> Another person asked me for permission to put this essay on
> the web. I have
> agreed. Enclosed is a generic version without names.
Cancer, Modernity and the Efficacy of Prayer
My brother has Stage 4B pancreatic cancer. Stage 4B pancreatic cancer means the cancer has metastasized and spread outside of the pancreas. This is a dire prognosis. He has incredible determination to withstand this attack. It is stunning to watch him laugh at his situation. He receives large doses of intravenous injections of a chemotherapy medication called Gemzar. He takes orally a chemical cocktail including Tarceva and numerous other drugs. Pancreatic cancer attacks nerves in the pancreas. Pancreatic cancer is brutally painful. He suffers from intense pain. Therefore, oxycodone and oxycontin became his best friends.
My mother died from ovarian cancer. My sister is a breast cancer survivor. My sister in law just had a hysterectomy. Cancer is ubiquitous in modern life. Many friends have died, many have survived. Cancer changes many lives, including the person, family and friends.
My beloved Prof. Fritz Koelln had and survived cancer. Fritz was the deepest and most profound person I have met in my life. While seated in his front library that had his favorite 2,000 books, he pondered modernity. Fritz’s position was that materialism was so strong and spirituality was so weak that all modern people were superficial. “We are all superficial in modern times, even I am superficial.” I thought if Fritz is defining himself as superficial, what does that make me? I felt like a Hostess Twinkie in his presence.
Fritz theorized that the two of the biggest problems of modern health - heart attacks and cancer were directly connected, not metaphors, to how modern people lead their lives. We do not know how to love and therefore the heart is not fully developed. We lack meaning and therefore there is the endless replication of cells without the correct DNA.
Fritz did not subscribe to simple answers or that individuals were being punished and therefore victims of their own fates. He saw it as the necessary concomitant to a superficial life. He even ventured that the people who suffered these diseases were offering their pain for the betterment of humanity and therefore noble.
Over the years I have pondered Fritz’s insights. He has deeply influenced my thinking. We chase the temporal and avoid the eternal. In our pursuit of happiness, we are depressed. We wonder why we are not happy? As if happiness had anything to do with meaning? Joy is connected with meaning.
The truth is we do not know why us, why our loved ones, why anyone? It is excruciating to watch a loved one suffer. The feeling of impotence in the face of pain is torturous. But if we believe in a loving spiritual world, there can be moments, however rare, of spiritual insight. It becomes quite clear that the way we lead our life is the way we end our life. It is a straight line. It also becomes evident that visiting the sick and dying really is a corporal work of mercy. Both patient and visitor need it. This is the first and most powerful response for illness, sickness and death- being present with the loved one. This is bearing witness with Christ’s love. No one said it was easy. Think of Mary at the Crucifixion.
Most of us are asleep most of the time. We need to wake up to spiritual reality. There are two ways - disciplined self work (catharsis) or tragedy. Since most of us are asleep, we end up with the tragic, unconscious way. That explains the pain. That is why we are blessed if we know individuals who have worked on their lower egos and tried to tame them while alive. They are saints.
Our second action in addition to our physical presence in this battle with the sick person is prayer. Praying for a sick person focuses our attention away from our own egos and aims our spiritual energy at the loved one. This may be the reason the loved one went through this tragedy- to get us to pray! Miracles can happen, although often not the ones we pray for.
How do we find God?
How does God find us?
A third solution is to maintain our balance. There is no point in everyone loosing control at the same time. I tend to cry. Linda asks me to leave the room. I listen to her, a minor miracle in itself.
A fourth response is a sense of humor. Telling funny stories and laughing are a balm to depression and morbidity.
I am asking for prayers for him, his family and all the people we know who are suffering. This is a life long prayer list. When people graduate to the other side, the prayers become even more important. Sometimes I think we are on this earth to learn how to pray. In the next life we discover that prayer was the most effective activity we were engaged in here on earth.
A key is a simple, utilitarian tool.
It opens and locks.
Keys allow doors to be open or to be locked.
Prayer is a simple, utilitarian practice.
It opens the heart that is often locked.
Prayer allows the soul to be open.
“And from His fullness have we all received, grace upon grace” John 1:16 Even sickness and death can be graceful. They can also be frightening. The questions are how do we transform death into life, transform evil into good? It is not by shunning pain and death, but by embracing them as best we can. This is not magic. The pain is real; it will persist. Death eventually takes us all over. But we believe in a God who overcame death and pointed to a glorious spiritual life in His Resurrection. We have to have spiritual courage and face the darkness. The empty grave is foreboding and joyous! The Christ like spirit within us is eternal.
Ex Deo Nascimur
Out of God we are born
In Christo Morimur
In Christ we die
Per Spiritum Sanctum Reviviscimus
Through the Holy Spirit we live again.