Tuesday, April 01, 2008

April 1, 2008 - The Center Does Hold

In Wendy Harpham’s book, Happiness in a Storm, she recalls a time when faith made a profound difference in her life. Wendy explains how she grew up with a strong appreciation of her religious tradition (Judaism). As a young adult, she – like so many others, of various religious traditions – put her active practice of faith on the back burner for a time. Then, along came lymphoma:

“During the weeks after my cancer diagnosis, I became preoccupied with existential questions. I had to know if I believed in God and, if so, if God could hear me. My rabbi came to my home regularly to pray and study with me. Over the next few years of cancer recurrences and various treatments, mystical experiences touched my soul and nourished my trust in a universal order beyond my farthest-stretched imagination.

My spiritual life took a dramatic turn one sizzling Texas day in mid-June of 1992 when I was strapped onto an icy-cold table in a chilly room, my head held motionless by a custom-made plastic mesh mask and the rest of me immobilized by fear – fear of imminent radiation therapy, fear of my lymphoma, and fear of pain and death. The technician shut the heavy lead door, leaving me the only living creature in the room. The machine’s light focused on my neck and chest, and a buzz sounded. Without realizing what I was doing, I started chanting in my head the familiar Hebrew words of the ancient central prayer of Judaism. The words of the Shema were rote, but the prayerfulness behind them was foreign and emanated from an unfamiliar part of me. I believe it came from my soul. What struck me was not the newfound spirituality of my fervent praying but that I felt heard. Mine was the only heartbeat in that radiation suite, but I was not alone. With all earthly distractions silenced, I experienced an indescribable sense of spiritual company in my physical aloneness. Once introduced to this awareness, I’ve been able to tap into it ever since. It brings me peace and strength whenever needed. Like Job, I don’t know if I connected with God in that radiation suite, not the way I know if I’m hungry or I know that two plus two equals four. I have faith, and it’s a faith that has made my life happier.”

– Wendy Schlessel Harpham, M.D., Happiness in a Storm: Facing Illness and Embracing Life as a Healthy Survivor (Norton, 2005), pp. 335-336.

(Thanks, Wendy, for sharing so forthrightly and so personally.)

I found much the same thing, as the reality of my cancer diagnosis sank in. As a preacher, I’d been teaching faith for many years, but there had always been certain aspects of the message I’d passed along secondhand. It’s hard to do otherwise, when you begin your ministry in your 20s. Much of what we preachers share from the pulpit is not our wisdom, anyway, but the wisdom of the church. We read, we talk to other people, we listen – and from these insights we distill what truth we can find. From such derived truths we construct many – if not most – of our sermons. Firsthand testimony is always the most compelling, but secondhand will do in a pinch: after all, it’s still testimony.

For me, that’s changing. Like Wendy, I’ve found that, the longer I traverse the high, windswept plain of cancer survivorship, the more I realize I’m not alone. It’s never been a burning-bush, nor a voice-from-a-whirlwind experience, but something more akin to the “sound of sheer silence” the prophet Elijah experienced:

“He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.” (1 Kings 19:11-12)

Biblical scholars have long debated the proper translation of that Hebrew phrase. In the New Revised Standard Version, it’s “a sound of sheer silence.” Earlier Bible versions go with “a still, small voice” – but, no one’s entirely happy with that translation, either. In her account, Wendy says simply, “Mine was the only heartbeat in that radiation suite, but I was not alone.” Her version is as good as any, I suppose.

I remember lying on my side on an examining-table in Dr. Lerner’s office, waiting for him to punch through my pelvis with a sharp, metal instrument and extract a sample of bone marrow. I was feeling scared at the prospect. I remember consciously centering my heart and soul on some far-off place. In that place, I knew I was not alone. I knew, then, the sound of sheer silence would get me through whatever pain might come (which, thankfully, wasn’t so bad, because Dr. Lerner is so adept at bone-marrow biopsies).

I’ve learned to practice that kind of centering on numerous occasions since, as I’ve dealt with other pains and discomforts that accompany cancer treatment. In recent days, I’ve been living through post-operative pain resulting from my hernia surgery, and that too has been more manageable than I’d guessed.

I realize that, in the cancer world, there are far more serious pains, far more grueling challenges than those I’ve had to undergo. Each fresh obstacle presents its own level of difficulty. Yet, I’m coming to realize this same principle holds true, at every level. God is right there with us. The sound of sheer silence speaks. Together we travel, one step at a time.

Isaiah puts it another way:

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.”

– Isaiah 43:2

It’s a combination of spiritual gift and learned response. That’s the only way I can describe it. And what is it we learn? In one of his most famous poems, “The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats gives us a frightening image of chaos. He’s thinking, no doubt, of the collapse of civilization, but his words also evoke a more personal terror:

“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned...”

Finding God in the midst of a personal struggle with illness, or some other crisis, leads me to realize that, yes, the center does hold, after all.

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