Ian Harris Otago Daily Times Feb. 13, 2015
How do you bear reality if your reality is an incurable cancer? It’s a question too many of us have to face, one my wife faced over the past year.
It’s also a question that challenged an influential shaper of modern theology, English Bishop John Robinson of Honest to God fame, just over 30 years ago. It calls on all a person’s resources of meaning, identity, purpose, resolve and, for the lucky ones, faith (by which I mean a trusting orientation to life and its possibilities for good).
Indeed, Dr Bernie Siegel, an American surgeon who has treated hundreds of people with cancer, writes from his experience of four faiths that help patients in this situation: faith in themselves, their doctor, their treatment, and a spiritual faith that enables them to find peace. All these work together to give people a positive bearing on the life still ahead of them, even though with terminal cancers – and not all cancers are terminal – the final outcome is already known.
Robinson tells how, before his diagnosis, he conducted the funeral of a 16-year-old girl who had died of cancer. He said then, to no little consternation: “God is in the cancer as much as in the sunset.” Of course Robinson never intended to blame God for the girl’s cancer. That would imply a totally inadequate notion of God – “it would make God a very devil.”
Two years later, preaching his last sermon in Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge, before his death in 1983, he referred to his comment at that funeral, and conceded it had been an intellectual statement. Could he say it now of his own reality? Could I say it of my wife Jill’s?
Robinson found he could. He said God (I prefer to call it Godness) was present in the way people responded to his illness with love and kindness, the honesty and sensitivity of his doctors, and above all in deepened relationships both within the family and beyond. It was “a time of giving and receiving grace upon grace.”
My experience just before Christmas was similar. As I sat with my wife, watching her life energy slowly draining away, I was at first overwhelmed by a sense of God’s absence. I was devoid of any spiritual or emotional connection whatsoever, full of aching and grief.
But then I thought, given the way I conceive of God, the supreme symbol for everything that is of ultimate worth for life, and love, and meaning, what do you expect? A symbol has no life or emotion of its own – only the life you give it as you shape your life around it.
And Godness was certainly all around us – in the loving presence of family, the gentle caring of hospice staff, the many messages from friends of affirmation and support, the sense of peace in the hospice’s garden setting. I didn’t need a “beyond” kind of God, because the beyond is in our midst – which is what the Christmas doctrine of Incarnation is meant to convey.
Unlike a sudden death, cancer usually gives people time to prepare. I once heard such preparation crudely likened to swotting for your finals: if you pass, you’re off to heaven; if not, the other place. But fewer and fewer people believe in heaven or hell today, whether as a physical location or even as a spiritual existence on the other side of death.
That shouldn’t squelch any notion of eternal life, however. It simply makes it necessary to relocate the concept to life as we live it in the here and now. Eternal life then ceases to point to everlasting endlessness for a disembodied soul, as once was assumed, but instead to living in light of all that is of ultimate worth for life, love and meaning. It is life at depth – for Christians, life “in Christ”, a phrase evoking Christianity’s distinctive archetype of love, grace and meaning.
That appears to have coloured the way Robinson lived his last months. Told he had six, maybe nine months to live, his first reaction was shock. Then: “Six months is a long time. One can do a lot in that. How am I going to use it?”
Jill’s answer lay in renewing and deepening relationships, completing her fourth novel for children and young people, then preparing for publication a selection of liturgies she had written for this new era. Purposeful living, with a focus beyond herself, helped her to bear the reality of her cancer. She died having achieved much, and at peace.