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.