The Healthy Side of a Cancer

Pierce, O most sweet Lord Jesus, my inmost soul with the most joyous and healthful wound of Thy love (St. Bonaventure)

When I was much younger, I used to think that it would be a good thing to have a sudden death, so long as I was in the State of Grace at the time. It seemed to me that there was a good side of a sudden and fatal heart attack in that one didn’t have to face the agony of death for more than a moment or two. As I’ve grown older, I no longer think that’s a particularly good Christian attitude towards death. It now seems to me as too much like a desire to escape the cross as a part of the Christian path to holiness. And how can I preach the cross and deny it for myself?

A few years back I was diagnosed with a peculiar kind of cancer which is rather slow-growing but nonetheless ultimately fatal. There’s nothing to get you thinking about life and death than being told that you have a fatal disease. Of course, it’s somewhat consoling to know that it’s not likely to be a quickly developing cancer, but nonetheless the idea of death does tend to stick around in one’s mind regardless of whether it’s going to be a slow process or a fast process. Everyone knows that death is inevitable, but when the actual sentence is handed down, it’s only normal that you would think more about it than you did during most of your life.

Nonetheless, prayerful reflection has led me to see a side effect of such diseases that is really quite healthy in terms of the way it makes one look at life. The Saints always understood this elementary truth which we plodders are slow to grasp. Indeed, one can read about it already in the Psalms. Everyone’s life is ultimately short, in comparison with eternity, and we need to make the most of it in preparing for eternity. From this time/eternity perspective, I won’t be making a list of things I’d like to do before the final struggle – you know like the movie, The Bucket List – make a list of places I’d like to see that I’ve never seen, things I’d like to do that I’ve never done. For a believing Christian, the death sentence should lead one to make a more healthy list of things to do that will give me a greater spiritual preparation enabling me to conquer in and with Christ the suffering that inevitably follows from the disease and ultimately the death it causes.

I’m not really all that good a sufferer, and just as I am convinced that chastity is not possible without God’s grace, so I’m even more convinced that a fruitful acceptance of suffering is not possible without God’s grace. Some Christians may find that chastity can be attained simply through the regular reception of the grace of confession and the regular reception of the Holy Eucharist on Sundays. But I think that a Christian approach to suffering requires much more. I think the spiritual life has to be greatly intensified, with much more frequent reception of the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist, and a much more intense prayer life to establish a more intimate union with Christ and his cross.

Keeping the “death sentence” pronounced by the doctors as the horizon against which one lives day to day is the key to achieving a kind of deeper love that embraces even the cross of Jesus. That’s a very healthy thing. It’s healthy for anyone at any age and in any condition, but it becomes much more likely to be recognized and engaged by one who is actually struggling with a fatal disease. That’s what I mean by one of the healthy side effects of the disease; that whereas one perhaps thinks little of preparing for death and the embrace of that ultimate cross when one is young and healthy, when the doctor tells you there’s nothing they can do for you that will actually destroy the disease, then you’re much more likely to embrace that healthy attitude of spiritual preparation.

Do we not believe that suffering has redeemed the world, that is, that redemption was brought about by the agony and death of God our brother? Hopefully the “death sentence” helps us finally to practice what we have always believed, that our suffering and death have positive meaning because they are connected in a mysterious way to that primordial act of our Savior. Soldiers in combat can develop a much more intimate bond of the love of friendship in their mutual suffering, in their suffering with each other and for the well-being of each other. Isn’t that also necessarily the case when it comes to our own suffering and Christ’s.

That truth alone preserves the sanity and holiness involved in the choice of Christian souls to become victim souls with Christ for the salvation of others. Without this understanding that Christ has chosen to call us into this deepest intimacy, an intimacy so great that his suffering becomes ours, which redeems us, and our personal suffering becomes His which brings great benefit to others, suffering is pure negativity and leads to despair or mindless resignation to the evil involved in it. Of course, our personal suffering doesn’t redeem others, for only Christ’s does that. But our deliberate suffering in union with Christ not only draws us closer to Christ in love, but it also merits great graces for others and will draw us into a more intimate union with them in heaven as well. This isn’t Catholic craziness. This is pure Catholic wisdom.

So why should we ever get bogged down in agonizing over the “death sentence,” which was, after all, pronounced in Eden and is only more immediately specified by the doctors. It’s so much better for us, joyful for us to simply make good use of it and focus on its healthy side.

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