. Thus began my deliverance from shame to grace.
When the slightest bad thing happens, I tend to blame God. It is a bad habit, I know, and certainly not wise. This time, however, the stabbing shock of the diagnosis paralyzed my usual knee-jerk reaction and opened me to abundant blessings. I knew, too, that I was a member of a privileged class because I had excellent health insurance, allowing me to be selective about my care. Disease became an occasion for grace.
Still, I began treatment with trepidation on the heels of a tsunami in Southeast Asia and my brotherin-law’s fatal car accident. I wondered at those apparent signs of desolation in a world that I have always loved as I entered into a decidedly harsh—even violent—course of action. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy, though the best treatments that conventional wisdom has to offer, are foreign to my way of working and not in keeping with how I try to live.
As a teacher of reading and language arts with precious young hearts and minds entrusted to my care, I capitalize upon my students’ strengths to fill their needs. I had also spent a year of Saturdays volunteering for my local Catholic Worker community, which deepened my interest in nonviolence. Clearly, the medicine I was receiving would not harness the strength of my immune system and could compromise my natural defenses. I was not enthusiastic about hosting a war, knowing there is always collateral damage from violent battle. I am deeply grateful for access to outstanding medical care, and the cause was certainly just. But war is hardly a mindset for healing.
GRACE AT WORK
To my complete surprise, grace stood boldly in the gaps among blood cells and beside fear as I healed in a soothing cradle of prayer, nourished by great kindness and persistent love. The physicians and nurses who cared for me as well as friends who were present can attest to the fact that I was not a graceful patient. I trembled uncontrollably just stepping over the thresholds of doctors’ offices and even minor medical procedures were horrifying to me. But grace was at work nonetheless. Often, I thought of Moses whose arms were held up by Aaron and Hur when they grew too tired for his own strength to bear. “Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel had prevailed; and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed” (Exodus 17:11). I am grateful for all who held me with my arms extended and palms raised so that I had the advantage of receiving and being amazed by boundless grace. The healing ran deep—well beyond the cellular level, to my very soul.
Friends treated me with more care and tenderness than I had ever known. They stocked my freezer with nutritious food, took me out to dinner, accompanied me on a long series of terrifying and lengthy medical appointments, listened calmly to my fears, and infused me with their own confidence in my ability to heal and to grow through adversity. Countless people carried me in their hearts and in their prayers. Those especially gifted with love also held me in their arms. It was as if I had returned to the womb and my surrogate parents were fanatical about my sustenance during every second of the pregnancy. I had long operated with the belief that I wasn’t good enough and had been living and working as if to apologize for being alive—all the while hoping that God wouldn’t notice that I was treading upon the earth. As I was born anew, among my closest circle of friends and confidants, it was deeply healing to learn they thought my bald head was beautifully shaped and touched it as lovingly as a mother caresses a newborn child. I was welcome in the world after all!
CONFRONTING THE CROSS
As a little girl I wanted to grow up to become a priest. I celebrated Mass in our living room using my mother’s fancy red candy dish as the chalice and Necco Wafers as the host. I am not a fan of suffering, though, and the truth is that I always found the cross offensive. The traditionally prominent display of the crucifix has even made it hard for me to be Catholic. I wanted God to be God. That is, I wanted God to be mighty. I wanted God to be one who rescues. I wanted no part of suffering, and I had startling reservations about a God who wouldn’t even rescue himself from the cross. Secretly, I harbored gnawing doubts about the wisdom of one who permits suffering and wondered if such a god might even be false. Yet, it is this very same God of free will who allowed so many kind and generous human beings to surround me and fill me with love. The fact that they chose to do so transformed me.
I used to view weakness as an ugly matter. During my conveyance from shame to grace, however, I caught a glimpse of what Paul meant in 2 Corinthians, concerning his own struggle with affliction.
Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me (12:8-9).
In Why Do We Suffer? A Scriptural Approach to the Human Condition Daniel Harrington, S.J., points out that this “powerful expression of Christian freedom explains why Paul could be so fearless in the midst of all his sufferings undertaken for the spread of the gospel.” Unlike Paul, I was hardly fearless. The fact is that I was supremely frightened, but I gained freedom in the face of my own terror, anyway.
I used to think that giftedness was all about superior intellect or extraordinary talent. Now however I know that to be gifted is to be blessed, and I am. Though it is still very new to my consciousness, I findsuch blessedness a bit unsettling and quite exhilarating at the same time. In A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles Maryanne Williamson expressed the feeling eloquently. “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.” So I’ve gone on to live boldly and gratefully in a long conversation and a dance with grace.
Love is powerful medicine, and its liberating side effects are for all time. Suffering, of course, is weighty, too. Yet, as Harrington also notes, Paul’s “shocking assertion of Hebrews” is that “the work of salvation took place in the midst of and because of Jesus’ sufferings.” Because the mystery of the cross “has turned everything upside down,” the seemingly negative energy of suffering can be tapped and used for great purpose. “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (2 Corinthians 4:7). So it was in facing darkness that I came to see the Messiah’s face.
Harrington, D. Why Do We Suffer? A Scriptural Approach to the Human Condition. Franklin, Wisconsin: Sheed & Ward, 2000.
Williamson, M. A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles. New York: HarperPerennial, 1992.