Faith and Cancer

Most people who read this blog know that I have a rare and aggressive cancer that is deemed incurable: metastatic leiomyosarcoma. I’ve never hidden the fact. Equally, I’ve tried to avoid the ‘My Cancer and Me’ narrative that seems to be increasingly popular but which I often find profoundly irritating. The truth is, cancer is a bore. It’s lonely, painful and sometimes frightening. If, like me, one has survived longer than predicted, one can even feel slightly guilty because of all the good and kind people who haven’t. Of course, one knows that the situation could change overnight, but one can’t live on a cliff-edge all the time; so one just gets on with life as best one can. In that context there are a couple of questions that often arise and which may be worth my trying to answer for the sake of others who face them.

The first has its humorous element. I am sometimes asked if I have lost all my hair, which is then swiftly followed by, ‘But it won’t matter to you because you’re a nun.’ As it happens, I haven’t lost all my hair, only some of it, but the assumption that it doesn’t matter is wide of the mark. I really don’t like digging out clumps of hair from my hairbrush, and being thin on top has distinct disadvantages when wearing a veil. Should I be indifferent to these things because I am a nun? The sun scorches my head just as much as it scorches anyone else’s!

The second is more complex. I am often told, ‘It’s OK for you. You have faith.’ Or, if my interlocutor is more subtle, the point is framed as a question, ‘Does your faith help you deal with cancer?’ I am not sure what answer to give. Yes, I believe, but because I’m a Catholic, I believe in the possibility not only of eternal salvation but also of eternal damnation; so my faith is as much of a challenge as it is a comfort. Cancer doesn’t exempt one from the need to be virtuous, nor does it excuse (though it may sometimes explain) conduct unworthy of a Christian. It is said that the closer one gets to God, the more one becomes aware of the enormity of sin. All I know is that sin is real, and although monastic life presents one with many opportunities to grow in holiness, one can reject them. The sins of missed opportunities may not look to the outsider to amount to very much but to the perpetrator they can be huge.

I think, however, that what my questioners are really asking about is not eschatology but the here and now. Does having faith help one cope with the business of having cancer — the endless hospital appointments, treatments that make one sick or weak, the inability to do things one once did easily, the terrors that can come in the middle of the night? Some people seem to manage these without difficulty. I don’t. I don’t have the kind of faith that wears a permanent smile. I have been given the faith of the plodder instead, and I confess that at times it is that of a grumpy plodder. Somehow, and I must admit I don’t always know how, I get up each day and begin again. I do not progress from triumph to triumph but crawl from one little disaster to the next. In a way, I think that is immensely liberating. Too many people expect those of us living with cancer to be defiant. If we are not hang-gliding or ticking items off on a bucket-list of things to do before we die, we have failed. I have no bucket-list, no desire to cram in ‘one last experience,’ and I suspect many feel the same way.

That makes me think the question of faith is being looked at the wrong way round. Wouldn’t it be better to ask, does cancer help one’s faith? There I feel on surer ground, because one thing cancer undoubtedly does is to simplify one’s life. The fact that one cannot do all that one used to do, that one’s planning goes from long-term to (very) short-term, that one knows there is nothing one can do of oneself to stop the cancer growing inside, changes everything. One realises how much of one’s daily life has been a living in the future rather than the present, yet it is only in the present that one can encounter God. To be stripped of one’s defences in such a thorough-going way is painful, but it is also salutary. One re-evaluates everything, and from that re-evaluation comes, I think, a renewed sense of wonder — not all the time, of course, it is difficult to wonder when one is being sick or unable to breathe or move freely — and, hopefully, a deeper compassion for others. ‘There but for the grace of God go I’ must be one of the most misused sentences in all scripture but when its meaning finally pierces one’s heart, one cannot but pray. And prayer is the secret of growing in faith, hope and love.

