I went to church with my friend Jan shortly after she was diagnosed with Stage 4 Ovarian cancer. Her odds weren’t very good. But her spirit was strong, and she was open to all sorts and conditions of healing. She’d jumped at the chance to attend a small, Episcopal healing service and, swallowing hard, I joined her.
I had no idea what to expect. After the laying on of hands and anointing with oil, we returned to the pew and sat together, our heads bowed, our voices whispered, as the priest continued praying and anointing, continued the conducting of supplications from gray-haired heads to God and the promises of healing back to the women kneeling before her. It occurred to me it was just Hope passing back and forth. Hope was, I thought, the active ingredient that morning, the force that brought us together, the critical medium of exchange.
I thought. *Thinking* wasn’t very effective. It confused me, made me doubt. *Feeling*, on the other hand, was so exhausting. It made me cry. *Going Blank* had quite a bit to recommend it, but it was all so interesting, so different, that I was afraid I might miss something. I’d never done anything like this before. Who was, for example, that tiny, slightly hunched over woman in the red sweater, the one in the front pew, on the right, and did I hear correctly when someone said she was 102? And the voice on that other woman, the larger one behind us, with very short hair – could such a sweet, high tone really belong to a grown-up, indeed, to a grandmother? (I heard her pray for her grand-daughter, I know I did.) I searched the chapel. Why is she here? What about that one? Are they better than I – at prayer, at faith, at friendship? Is their belief stronger and more certain? Are they faking it? What if she’s praying, not for Jan, but “Please, God, not me, not my mother, not my daughter”? I hushed these uncharitable thoughts.
*Wondering* wasn’t such a bad state of being, but it seemed self-indulgent, too. As if I could take it all in, retreat, synthesize, and later decide what to make of it, if anything. I couldn’t. There wasn’t time. I had to “make of it,” make more of it, immediately. I had to be open to the possibilities, all of them. *Being Open*. Maybe that would work. It sounded right. A little New-Age-y, but all right. It was a healing service, after all.
I took a deep breath. It might have been a sigh. Then I moved toward Jan and slipped my hand in hers just as, at the same time, she moved toward me, and slipped her hand in mine. We sat there in silence, holding tight and weeping, until the prayers were finished.
Then I laughed. (Discreetly. We were still in church.) “How the hell did we get here?” I asked, less discreetly, but quietly still. Here. What did I mean? Here – in a tiny chapel I’d never discovered hidden away in that corner of my church any of the 14 years I’d been a member. Here – in the Episcopal Church when I didn’t even know if Jan went to church, much less where. Here – at a small, weekly healing service on a Wednesday morning. Here – in need of, in search of, Something. Here – putting to a rather ultimate test a faith we had only recently, before her diagnosis, talked about missing and wishing it were stronger. Here – 58 year-old college classmates and friends who just four months earlier had vainly recommitted ourselves to hormones and highlights so we’d stay young-looking, now bargaining simply, nakedly, for Jan to stay alive long enough to grow old. Here – holding hands in unspoken pledges that we wouldn’t let the other go. I would be there for her – in church, at the hospital, on the other end of the couch over tea – while she fought this cancer. And she would be here for me; she would survive. Here – we believed.
The small, intimate service grew each week. Jan’s many friends crowded the pews on Wednesday mornings and redefined the laying on of hands. It was no longer just the priest’s hands; it was our hands, too, on top of each other’s hands, on the shoulder of the woman in front of us, around another’s waist, touching, reaching, sharing, joining the entreaty for healing. Manicured hands, arthritic hands, jeweled hands, soft and rough and raw hands, wrists clasped in gold and silk and sweats, marched up to the altar rail by tennis shoes, boots, sandals and Manolos – it didn’t matter – each embraced Jan and Jan’s faith and Jan’s hope. Ours was as physical a manifestation of love and support as it was a spiritual exercise. And I suspect it extended well beyond our generous hopes for Jan to a more selfish, deeply personal need to be silent and breathe in the calm, expectant air created by the candlelight and stained glass windows. It did for me at least. It became a self-soothing ritual, a service that made me a part of a special new community; it was my healing time and place and people
I had my doubts, though, and they easily distracted me. Normally when I pray, I use simple words from my childhood and the Book of Common Prayer. First I give thanks – for my children and marriage, our home, our health, our many blessings. I am deeply grateful, painfully aware of how transitory they may be, and generally, I give God all the credit.
After thanks, I petition. My requests are both general, e.g., Please watch over all our loved ones traveling, and specific, as in Could you give one daughter or another a break this week and let her just be happy?
I pray for peace, too, but it has begun to feel a little like taking aspirin for back pain, a headache and menstrual cramps. How does the aspirin know where to go, or what to fix first? Ditto with Israel, Iraq, Iran, Korea, the Sudan, Dafur, China, and wherever – just what, exactly, do I expect my God to do? I’m not really sure, but it seems important, nevertheless, to call in the big spiritual guns, as the mere mortals in charge are making such a mess of things.
And sometimes I give up. I let the cynicism of age and the failures of the institutional church sap strength from my faith such that I no longer pray for peace or even for miracles for people I love but only for the strength to help my friend on her journey or me if our journeys take us someplace I don’t want to go. I pray for comfort more often than for cures, as if a cure is too much to ask, as if I’m being greedy if that is what I really want (But wouldn’t God know if I were merely being polite? Would He know if I didn’t really believe a cure was possible? If I didn’t really believe?).
To escape such ruminations, I look over at Jan. She looks good and acts normal -- which is incredible. But the newspapers are full of stories about cancer research and treatments, and what I read most of the time is that the time she is buying with these extremely toxic treatments comes in weeks and months and not the years one would hope. Still, hope is about the best she has to go on right now, and I\'m not withholding any. Where my faith fits in to this, I cannot say. During the mass I feel better sometimes, but also powerless, vulnerable, and guilty. Guilty because I can’t silence the raging debate in my mind – that interior conversation which boils down to this: What comfort is God’s love, really, if, in fact, I lose someone I love and someone who loves me?
That’s the core contradiction of this service, as I see it - that we confess faith in the life to come while fervently praying we can keep the one we have now. Shall I pray for someone to help me work that out? Or shall I pray to still my mind? And, why suddenly, is this all about me when it is Jan whose cancer needs the cure? Because God works in mysterious ways? I don’t think so. That’s the kind of stuff that drives me absolutely crazy. And yet. And yet, I cannot pretend that I show up every Wednesday morning at 10 for Jan alone. I’m there for both of us. I know this because I cannot stay away, and because the healing service’s final prayer speaks to me so forcefully. It says *“Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you; and then use us, we pray, as you will. . . .”*
That makes sense to me. Helps me understand. And believe – that God can make the difference and that, maybe, I can, too.
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