On this past weekend’s episode of PBS’ Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, I heard a fellow cancer survivor address this aspect of the cancer experience.
Father Cassian Folsom is abbot of the Benedictine monastery at Norcia, Italy. Norcia (sometimes spelled Nursia) is the birthplace of Benedict, the founder of western monasticism in general and the Benedictine order in particular. In 1998, Father Cassian moved from St. Meinrad’s Abbey in Indiana to re-establish the Benedictine monastery at Norcia. That monastic community had been dissolved in 1810 under the rule of Napoleon.
Benedictine monasticism is now thriving again in the birthplace of its founder, but Father Cassian has been faced with a new, very personal challenge. Several years ago, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. He is now in his second remission.
You can view the interview here (the segment in which Father Cassian speaks about his medical situation is found at about 5:45):
The interviewer, Judy Valente, was asking Father Cassian whether he, as a monk, felt he somehow deserved a better deal from God than other people, when it came to his cancer diagnosis. Here’s what he said:
“It’s just a part of life, that’s all. I would say this: we can look at death as a thief or a messenger. A thief comes and steals what is most valuable to us, and so we’re afraid. A messenger who comes to tell us that our beloved is at the door, we respond much differently, don’t we?”
Those who are inclined to view cancer as a vehicle for divine justice may be perplexed when a person with a religious vocation is diagnosed. At times, I’ve gotten that reaction from others. Father Cassian gently deflects that line of questioning: “It’s just a part of life, that’s all.”
Cancer — even a cancer that goes into remission or is cured — is an abrupt reminder of the inevitability of death.
What the Abbot says next is, to me, what’s truly memorable. He says we can regard death as either a thief or a messenger. That decision on how to interpret the meaning of our cancer can make all the difference.
If we regard cancer as a thief, the only sensible response is to bolt the door — or, if our uninvited guest has already crossed the threshold — to energetically fight it off. Fear and anger are the emotions associated with such a response (hence, military metaphors like a patient “battling with” cancer).
Yet, if we entertain the possibility that cancer could be a messenger, that it may have something valuable to teach us, then our response is different. We probably won’t open the door and invite it in for tea, but we’ll at least take some time to discern what message it’s bearing.
I’ve had a strong sense throughout this process — and have written about it upstream in this blog — that an early cancer diagnosis can cause a person to race through the normal stages of adult development and begin confronting issues others don’t begin to address until they’re in the retirement home. I think this may be what Father Cassian is getting at when he speaks of cancer as a messenger.
The spiritual question is: Do we have ears to hear?