Today is the 224th anniversary of the Carmelite Martyrs of Compiègne with whom the Benedictine nuns of Cambrai shared a prison. There must have been dark and lonely hours for all of them but today we remember only their faith and their courage. It wasn’t the kind of faith nurtured by cancer but one which was nourished by being true to what they had professed. Their courage was sheer gift, but let us hope we may be given the same gift if and when we need it. Let us ask their prayers for all whose faith is faltering, for those who face new and difficult challenges, and those in their last agony — especially, please, those who have come to the end of their cancer pilgrimage, and for those who love them.

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Perseverance: A Necessary Optimism

How often do we feel tired? Yet we go on, do we not, getting up, going through the day’s routine, doing what we can and hoping, however vaguely, that tomorrow will be different, somehow better than today? That is what I call a necessary optimism. It is very closley linked to what monks and nuns mean by perseverance: the humble routine of life in the monastery faithfully followed day after day. To an outsider the monastic routine can look dull, even dispiriting; but it does its work. Little by little, both individual and community are transformed. Yet when we embrace that routine, when we are clothed in the habit or make profession of vows, the transformations wrought by grace are largely hidden from us. We make an act of faith in God and the community just as God and the community make an act of faith in us. Sometimes it is good to remember that God too is an optimist, always expecting the best of us and keeping faith in and with us even when — perhaps especially when — we have lost all faith in ourselves.

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A Non-Existent Future

The first email I read today told me of the death of an old friend. He was 95 and had had heart failure for some time. His last letter told me he was ready for death and hoped it would not be too far off. He was a doughty unbeliever, and a frequent joke between us was that one day I’d say to him, ‘I told you so!’ I fully expect to be able to do that one day. The future does not depend on our believing in it, any more than the existence of God depends on our belief in him.

Consider, next, this tweet from Dr Kate Granger, who has an advanced sarcoma: ‘Hardly surprising I can’t sleep. . . Massive decision to make tomorrow with such uncertainty – one that will determine my non-existent future.’ It is very easy when faced with an aggressive disease that, humanly speaking, can have only one outcome to feel that words like ‘the future’ have no meaning. No matter how brave or positive one is (and Dr Granger is both), there are moments when everything seems bleak and meaningless. One goes on because one must, because the end is not yet, not because one believes one has any future to speak of.

People often think that having faith is a great comfort at such times. I wonder. Faith tends to come and go. It cannot be summoned up at will, however hard one tries. Of course, one can lie — even to oneself; but a lie will not sustain one through a really difficult patch. We have to face up to the reality of our situation and embrace it. That is why, here in the monastery, we pray every day for the gift of faith to be given to us, not merely renewed in us. That is also why we pray for the faith of our fellow Christians to be strengthened, whatever the circumstances in which they find themselves. Those persecuted by IS or by their neighbours in India or Pakistan need our prayers because, ultimately, only grace can assure them any future on this earth. As to the future that we look forward to in hope, well, please pray for my friend and Dr Granger, too.

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Walking on Water

Today’s gospel, Matthew 14. 22–33, has been niggling me all morning. Poor old Peter, leaping out of the boat into heavy seas to come to Jesus across the water — an act of faith, if ever there was one — ends up sinking and being chided for his lack of faith. How many of the Lord’s disciples have subsequently chided others for their lack of faith, as though faith were the solution to every difficulty? Only have sufficient faith and your illness will be cured, your life transformed and everything will be fine. That is not faith. That is wishful thinking, and it dishonours both God, the giver of faith, and his children, the recipients, to think of it as something we control or can summon up at will. The great St Teresa of Avila was wont to say there were days when she couldn’t even swat a fly for the love of God. I am quite sure it would take a miracle to persuade me to leap into a rough sea, and I would undoubtedly be out of countenance if the Lord were then to say I lacked faith!

Perhaps the real point of today’s gospel is not our human conception of faith at all. God doesn’t (usually) ask superhuman courage of us, nor does he (usually) require reckless behaviour. Least of all does he ask us to judge the faith of another. What I think he does ask of us, as he asked of Peter, is something much more difficult – the readiness to respond to his love in any and every situation. He answered Peter’s prayer, ‘Lord, if it is you, tell me to come to you over the water’ with one word, ‘Come!’ That should teach us to be careful what we pray for, and to be ready to respond when The Lord answers.

