Faith in the foxhole

It all started a couple weeks ago, when a friend, a cancer patient herself, posted a link to a novena for cancer patients on Facebook. If you don’t know, a novena is a series of prayers to a particular saint (or Mary or God) said over a set number of days — a 3-day novena, or a 7-day novena, or in this case, a 9-day novena — for a particular “intention” or purpose. This particular one was to a saint I’d never heard of, St. Peregrine, the patron saint of cancer patients, who suffered from cancer in his leg and was miraculously cured the night before he was scheduled to have his leg amputated.

I am the praying sort, so I decided I would do this. I prayed, somewhat generically, for my friend and “anyone else I might know who has cancer,” whether I knew they had it or not. It was a simple thing — the daily prayers were emailed to me (such is the way of prayers in the digital age), and it took only a few minutes each day. I counted myself very lucky that I didn’t have a long list of people to pray specifically for, though I thought of my own mom and mother-in-law and other loved ones who had died from cancer.

The nine days passed. I felt good for doing this simple, positive thing.

A week or so passed, and then, unthinkably, I started to hear things. Within a span of only a few days, I learned that my cousin, a friend’s mother, my former brother-in-law, and another cousin’s wife had all just been diagnosed with cancer! I felt horrible — my generic “praying for anyone I might know who had cancer” actually applied to four people!

What the heck? Does this mean my prayers didn’t do any good? Does it mean I got a head start on praying for these people? Does it mean I need to do this again, with these people in mind? Are we just a few steps away from disaster at any given moment (yes, probably)? Yes, my faith is shaken a bit.

I understand the concept of faith. I know that faith means believing that God is listening and answering your prayers, even though they aren’t necessarily answered the way you want them to be. (And that sometimes, God’s answer is “no.”) I know that “having faith” means having it in bad times as well as good. But to hear of all these diagnoses, so soon after praying for cancer patients, is just so unreal. And, I also tend to believe that “there are no coincidences.” So what do I make of this?

And, just yesterday, this article appears on my news feed in Facebook. Another bizarre “coincidence” as I literally just had to have my annual mammogram retaken because of this very thing (which I’ve known I’ve had for years, thanks to my wonderful gynecologist, but had never read anything published about it).

All of this is hitting very close to home all of a sudden. In particular, I’m sick that my cousin’s cancer is quite serious (no real details on the others, except that one, at least, seems like a good scenario with a good prognosis). At this point, the best I can do is to channel my anxiousness and concern into more prayers for my family and friends, more specific this time around. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that the universe is speaking to me. So I will be praying, too, for the wisdom to answer it in the best way, with the right mind-set and the right actions. And most of all, with faith.

Pray, and let God worry.
~ Martin Luther

Proof I didn’t need

We recently lost a friend to cancer (or as I like to call it, f***ing cancer) — my fourth such loss in less than a year. She had battled strongly for 7 years, accomplishing so much in that time and never letting repeated surgeries and treatments get the better of her. I admired her tremendously. I liked her even more.

At her lovely and moving memorial service, her son spoke first, telling of his mother’s giving him a book that gave her great comfort and explaining her wish that he read it and share it with everyone at the service so they would understand that she was ready to go and at peace. He explained that butterflies played a role in the book, which was why we were each given a white silk butterfly at the service, but that his mother, a voracious and passionate reader, would want us to read the book for ourselves, so he wouldn’t say more. He went on to read a touching poem from the book, as his mother had requested.

Of course, I bought the book: Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife.

I have never doubted heaven; never needed proof. Yet still, the book was comforting. The author’s premise was that he — as a man of science, a brain expert no less, a man who had heard (and largely dismissed) his patients’ accounts of near death experiences, attributing them to some random brain activity or another (as you’ve undoubtedly heard, too), a man who had experienced the most unlikely deadly illness and even more unlikely recovery — was in the perfect position to serve as irrefutable proof that heaven exists.

It’s pretty darn convincing.

Even so, and even though I don’t doubt heaven, I was struck by how much of what he recounted parallels what religions teach us. There were loved ones, there seemed to be beings at different levels, there were angels, there was incredible overwhelming peace and love, there was God.

The skeptic in me couldn’t help but wonder if maybe those preconceptions influenced what he experienced?

The believer in me answered that maybe that’s simply exactly how it is.

Whatever heaven turns out to be, my favorite part of the book…the part that made me cry when I read it…was the message he received loud and clear on his journey, though no words were spoken:

You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.

You have nothing to fear.

There is nothing you can do wrong. 

What more could we ask of heaven? What could represent heaven better than that?

That that was the message relayed to him — out of every possible message he could have received — is really all the proof I would need, if in fact I needed any proof at all.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Totally unrelated, yet perfectly related, I heard today about another friend who has battled cancer for many years and faces it with amazing resiliency and courage. I wasn’t aware that her cancer had returned at some point, and that it was quite serious, and that she had had complex surgery in December. But I learned, via her post on Facebook, that her latest scans had shown amazing success, and in turn found a link she’d posted  to the blog she’s been keeping for a few months, since right before the surgery. It’s full of her hopes, her fears, and her unwavering faith and sheer belief that God is with her on this journey.

In one of her posts, she talks about a book that others had recommended to her for years, but that she had only just gotten around to reading.

No, not Proof of Heaven, but another book so very, very close: Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back.

Of course I bought it. It’s more proof I don’t need, but I’m sure will be so so comforting just the same.

Be like the bird that, passing on her flight awhile
on boughs too slight, 
feels them give way beneath her,
and yet sings, knowing that she has wings.
~ Victor Hugo

On faith, hope, and worry

I’m sure there is some tenet of some religion (or many religions) that holds that worry isn’t cool because it’s a sign you don’t have enough faith in the good Lord above. I’m sure I’ve heard this preached, or read it preached, and I’m sure I believe it.

I’m sure there is a school of intellectual discourse that holds that worry isn’t cool because it’s fruitless. Worry doesn’t change what will or won’t be; it only makes you miserable. I’m sure I believe it.

I’m sure I have always loved the poem Desiderata since I first read it posted on one of the secretary’s bulletin boards at the first job I ever had. It talks about not giving in to worry:

Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

I’m sure I believe it.

As sure as I am of these, I’m also sure I’m a worrier. A gut-clenching, heavy-hearted, deep-sighing worrier.

Like my dad. Not at all like my mom. She takes after my grandpap, who seemed to define the word happy-go-lucky. I sure didn’t get the h-g-l gene.

I’m sure the moments, minutes, hours, even years of my life lost to worry have never accomplished a darn thing. Nothing desirable anyway.

So why does it persist? Do I lack the faith…the intellect…the soul of a poet? All three?

If I pray to stop worrying, does that mean I have faith?

If I constantly tell myself it’s useless to worry, does that mean I’m smart?

If I keep going back to Desiderata, does that mean I have hope?

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labours and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its shams, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful.

Strive to be happy.

I don’t know what it means. I don’t know what a lot of things mean. But I do know that that, at least, is not something to worry about. I wish I could convince myself that nothing else is either.

Let not your heart be troubled.
~ John: 14:1

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