There’s something in the whole experience of being ill in a serious way that augments and enlarges one’s world beyond expectations. No one realistically wants to be ill. The body naturally wants to be whole and healthy, yet it is almost a universal truth that this body that we have breaks down and is in a constant fight within against free radicals which do battle against the healthy cells of the body. Complications arise when our own immune systems get weakened and the free radicals grow in an abnormal and destructive way.
It is easy to take for granted the victories that our own bodies win over these often unseen and unfelt battles. Even right now as you are reading this reflection, our own bodies are in a certain ‘fight’. It is often only when something goes awry in this battle that these free radicals become highly reactive, giving them the potential to cause damage leading to things like cancers. When things have reached this stage, one begins the onset of actually dealing with the issue of cancer and illness and a body that is broken in some way.
On the medical side of things, the doctors have all sorts of armory to deal with these issues and to stem the illness. But it is on the spiritual side that there is also a silent but necessary struggle with how one should face this ongoing tussle between life as we have known it all along, and what life is going to become, now that one has an illness to live with and a brokenness that is clearly on the horizon of life.
I have come to see in a rather painful way (literal and allegorical) that denial comes in different forms. In my naiveté, I had thought that denial simply meant that one didn’t acknowledge (or at least had a great difficulty with acknowledging) the existence of one’s illness or condition. Denial has in fact many facets and faces, and in my very slow process of recovery, which is a real test for someone who has a predilection for busying oneself with work and a dedicated sense of purpose in life, I have come to see that denial can in fact be a resistance to facing the fact that life is going to be very different. I have tried hard to want to bounce back and to condition my body to its former physical level of fitness and stamina, but it does seem that it is really going to be an uphill task. I might never even get to where I once was, when I was at my peak. I am often torn between accepting the permanent changes, and striving to achieve what so many people who have survived cancer purport as a returning to normal life.
The pain of cancer is not just something that is experienced in a physical way. Some cancers are rather pain-free. But in truth, there is another pain dimension that we have to deal with, and that is the pain of the realization that things would change in the future. That kind of pain doesn’t seem to have painkillers that doctors can easily prescribe medication for. That kind of pain is something that only the divine doctor can help us deal with. Cancer patients like myself may want to come back to life as we have known it with a vigour and vengeance, but perhaps what we also need to know and accept is that embracing the illness is when another kind of healing is allowed to take place – a healing that is beyond the physical.
The Christian response to illness and suffering has this dimension that easily escapes many of us faced with illness and suffering. Perhaps this is because the world’s response often calls for a fighting back, and to be stronger (mentally, physically and sometimes socially) than the illness. The way that many are told at funerals to ‘be strong and not cry’ has to find its roots in this kind of pseudo strength. But the real Christian response of one who is a disciple of Christ is found when we look at how Christ embraced the Cross in that salvific act of redemption and salvation as an indication of where and how real healing can actually come about. Only when we ponder deeply about this can the phrase “take up your cross and follow me” make spiritual sense.
The mystery of suffering has to include then the struggle between acknowledging our incapacity to make things happen ourselves, and the handing over of our suffering or even our deaths to the power of God. This creates a tension that often stymies us at our roots. We want the clarity of knowing that it is healthy to fight, versus the wisdom of letting go and to surrender with a peace and serenity that Christ had when he ‘gave up the spirit’ on the Cross. For Christ, it was a struggle that lasted about six hours. Ours is one which is often much more prolonged.
When we learn to slowly embrace this mystery, I believe something happens to us within. We begin to embrace also the fact that we are not as whole and well as we should be, and where we are is how God speaks to us loudest. I will always remember what Catholic priest and poet Daniel Berrigan once said when asked where spirituality lies, and whether it dwells in the head or in the heart. His reply is classic in so many ways. He said it’s neither in the head nor in the heart. It’s in the ass. This meant that God speaks to us loudest where our ass is at – where we find ourselves seated in in life, be it in a state of flux, a state of contentment or even in a state of anger, denial or suffering in whatever form it may take. In the stillness of prayer, where we simply allow ourselves to be before God and behold his fullness of life and fullness of love, and become present with a full acknowledgement of our own limitations, imperfections, illnesses and yes, even our sinfulness, where we can truly seek God’s mercy and accept that divine embrace without any demands made on our side. That Jesus did not ask that things be immediately made better on that Cross teaches us something about the power of humility and docility in the face of human suffering.
Even as I write this, I am clearly aware that what I am writing about is entering into the area of mystery, and that words can be more of a stumbling block than the conveying of an inner truth. Yet, it is my hope that there is someone who is suffering with faith, and finding it a constant struggle that this truth, mystical as it is, does have a redemptive value. It is until and unless we have dared to embrace our sufferings, our illnesses and our brokenness that these become our doorways to holiness that leads to a redemption and salvation. It is not that our sufferings and pains become lessened. Often it doesn’t. We just receive, sometimes even if just momentarily, that connection with the divine.
This is why prayer is so important, especially when we face the unexplainable sufferings that we go through in life. Without it, I am sure that I will become easily frustrated, angry and impatient. But with prayer and a confidence in God’s ever loving presence, I am given the strength to embrace everything that I face in life, making it possible to thank God even for the crosses that land on my shoulders.
But these shoulders aren’t just mine. The cross also seems to land on divine shoulders as well as we can trust in Jesus’ words that his yoke is easy, and his burden light.