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Ascension Sunday 2014

The Ascension of Christ

I would hazard a guess that most of us, most of the time, live with Christ’s apparent absence rather than the sense of his presence. The Ascension is therefore very much our kind of feast: Christ is taken from us into a mysterious realm we have not yet experienced, but —and it is an important but — we have his assurance that he is with us until the end of time. His mode of being with us is different. That means, of course, that our mode of being with him must be different, too. I think we often forget that, and feel a sense of failure that our faith is so lacklustre, coming and going rather than remaining steadfast through thick and thin. We want to be angels before we have learned how to be fully human!

If living by faith means anything at all, I think it means going on, as best we can, without the ‘sensible helps’ of a comforting presence we can summon up at will. It means persevering, without knowing that we have all the answers. In short, it means placing our trust in this shadowy, mysterious Presence we acknowledge as our Lord and God, certain only of his love, not of the way in which his love will be poured out upon us. The Ascension is an opportunity to reaffirm our trust and await the coming of the Holy Spirit, who will be tongued with purifying and strengthening fire. We may gaze blankly into heaven at times, but we can be sure that the merciful eye of the Lord is always on us. Let us give thanks for that.

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The Harrowing of Hell | Holy Saturday 2014

The Harrowing of Hell: York illumination c. 1190
The Harrowing of Hell: York illumination c. 1190

There is a quietness and stillness about Holy Saturday — a day out of time — that belies the intense activity of Christ. We do not know what happened in the tomb, but the ancient belief in the harrowing of hell, when Christ descended into the underworld to set free all the righteous who had died before his coming, reminds us that God is at work even when he seems most distant, most unapproachable.

Today we have no sacraments to affirm the bonds between this world and the next, no colour or warmth to assuage our grief, no activity to distract us or give a false sense of security. We are simply waiting, all emotion spent. Most of us live our lives in perpetual Holy Saturday mode, our faith a bit wobbly, our hope a bit frail, but clinging to the cross and Resurrection with an obstinacy wiser than we know. Holy Saturday proclaims to anyone who will listen that when we cannot, God can and does. That is our faith, already tinged with Easter joy and gladness.

Note on the illustration
Harrowing of Hell, illumination about 1190, York; written about 1490, Tempera colours and gold leaf on parchment
Leaf: 11.9 x 17 cm (4 11/16 x 6 11/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 101, fol. 82v

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O Clavis David or Missus Est?

Today puts me in a quandary. Do I write about the day’s O antiphon or follow monastic tradition by commenting on the day’s gospel in what is known as a Missus Est because it focuses on the words, ‘An angel was sent from God’? Or can we have something of both?

Today’s O antiphon is

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel; qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Key of David, and Sceptre of the house of Israel, who open and no one shuts, who shuts, and no one opens, come and free from prison him who sits in darkness and the shadow of death.

It is impossible to sing that antiphon without thinking of St Bernard’s words in a Missus Est written nearly nine hundred years ago. He addresses Our Lady, daughter of David’s royal line, urging her to give the waiting angel her consent to what God asks of her, to give the word which will give us the Word made flesh. He pictures all creation on its knees before her, including Adam and those imprisoned in darkness and the shadow of death.

I think we can identify with all those on the fringes with Adam, as it were, whose faith is sometimes wobbly, whose lives are sometimes messy but who are sure (most of the time) of this: our need for a Saviour. We are reminded today of both our fragility and our glory as human beings. Mary gave her consent to be the Mother of God in a moment of unequalled faith. Had she not done so, we would be in darkness still.  Jesus is the one and only Key, but his Mother provides the lock and wards that allow the Key to work.

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Grief

The grief of the people of Norway one year on from the Breivik massacre is compounded by what happened a couple of days ago in Aurora, Colorado. At the back of most people’s minds is the thought, ‘It could happen again.’ Where the technology exists (guns, grenades, etc), there will always be people mad enough or bad enough to use them for mass murder and there is practically nothing that can be done to prevent it. Does that mean we are both helpless and hopeless? I don’t think so.

