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Monday, December 17, 2012

My Cancer is No Tragedy...

and neither is yours.

However, the mass murder of children, in whatever form, is.

I encourage you to lift them and their families up to whatever form of God you believe in.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Advent, Cancer & Hope

I work at a private Jesuit university and I love it. Every year, the university holds the nine-month-long "Spiritual Exercises in Everyday Life" which was created by St. Ignatius Loyola himself. Participants meet weekly with a group and then alone with a spiritual adviser.  In 2011, I decided to give it a try as a way to assuage the anxieties that come from having late stage cancer. I needed comfort and I was hoping to find it. My experience went well and this year, they asked me to speak at an Advent service for people who are in the program this year, and share my reflections of my experience with The Exercises. What follows is the transcript from that talk. Advent is about hope. In Cancer World there is also a lot of hope, some of it downright desperate. My wish for all of us with cancer is that we are able to, by whatever means we choose, find our own hope. This is how I find it:

Before I started the Exercises, I had been pretty estranged from God, as well as most of my family. I had come to believe that the only thing or person that I could truly count on was me. So when I started the Exercises, it was more of a utilitarian venture than a spiritual one. About a year prior to my Exercise experience, I received a diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer. As for many people, my diagnosis was a shock. I was very young for this type of cancer, only 44 at diagnosis when the average age was 70. Also, I had done everything right, eaten well, exercises regularly, did not smoke, drank only socially - there was absolutely no cancer in my family background - but there I was. I had cancer.
            And so to deal with the shock of it all, I did what I usually did and read. I read books about death. I read books about cancer. I read books about death from cancer. And in those books I learned that when people get a serious diagnosis, they overwhelmingly turn toward spiritual things for comfort. And so that sort of gave me the permission I needed to seek God - for comfort purposes - and so I committed to the Exercises.
My first clue that the process was not going to necessarily provide comfort in the way I assumed came from the Prayer of the First Principle and Foundation, “Lord God, let nothing ever distract me from Your love...neither health nor sickness, wealth nor poverty, honor nor dishonor, long life nor short life.” I remember thinking, “Really?”. Because frankly, it mattered to me very much whether I had a long life or a short one and knowing that I was likely going to have a short one was indeed a distraction from God’s love. Or at least my perception of His love. This started coming up in my meetings with my spiritual advisor, Father Bob.

Excerpt from my Exercises Journal:  10/19/11 - I met w/Father Bob yesterday and part of the discussion was on how I’ve been doing with the exercises. I told him that before I started, I was doing pretty well as far as my dealing, psychologically, with the cancer. Since I’ve started however, I’ve felt a little knocked off my pins. After some thought, he suggested an explanation that I had only touched on. Here I am moving closer to the Entity who gave me the cancer and it’s causing some trouble. As soon as he said it, I knew it was spot on...Today’s readings were basically about opening yourself to God, but how do you open yourself to God when He’s given you a deadly disease which will ultimately cause you suffering and early death? How do you trust that?

            So after some further reflection, for me the Exercises became instruction on learning to trust God enough to not be distracted from His love.

             It was around this time that the readings focused on Romans 9:20-21:

“But who indeed are you, a human being, to talk back to God? Will what is made say to its maker, “Why have you created me so?” Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for a noble purpose and another for an ignoble one?”

For whatever reason, this passage stuck with me and I thought about it a lot.  I began to think that God had added cancer to my vessel and that was a challenge - but it did not mean that I was less of a vessel, nor were God’s expectations of this vessel lowered. Recently, I had been living alternatively as an ‘angry vessel’ or a ‘pity vessel’ but this would not do. I was not a God-trusting-vessel. God had made me for a purpose and I needed to live up to that purpose.
As we know, the Exercises serve as a way for us to get to know God more thoroughly and intimately. It is through this intimacy that we gain and grow trust and love.  Ignatius teaches us that to find union with God we should use those things that help us lovingly serve, and to let go of those things that don’t. If I wanted to trust and be intimate with God, I was going to need to be the type of vessel that finds ways to lovingly serve, regardless of my cancer. Anger, fear and self pity weren’t helping me to lovingly serve and so, as much as possible, I asked God to help me let them go.

            In their place, I filled my pot with relationships and volunteering. I worked on my relationships with my estranged family members that culminated in a celebratory family reunion this past summer. I started regularly volunteering at several places in my neighborhood. I became involved in some of my parish ministries which led to me make more friends and find more spiritual support and more avenues of service. At work, I worked on the Ignatian Day of Service planning committee and helped organize a new outreach program in my department. Although it has not been simple, and it has not always left me feeling comforted, I feel like I am living on purpose and with purpose, and living well.

            This is all a work in progress, of course. I still have times when the angry, fearful and self-pitying cancer vessel shows up.

            But I am truly glad for my experience with the Exercises. It has  helped me to reconcile - with God, with others and with myself. And it has strengthened me. More valuable than physical healing, I believe that I experienced a spiritual renewal. Cancer happened to me, it happened in me, but it also happened for me, and for those around me, I think. Regardless of my prognosis and the progression of my disease, my hope is that I will continue to be the good vessel, filled with, carrying around and pouring out God’s love and service.