Saturday, November 29, 2008

November 29, 2008 - How the Light Gets In

I’ve been paging through Jean Shinoda Bolen’s Close to the Bone: Life- Threatening Illness and the Search for Meaning (Scribner, 1996). It’s her contention that serious illness catapults many of us into a spiritual country we’d scarcely dreamed existed:

“Whenever or however that line from health to illness is crossed, we enter this realm of soul. Illness is both soul-shaking and soul-evoking for the patient and for all others for whom the patient matters. We lose an innocence, we know vulnerability, we are no longer who we were before this event, and we will never be the same. We are in uncharted terrain, and there is no turning back. Illness is a profound soul event, and yet this is virtually ignored and unaddressed. Instead, everything seems to be focused on the part of the body that is sick, damaged, failing, or out of control.

A hospital has much in common with an auto body repair shop. It is there with its staff of specialists to diagnose, fix, or replace what it can of the physical body to get it running again. The patient and those accompanying the patient through this crisis are considered to behave well if they do not get in the way of whatever the doctors want to do with the ailing body. Troublesome patients (or their troublesome significant others) ask questions, want to understand what is wrong and why a particular treatment and not something else has been selected, bother doctors with requests, or don't respond properly. The medical setting is one in which there is a definite line of authority, with the doctor in charge and others responsible for carrying out orders. A good patient like a good soldier is one who cooperates or obeys orders. Especially when cancer is the diagnosis but in many other conditions as well, the doctor's perspective is often similar to a general at war: the disease is the enemy to be fought, with the body of the patient the battleground.”
(pp. 14-15)

We human beings are more than the sum of our parts. That’s a conviction that’s driven my vocation in ministry for all these years, and that’s become more and more real to me in my lately-discovered role as cancer survivor.

As a lymphoma survivor, I’ve become used to the medical observation that my cancer is not localized, but systemic. It can’t be treated surgically, because it involves the entire lymphatic system, whose vessels and capillaries snake their way throughout my body. My cancer is part of me, and I a part of it. Whatever treatment I’ve had – and may have to receive in the future – will take out not only the malignancy, but a portion of my healthy self as well.

Yet, as I’m coming to learn, the experience of cancer treatment can also build up my healthy self – particularly its spiritual dimension – in unexpected ways. It’s no empty platitude to state that cancer can be – and often is – a life-changing experience. Bolen continues:

“A life-threatening illness calls to the soul, taps into spiritual resources, and can be initiation into the soul realm for the patient and for anyone else who is touched by the mystery that accompanies the possibility of death. When life is lived at the edge-in the border realm between life and death-it is a liminal time and place. Liminal comes from the Latin word for ‘threshold....’

Illness, especially when death is a possibility, makes us acutely aware of how precious life is and how precious a particular life is. Priorities shift. We may see the truth of what matters, who matters, and what we have been doing with our lives and have to decide what to do – now that we know. Significant relationships are tested and either come through strengthened or fail. Pain and fear bring us to our knees in prayer. Our spiritual and religious convictions or the lack of them are called into question. Illness is an ordeal for both body and soul, and a time when healing of either or both can result.”
(p. 15)

The words of songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen come to mind:

“You can add up the parts
but you won't have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”

(From “Anthem,” by Leonard Cohen)

Most of us spend our lives looking for that light, in one way or another. The oddly paradoxical truth about cancer is that, for those of its victims who can lift up their eyes from the dusty path in front of them and glance up towards the sky, it can provide a glimpse of the light.

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