Death is something we must all experience sooner or later. When it comes early, or to someone we love, or with pain and distress, we rebel against it. Everything in us cries out for life. It is for life that we were created, after all. But for a Christian, life is changed, not ended, by death. The trouble is, we don’t know what lies beyond this life. All the assurances in the world can do nothing to overcome our personal feelings of doubt or difficulty. We must cling, as Mary, Martha and Lazarus clung, to our friendship with the Lord and trust that he will not abandon us after death any more than he has abandoned us in this life.

Grief weighs us down, shuts out the light, makes everything seem empty and hollow. At such times, it is good to look at a crucifix, that strange and terrible symbol of God’s aching love for us.  When there are no more tears to be shed and all the words that could be said have been said; when there is only the numbing pain of loss and the bleakness of an empty tomorrow, then the crucifix reminds us that God is not apart from us, uninvolved or uncaring. The bowed head of the Christus reminds us that he is with us always. He shares our sorrow, but unlike any other comforter we may have, he can and does transform our sorrow into joy.

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St Thomas: Luminous with Love and Delight

St Thomas has always been a favourite of mine and, I daresay, of many people. His doubt makes him easy to relate to, but his faith — that clear-sighted ‘My Lord and my God’ — makes me tremble. It is the kind of faith I would like to have myself: gloriously generous, absolute. Fortunately, it is not the kind of faith I have been given. I say ‘fortunately’ because the questionings and hesitations that I, at least, experience are undoubtedly part of the way in which God draws me, and without them there would be a dissonance between my ordinary life and my supernatural one.

St Thomas is a great encouragement as one who made sense of religion, who worked through the doubts and difficulties to come to an understanding that was luminous with love and delight like the very Wounds he touched. It is an understanding and knowledge that I pray will be given to all of us one day.

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Low Sunday

I love our homely English name ‘Low Sunday’ for Dominica in Albis, the Octave Day of Easter, when those baptized at the Easter Vigil traditionally laid aside their white garments and put on an Agnus Dei made of wax blessed by the pope to remind them of their newborn innocence in Christ. Another name is Quasimodo Sunday, from the words we sing at the introit of the Mass, Quasi modo geniti infantes, rationabile, sine dolo lac concupiscite ut in eo crescatis in salutem si gustastis quoniam dulcis Dominus. Alleluia, Alleluia. (‘As newborn babes desire the rational milk without guile,’ etc, from 1 Peter 2.2). Low Sunday, however, is my favourite: it describes exactly that lowering of intensity we feel at the end of the Easter Octave. We have sung alleluia over and over again, rejoiced and given thanks: there seems nothing left to give. Joy, like grief, reaches a point where it almost numbs the senses.

Then we hear again the gospel of Thomas’s encounter with the Risen Christ in John 20. 19–31. I have often remarked that the Church uses John’s gospel at the peak moments of the Christian year. Surely this moment, when the forgiveness of sin is proclaimed and Thomas’s doubts are resolved, is a peak moment for all of us. It shows us not only what Christ accomplished through his Death and Resurrection but also why he suffered. His wounds are transfigured: love and compassion have made them beautiful, so that they are no longer blemishes but the source of grace and healing.

Christ’s Risen Body will always bear the wounds our sins have made upon them. That is not an easy thought. We are forgiven, we are redeemed, but at what cost! Surely we can tremble with Thomas at the enormity of the gulf that separates us from God, and the enormity of the love that spans the gap between. Low Sunday confronts us with the mercy and forgiveness of God less brutally than Good Friday, perhaps, but just as insistently.

The end of the Easter Octave is not the end of Easter. Low Sunday invites us to go deeper into the mystery at the heart of the Easter message. Just as the flame of the paschal candle continues to burn, so we too must continue to explore what it means to respond to our Lord’s invitation, ‘Doubt no longer but believe’.

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