When I was the Canon Pastor of the Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta, I was pestered by a persistent widow.
Well, not exactly.
A woman of the parish, Millie, kept bugging me to start a group for cancer patients. I continued to put her off, telling her that my schedule was slammed, which was true. I was trying to get on top of a 5000 member parish and had my hands full. Millie, a cancer patient, was like the persistent widow who continued to tug on the sleeve of Jesus, trying to get the attention of Jesus. I thought of this biblical image at the time, and preferred it to the squeaky wheel that proverbially gets the grease. She kept tugging on my sleeve, asking if we could start a new pastoral care group, focused on people facing a diagnosis of cancer.
I finally gave in, threw her a bone, that we would advertise a gathering on Wednesday night after the weekly supper, and see who shows up. I made no promises, just a meeting to measure the interest. To my surprise, and I will not lie to you by saying it was pleasant, about one-hundred twenty folks showed up and filled the room.
I may be slow, but I am not a fool. I took this as a cue to start a group that met every Wednesday night. We would check in with people to see how things were going. This created a loving, open community that had an amazing capacity to care for one another, as people had recently received a diagnosis, undergoing a series of treatments or surgeries, and the aftermath of recovery. I was struck by the palpable sense of love that existed in the group from day one, although it would grow through time.
Additionally, Dr. Matt Burrell, a noted oncologist who was a Cathedral member, would assist in the leadership, providing medical information on the various cancers and the treatments that were being employed. More importantly, Matt brought his healing spirit to the room, genuinely leaning into the relationship with cancer patients who were looking for knowledge but enhanced by the human touch of care, his compassion.
One other note is worth the time. We used a text, Love, Medicine, and Miracles, written by a surgeon, Bernie Siegal, who had discovered the role of the mind in working along with the medical technology. We would spend twenty minutes in a guided meditation to encourage people to imagine the drugs or radiation entering the body to fight the cancer. There’s a lot of science and technique in Bernie’s book that I don’t have time to unearth here, but suffice it to say that the mind-body connection is something we are still discovering new insights which assist in the process of healing. This was early in that discovery period, which some, including my scientific bias, found a bit far-out. However, my other bias, pragmatism, won the day. It was working. I would always refer people who told me of a recent cancer diagnosis to this work to encourage a good mental attitude as one fought the invading cancer.
This group would meet every Wednesday, regardless on what holiday it happened to be. It was still going when I loaded up my wagon for a sojourn to Texas.
What I wanted to lift up was my discovery among those cancer patients. I experienced a real transformation happening for many of these folks as their brush with mortality gave them a new appreciation for life. I had the opportunity to observe this as they interacted in the group, but I was able to confirm it in my individual interviews with people. The common phenomena was a shift out of what was sort of a routine day of getting up, doing what you do, going to bed, and then doing it all over again the next day. It was as if one was living by default, with no openings for a fresh breeze to blow in one’s life. After this experience, most people I talked with experienced life as precious, and found a new vigor with which to lean into the days they had, particularly the present moment, the Now.
My experience with this support group left me with a profound question: Can one get the same effect without having to acquire the diagnosis of cancer? Does it take the jarring of a death notice to shake one out of a deep sleep of routine living? I had witnessed the power that disruption brought about by cancer, and there was no doubt as to its effect.
I must pause to note that it did not work for everyone. I also watched as some people received the diagnosis as an authoritative death notice, and they responded by folding up their tents, waiting to die, resigned to their fate. At that time in my life as a quixotic crusader, I had little understanding of such resignation. Why not fight? You got to fight, right! You never give up, spoken by Coach Jimmy V. was permanently etched on my soul. Nowadays, after tilting after a few windmills and losing, I think I understand how people, beaten down through life, might see the diagnosis differently, as an exclamation point of a tragic life. I understand it better now, but I still don’t buy it for me.
I have recently taken a dive into the deep waters of Marcel Proust, speaking of a slow death. His ungodly novel, In Search of Lost Time, is seven volumes long and filled with lengthy descriptions of moments of life. In my mind, Proust is the anti-Hemingway. I had only dabbled in the shallow waters of reading his work here and there, but now, I am seeking to read the behemoth from “cover to cover” as Baptists South of God called the faithful reading of Holy Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation, reverently pausing on the red letters of Jesus. Red letters?, you ask. Just what the hell Bible you been reading? I’m talking about the Bible, written by the Almighty on the day He rested, placing the words of his son, Jesus, in the appropriate red of his blood.
Now, you are awake.
So, in the wake of the pandemic, I put the Bible down, momentarily mind you, to dive into the ocean of Proust. Proust addressed the lushness of life, the present moment, the observation of the now. His description is unlike anything I have ever read, bathing, luxuriating in the richness of our experience of life. He hovers over and dives into life in a way that reminds me of my hummingbirds returning to the island, magically pausing midair, only to skillfully dart in deeply to taste nectar, to ingest the energy needed to move on to the next moment, to sustain life.
I came across a quote from Proust that teases at this insight I am hovering over this day. “I think that life would suddenly seem wonderful to us if we were threatened to die as you say. Just think of how many projects, travels, love affairs, studies, it- our life- hides from us, made invisible by our laziness which, certain of a future, delay them incessantly. But let all this threaten to become impossible for ever, how beautiful it would become again!”
And Proust continues with the twist, “(But) The cataclysm doesn’t happen, we don’t do any of it, because we find ourselves back in the heart of the normal life, where negligence deadens desire. And yet we shouldn’t have needed the cataclysm to love life today. It would have been enough to think that we are humans, and that death may come this morning.”
Maybe now you understand why I am willing to dive deeply for Proustian pearls.
How is life for you these days? Has the existential threat of the pandemic raised your awareness of the preciousness of life? I keep listening to people who talk of renewed value of the human touch, to gather with family, to join with friends, either in celebration or pain. The pandemic has provided the disruption of our normal, our routine, the lulling of our consciousness. The cataclysm come. Has it given you a new sense of vigor, that Kennedy-esque word I grew up with? Are you ready to dance like Zorba in celebration of life? Or are you just hoping to get back to “normal”, the way it used to be, the way it’s always been? Or as St. Bruce of Hornsby says, “that’s just the way it is.”
It’s a question worth your time.
Monks, in their cells of solitude, would remind themselves daily in their spiritual exercises that they were mortal: Remember your death!
Christians begin these forty days of Lent, mirroring the temptations of Jesus in the desert, by placing ashes of dust on their foreheads, literally re-minding themselves that they “are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I am reminded of Nikos Kazantsakis, the author of Zorba, who also wrote of The Last Temptation of Christ… the final temptation which was to avoid his passion and opt for the normal life.
How does this question land with you today, this exquisite moment of human existence?
I am sure glad Millie came my way. And I am thankful to my fellow travelers, some that I knew deeply, that reminded me of a simple truth: Life is Gift. And as a old South of God rabbi once taught me walking on Folly Beach, You have to live it every day! Indeed.
Blessings fellow travelers. Brave journey.