Monday, May 27, 2013

Faith - where the rubber of courage meets the road.

In the past week or so, there has been a lot of news and reports of how actress Angelina Jolie underwent a double mastectomy.  Though she didn’t have cancer, doctors have told her that she was 87% more likely to develop breast cancer in comparison to the rest of the population because she carries the breast cancer gene.  What she did was thus seen medically as something prophylactic, precautionary or protective, and one of the reasons she did this was because she wanted to be around for her children.  Seen in this light, it is a noble thing to do.  She is also (to many) a symbol of modern feminine beauty, and being an actress, choosing to remove a very obvious physical part of her femininity is deemed a very courageous act, though with the advances of modern medicine and plastic surgery, she would be physically restored such that there would be little visible difference between the pre-op Angelina and the post-op Angelina.  Indeed, so many have hailed her choice as a very courageous act, with some saying that this brave choice gives much hope to other women around the world.

This is not a medical blog, and has never meant to be.  It is a blog of personal reflection of a spiritual nature, and I try to be as personal and at the same time, spiritually positive and even instructive as possible (after all, I am in the process of being trained to be a teacher of the faith to others), hoping to be able to form the minds and consciences of my readers. 

What I’d like to base this week’s reflection on is how we should define courage in the light of faith.  I don’t know what the faith of Ms Jolie is, but I can only surmise that she doesn’t make any reference to it in her op-ed (a term meaning “opposite the editorial page”, written by someone not on the editorial team of the paper) in the New York Times.  That she has children without being married may give us some indication that she is not of the Catholic faith, but these days, even that is something that we cannot ascertain.  But whether she is or is not a Catholic, is not a moot point in this week’s reflection.  What I would like to reflect upon is whether what she has done is something that is to be admired and perhaps even emulated by faith-filled Christians, or whether there are other approaches to such situations in life that are equally or even more courageous.

Where does this admired courage of Ms Jolie lie?  There are many, to be sure.  That she is willing to be physically scarred and diminished as a model of beauty is one.  That she is willing to talk and write about her difficult decision is another.  That she is grabbing life by its horns and beating death and illness, keeping one step ahead of cancer could be another.  That she is doing this for her children certainly can be seen as altruistic and selfless.  Viewed from these stands, it is a courageous act.  After all, it is her own words that we should “take on and take control of life’s challenges”.

Do I think any less of this?  Putting myself in her shoes, perhaps I too would do the same.  But I am not in her shoes, and one thing that sets me apart is that I have my faith and am willing to write about it.  That much is clear.  What does faith have to do with anything?  Plenty.

Does it mean that faithful people who are trying to live out their faith in God should not go for the best medical care?  Certainly not.  After all, the intelligence of doctors is something that only God can give.  But is this option that Ms Jolie has taken something that is open and available to every person who is as susceptible to breast cancer as she is?  Just by looking at the financial costs alone, this drastic step is something that only a few can take.  However, is there something to be said about courage in another form?  Could people with faith display perhaps an even deeper courage than ‘grabbing the bull by the horns’ and being one step ahead of cancer by trying to eliminate all (or as much as possible) the chances of it happening to them?  What can we learn about suffering and illness and give ourselves a chance to grow and mature from it that we forego when we pre-empt too much on our part and rid ourselves from its teaching presence in our lives?  We only need to look at none other than the Cross of Christ on Calvary for some clear direction.

This is where faith in God’s providence marks in a believer a clear distinction that sets us apart from those of us who face such ‘border situations’ with only a clearly practical and logical mind.  The kind of courage that faith elicits in us invites us to dare to allow God to reveal his love and providence even in and despite situations of apparent hopelessness, suffering, pain and sorrow.  While the world tries its very best to eliminate suffering, delay death, look good and stave off anything that speaks of pain in all its myriad forms, it is faith in the loving providence of God and his grace that opens one to the possibilities of God’s voice that is spoken in and through these situations that so many try to put as far away from themselves as possible.  Christ on the Cross did not run away from the suffering that was to come, but neither did he masochistically run toward it.  He knew that it had a great redemptive value that was beyond what was apparent to the physical eye.   Instead of ‘taking control’ of the challenges of life as Ms Jolie advocates so loudly, Jesus in his humble act of surrender is saying that there is great spiritual value in giving up control of life’s challenges too.  Imitating and living out this kind of faith allows for one to become courageous in a very different way, simply because it is a courage that is born of faith. 

Living and struggling with a difficult load in life is seen as something that is much more edifying and transforming than doing without its teaching and formative dimension.  Origen, a second century theologian and Father of the Church (more edified in the Eastern Church than the Latin West) was noted by Eusebius, a Roman historian, to have castrated or emasculated himself.  His primary motive was to avoid possible scandal due to his private instruction to women.  He may have done this as a result of reading Matt. 19:12 literally.  But it was later in life that Origen thought better of this drastic act.  It was in his Commentary on Matthew that he wrote disparagingly about taking 19:12 literally, deeming such an act as an ‘outrage’.  Why is this so?  We may not have it clearly in writing from him, but perhaps it is that he saw later on in life (his second half of life?) that removing a possibility to sin just so that one does not ever fall into sin may not mean that one is a holy and spiritually mature person.  It only means that one no longer has it as a source of holiness and transformation in one’s journey of life. 

