Faith in the Midst of Adversity
Sister Mary Carol Lemire was part of a panel speaking on the topic of Faith in the Face of Adversity on June 10, 2013, at an event organized by ELLICSR: Health, Wellness & Cancer Survivorship Centre, at Toronto General Hospital. She offered the Christian perspective, while four other panellists contributed the Buddhist, Indigenous, Muslim and Jewish perspectives.
The day was called Celebrating your Life through Mind, Body and Soul and it offered a wealth of workshops and talks to cancer survivors. What follows are Sr. Mary Carol’s words that day…
In today's world we certainly hear of many incidents in people's lives where something totally unexpected happens. When one is struck by suffering or tragedy so intense that it shakes the fibre of his/her being, one is, indeed, face to face with mystery. In 1992, I experienced such a moment. I was told that I had colon cancer, and that surgery was not an option. On hearing this diagnosis, a variety of feelings arose from within me: shock, denial, fear, isolation. Where is God? Why now?
Because of my experience, I am happy to share with you some insights that, in the light of my faith, enabled me to face, and to journey through this totally unexpected adversity.
Let me share with you what I would say to a person facing such a shocking diagnosis as cancer. In my first and subsequent few visits, I would say nothing, because words at that time would be totally impotent. Though I had cancer, no one's experience is the same as another's. I would simply be a presence, a loving, caring support, respectful of the sacredness of the moment. The person before me is face-to-face with mystery. If appropriate, I would hold the person in God's loving embrace, trying to feel the pain of shock that he/she is grappling with. There will be tears... Life seems so unfair...
You, the person before me, are frightened, confused, feeling totally out-of-control, helpless, bewildered. You wonder if you will be able to live through the illness, treatment, weakness. The future is frightening. You wonder: Life or death? You search for answers but there are none. As you begin to talk, I listen — carefully.
Because of my faith there are, deep within me, truths that I hold in my heart, until an appropriate time comes to share them, gently, bit by bit. People face-to-face with mystery are, consciously or unconsciously, searching for an anchor to hold onto for security, because even the security of their faith has been shattered! Is God really my loving Father who cares for me? Where, then, is God now? You cannot pray, because your former way of praying feels impossible. You are too tired, in too much pain or anguish to pray at all. Everything is topsy-turvy.
Gradually, I would assure you that the prayers of your family and friends are forming a strong bond of connection with you. You are not alone! Most likely you are not aware of this precious accompaniment — so healing, so healthy, so comforting.
All of us, as we grow deeper and deeper in our spirituality, discover that our faith has to be shattered from time to time, so that our hearts can break open to receive God at a deeper level. Suffering can do that for us better than anything else... Through it we are changed, we grow, we mature. Life's greatest lessons are learned through suffering. Suffering is not a problem to be solved. Suffering is a mystery to be lived. There is meaning, but not answers.
I looked at Job. His suffering was a mystery within which he was drawn deeper and deeper into the presence of God, who is Mystery.
Jesus also faced the mystery of the Cross, which led Him and us to new life in God: Resurrection. Because we do not know the outcome of our cancer, and we feel that we have no control over it, we experience ourselves as walking around blindfolded and alone. Waiting in the ambiguity of the future - the not yet - is very difficult for most of us.
Hope defines our waiting. We are called to trust in the words of Jesus: "I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full." Are we able to trust in this promise - to hope and to believe in its fulfillment? You may say how can I? I feel so frightened, confused, bewildered." My response: "Be still, breathe in quietly, and listen to your heart."
When I go deep within myself, I know that the precious gifts of faith and trust are waiting for me to tap into them. Even in the darkness of the moment, regardless of my feelings, I know that God is within me, and that God loves me unconditionally. God always walks with us — through our joys, sorrows, fears, doubts, and anxieties. We are always invited to experience God's nearness and unconditional love. So close is our God to each one of us that we can discover the face of God even in the mess of our lives and our world. Though we do not know what the path ahead holds for us, the way we choose to respond to life's joys, disappointments and sorrows makes all the difference.
Since God's desire for all of us is life in abundance, what does that mean for me — struggling with cancer? The medical profession reminds us that we have, within our bodies, a God-given healing system. Does that mean that I have a part to play in my physical healing? — Or does it mean that I will gradually experience an inner healing? I don't know! However, I learned, during my recovery, a great deal from the medical profession, spiritual writers, and the mystics. The mind-body connection is so powerful. How important it is, then, to reverence our bodies, to strengthen and plug into the God-given healing system that already exists within us. Our bodies are very resilient. So, in my recovery I chose to work to harness the energy within, and to cooperate with my treatment, hoping that, maybe, my body would become physically healed. We know that cancer weakens our immune system, so I tried to pay attention to whatever would give me life, for example:
- Respect for my body,
- A healthy diet,
- Commitment to exercise,
- Adequate sleep,
- A lot of laughter,
- A balance of work, play, leisure,
- A commitment to meditate, visualizes, and consciously choose positive thought patterns.
Having said this, there were no guarantees that I'd actually become physically well, but I desired to live, so I chose to engage the healing powers within me. Possibilities opened up and were filled with meaning.
Cancer may, indeed, be a wake-up call! I realized that God may be inviting me to change the way I live my life. I recognized that there was an imbalance in my life: work, too little play, and too little leisure. A serious adjustment was in order. Our bodies never lie!
Whether or not I would become physically well, I knew that God was at work within me each day — deepening my awareness of God's tender care and love, guiding me to experience spiritual healing, deep peace and joy. Miracles do happen each day! The question is: Do we recognize them? We all need to be watchful, to stay awake as we journey home to our Father, to take time to smell the flowers, and to smile.
Psalm 23 tells me that I am never alone! "Though I walk in the midst of the valley of darkness, I fear no evil, for You are with me." I pray that these words will comfort and strengthen each one of you.