Like so many Americans, I’ve become a lapsed church-goer over the years, discovering a different kind of meditation and prayer to sustain my daily life. It is my writing practice, a ritual that begins in the early morning, before the outside world intervenes to pull me into its noisy demands. I open a notebook I’ve written in for years, the leather cover engraved with Celtic knots, and turn to a fresh blank page, one inviting me into quiet, and exploration of daily life. I pick up my pen and begin. My first words are often no more than a question posed: “what did you notice?” But it is enough. Writing has become my prayer, a door that opens to the landscape of my soul. It is also my practice, helping others to express and explore their lives through writing—particularly those affected by cancer. It is humbling work, and for the many years I’ve been doing it, I also realize how deeply spiritual it is for me—and, in witnessing others’ lives, for others.
Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time—Thomas Merton
Faith and spirituality are important in improving the quality of life among many cancer patients and frequently written about in books, articles and blogs. “One Man’s Cancer,”a blog written by New York Times editor Dana Jennings, after his diagnosis with aggressive prostate cancer, documented his journey, and among his many reflections, he wrote about the importance of “spiritual antibodies” in his cancer journey.
I converted to Judaism five years ago, after decades spent stumbling toward God. That faith has helped sustain me this past year, from the diagnosis of my prostate cancer, through surgery, and through radiation and hormone treatment when it was learned that I had an aggressive cancer.
I am not a fool. I am a patient with Stage T3B cancer and a Gleason score of 9. I need the skills and the insights of the nurses and doctors who care for me. But they don’t treat the whole man. Medicine cares about physical outcomes, not the soul. I also need — even crave — the spiritual antibodies of prayer, song and sacred study.
Whatever your religious or spiritual beliefs, they can provide strength and comfort in a difficult and painful chapter of life. A diagnosis of cancer is nothing anyone chooses. It can feel like a death sentence, and it may challenge your faith. But cancer offers a chance to deepen self-understanding and compassion, an opportunity to define what is essential and important in life, a reminder to pay attention to and appreciate the ordinary gifts of each day. “Each moment holds out the promise of revelation,” Jennings wrote. (He ultimately survived his cancer ordeal and continues to enjoy life with his wife and sons).
The experience of cancer, of getting through treatment and recovery, as Jennings so eloquently expressed, is a deeply spiritual journey. Cancer forces us to pay attention, really pay attention, to what matters in our lives. So many times, when I ask members in my writing groups what sustains them during the long months of surgery, treatment and recovery, I will hear the words, “My faith grew, and I prayed a lot.”
While faith and spirituality are related, they’re not synonymous, yet whatever your beliefs, your faith or your spiritual life can provide an important source of strength and comfort. Stephen Levine, best known for his work in death and dying, and quoted from a 1989 interview with The Sun, said, “As part of our wholeness, we need our woundedness. It seems written into spirituality that there’s a dark side to which we must expose ourselves.”
Cancer plunges us into that dark night of the soul. And while it may challenge our faith, it also offers the chance to explore what is truly essential—and soul nurturing—in our lives. Meditation and prayer are a way to explore one’s faith or spirituality. Writing also offers a way into the deepest realms of our being.
“When you’re caught up in writing…” poet Denise Levertov remarked in her final interview, “it can be a form of prayer.” When we write from our lives, we must have the courage to take a deep dive into our inner lives. “Tell the truth,” Maxine Hong Kingston tells her war veterans as they meet to write their stories of battle. Writing, whether of cancer, war, or other momentous events in our lives, cracks us open. We embark on a deeply spiritual journey. It’s why so many established writers will tell you, “writing is a courageous act.”
Varda, a writer in my first group, died of metastatic breast cancer several years ago. She wrote throughout her cancer journey, often humorously, sometimes poignantly, but always honestly. She became one of our most beloved group members. Nearing the final weeks of her life, she wrote “Faith,” a poem that examined her relationship with God:
God and I always had a special relationship,
sealed in ancient Hebrew prayers
and stained glass windows.
The Shofar blown on Yom Kippur.
The Book of Life open for ten days a year,
and then my fate sealed.
But our relationship has changed.
In asking me to surrender to this illness,
God has asked me to let go—to trust—float free.
And I have found this to be a most precious time.
My cancer has challenged my faith,
and I have found an incredible well I did not know I had.
I have found true surrender,
I have come home to God, and we have renewed
(In: When Words Heal: Writing Through Cancer by Sharon Bray, Ed.D., 2006)
I think of Varda’s words often. To trust—float free…an incredible well I did not know I had. Has your faith been challenged in the experience of cancer or other suffering? What has sustained you in times of illness, hardship or struggle? Perhaps you have embarked on a spiritual journey you never imagined could be possible as a result of cancer. Where have you found your solace, your strength? Write about how cancer has challenged or deepened your faith or your spirituality. What “spiritual antibodies” were most nourishing and sustaining for you?