This is the point I am trying to make about Ms Jolie’s ‘courage’.  Would it be seen as a courageous act to not have the operation and live on daring to face the consequences of a cancer prognosis down the road, and with a resolve, go through the different kinds of treatments that will inevitably be painful and a physical struggle?  Only with the eyes of faith would it be seen as such.  It would definitely be a deeper sign of courage born of faith.  And I am sure that there are plenty of women who have chosen to go that way, but these ‘heroes’ and their act of courage go unsung and unpublished and they may not have the same opportunity to write op-eds that are featured in the likes of The New York Times. 

I stress that I am not condemning Ms Jolie’s act.  What she did was practical and pragmatic.  It was preventive and prophylactic.  But we who are of the faith have a deeper dimension to consider, and are asked to become images of Christ in the world have something more asked of us than mere practicality and pragmatism.  We are required to also give God a possible chance to use our lives as a canvass on which he can reveal his love, often through a redemptive suffering that many run immediately away from.  As  far as courage is concerned, this is perhaps where proverbial rubber meets the road.

Could this be a courage that God is asking of some of us in life?


  1. Hi Fr. Luke,

    Just my humble opinion, right or wrong.

    About 2 years ago I watched a documentary in which a healthy woman with a family history of breast cancer willingly underwent a double-mastectomy to stave off any chance having to go through the same ordeal as her mother (did).

    I couldn't help wondering then, that this person is crazy. My thoughts were (and still are), that to cut into the human body unnecessarily is an act of self-mutilation. The same goes for the trend of body-piercing which we see all-too-often among the young.

    I suppose all of us (in varying degrees) want to have a certain amount of control over our lives. It's just natural. But where do we draw the line? How perfect does our life have to be before we can rest easy? (I do believe that perfectionists are unhappy much of the time).

    Like you, I am not judging Ms. Jolie: but I truly believe that, for a people of faith, we reach a point where we just have to let go and trust in God's providence. If we truly believe that ".. even the hairs of your head are all counted" (Matt: 10.30) then that's what we HAVE to do. Easier said than done, one might say, but then we are not alone.

    God bless you, Father.

  2. What can I say Father? I am so drawn by your reflections in this post. I ponder upon the good that can come from suffering if we do it whilst embracing God's loving Will. Yet I find myself struggling even with trying to carry out the smallest acts of self-denial. (how I am given in to eating the foods that I sometimes crave for, and having a weak desire to strive for the higher things through self-denial) Yet I claim to love God. I find myself so lacking in generosity with God.

    Anyway, it so happens that I am reading St. Franics de Sales now and I am at the chapter on learning how to embrace our crosses. So this is what the good saint says of recognising suffering as a sign of God's love-

    Considered in themselves, trials certainly cannot be loved, but looked at in their origin - that is, in God's Providence and ordaining ill - they are worthy of unlimited love. Look at the rod of Moses as it lies on the ground; there it is a loathsome serpent. Look at it in Moses' hand; there it is a miraculous wand. Tribulations considered in themselves are dreadful things; looked at in God's will, they are things of love and delight. Often have we felt disgust for remedies and medicines when a doctor or apothecary gives them to us, but when offered to us by some loved hand, love conquers our loathing and we take them with joy. In fact, love either removes the harsh character of suffering or makes pleasant our experience of it.

    further on he says,

    A truly loving heart loves God's good pleasure not only in consolation, but also in afflictions, but it loves it most of all in the cross, in pain, in labor, because love's principal power is to enable the lover to suffer for the beloved object.

    Jia you Fr Luke! In my weaknesses I shall encourage you and cheer you on, so that you'll see that as you trod this path to Mt Calvary, you are not alone. We are surrounded by people who have set their hearts on the cross. And then the earth was in darkness, but we shall not flee. What else can we do in the eclipse of life but to cling on in faith and hope?


  3. It is natural for us to be afraid of sickness, disease, pain and suffering................for wholeness and wholesomeness is in our divine genetic make-up – (we just have to look at the story of Creation and the subsequent Salvation History to see how Man tries to seek a cure for his brokenness and the attempt to hold in the balance, the tension between the soaring aspirations of the soul/spirit and the fallibility of the body.)

    There is no right or wrong about Fear – it just is!

    What makes for courage or cowardice is how one responds to fear........ .........for without fear there is no courage. When one is terribly afraid, yet goes ahead and does what must be done – that’s courage, for he is - like what you said, taking the bull by its horns, living the moment......the present.....the reality. He has the courage to ACT.

    When one is afraid and RE- ACTS.........he is feeding his fears! He is not taking action to deal with the reality of the problem/danger of the present moment ( for there is no apparent danger as yet) but he is trying to live in the future.......dealing with the “what-ifs”. So enters – pre-emptive strike !

    This is when I am very grateful for my faith. ......for it makes me able to be practical and pragmatic about what I can and must do in the event that I am confronted with Ms Jolie’s dilemma. The findings of medical science would help me to make decisive and informed choices - perhaps about a change in my life-style or diet that would help to reduce my risk/ propensity to cancer or any such related debilitating diseases. It would make me more conscious of my finiteness, my ‘humaness’ and help me to appreciate the beauty of each and every moment with each intake of the breath for meaning in and of Life is not in the length of days but in the depth of the awareness/ experience.....................and to remember that doctors may be able to cure or stave off the onslaught of a disease but it is God who heals !

    In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, I like to quote this to my boys :-
    “There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger. The true courage is in facing danger when you are afraid.”
    God bless you, Fr.