Walter Wangerin Jr., one of the finest Christian novelists around, was tragically diagnosed with cancer last year and has been posting updates on his website about his spiritual and physical progress. Let me rephrase that. He is not only a great “Christian novelist” but the most warm-hearted, humorous, prophetic writer one could imagine, someone who transcends all boundaries of genre and subculture. I was particularly struck by these comments from his December letter:
I have never construed my cancer as my enemy. No, I do not judge others who do (thoughtfully) choose it, for whom “fighting” may be a helpful stance and attitude. On the other hand I am critical of the media when, without genuine thought or analysis, it routinely declares in its death notices, that so-and-so died “after a long battle with cancer.” Why does it have to be a “battle”? What: are folks with cancer good fighters if they win? Bad fighters, failing knights, if they lose? Can they be heroic only in triumph? It really isn’t an issue of defeat or victory. We are all going to die: what a terrible, terribly total annihilation such language must make of our slaughters individual and wholesale, of our universal losses to sickness, disease and death.Read the whole thing here. And pray for Walt.
Why not use the imagery that acknowledges how one experiences dying?–how one behaves in the face of death?–what one has to offer those who stand by in love and relationship? These have been forms of discussion very familiar in the church of the past. Read Jeremy Taylor, HOLY LIVING and HOLY DYING. Before sciences and the medical profession began (indirectly) to persuade us that cures could be possible for every disease we might diagnose, describe, explain and name; before commercials began to establish it as a principle that each affliction identified also had an antidote; before our society made “feeling good” an individual human right (setting at enmity anything that made us feel bad) we did not have so self-centered, so childish, so simplistic, so unavailing and purposeless a frame of reference for the experience of sickness-unto-death.
Why not use the imagery of the psalmists in the Hebrew Scriptures? A human is his body or hers (note: even my genitive language here supposes a possessor of the body, this possessor [a soul? a mind?] supposed to be the “real” person). Never in isolation, the body/individual exists ever and only in relationships: to elements of creation; to a people, a tribe, a family; to God. Suffering a physical sickness, then, is to experience the effects of breakage in the body’s significant relationships. Sickness is not an enemy. It is a rooster’s crow, calling me to the truth of myself and to the precise condition of my relationships–God, society, nature. Enemies? The psalmist knows some. Those who hate God. Those people(s) who attack him–yes, and who hurt him in the attack, for wounding is distinguished from physical disease; but even human warfare and defeat (see the books of Joshua and Judges) are attributed to disobedience, our breaking of God’s commandments, our breaking of the divine relationship.
For my own part, I recognize cancer cells as parts of me (of Walt, the body-soul continuum), tissue which is part of all my tissue–even as my children are a parts of our family (without whom the family itself would be something else). They (whether cells or kids) become selfish, demanding more of the resources of the family (of the body) than other members can receive. My children are not my enemy. And my diseases, far from acting the foe, are profound initiators of spiritual clarity, devout meditation, a faithful (a peaceful!) seeking after God, praying, shaping thanksgivings for Jesus’s re-building of the relationship between God the Father and me. And just this (the reconciliation Jesus effected between the All-Father and all children) becomes the object of my most careful contemplations. And these contemplations themselves are made more patient and more mature by the disease and by the convictions of mortality which the disease infused in me.