Finding spiritual comfort in the midst of cancer, it can be done.
The title "Comfort in God" sounds very traditional, but for me, God or my Higher Power, is not traditional at all. I don't believe in a God who does things, creates miracles, gives us lessons, saves people, takes people; a seemingly very popular view of God out in the world.
After I found out that I needed to go back for six more sessions of Taxol in 2012, I spent much of the night crying. I just felt so sad about losing yet another six weeks of my life to exhaustion. I had so wanted to be done with all of this and I was afraid the chemo would go on and on and on.
But then I received an email from my friend Emmy talking about those spiritual things. The message was good. But it was really, really good in that it reminded me of my favorite spiritual writer, Etty Hillesum. Etty was a young Jewish woman in the Netherlands during WWII. She was part of the intelligentsia, privileged, self-absorbed. And she kept a journal. In the midst of writing that journal, she took on the task of praying. And that praying changed her.
She found comfort, she found truth about others, she found greater compassion. One of her main tenets in her belief in God was that God is inside all of us (very Quaker) and that God doesn't do things, change things, intervene. God is here to comfort. Many clerics in the world, I've found, also hold this theology but I rarely hear it spoken in sermons. I wish they would talk about it more often.
I'll never forget the Sunday a guest priest spoke at my church, just after my mother died. He worked at Walter Reed Hospital, the hospital that helps the war-wounded heal and return to society. He was there to minister to these men and boys. In the sermon that morning he talked about how often a soldier, who saw his buddy die in the same conflict that injured him as well, felt survival guilt. The soldier would say, "God must have saved me for a reason." The priest would pause, and then reply, "That would be a cruel god who would take one man and save another for a reason, leaving family, loved ones and you in indescribable pain. God is here to comfort us. Not to choose who dies." Hearing this theology spoken openly in a sermon was a moving moment for me, as I struggled with the sudden death of my mother and best friend.
This theology has comforted me and helped me feel safe to turn to my God for comfort -- I never trusted a God who would blithely send horrific lessons or cruelly choose to take my loved ones away. This God of comfort got me through my Mom's death in 2008, my friend Joe's suicide in 2009, my sister Melissa's death in February 2011, and only two months later, my good friend Thann's cancer death in May 2011.
And it helped me fend off comments from folks who meant well, but would say, "God had a reason to take your mom." I would politely reply, "I don't believe God takes people."
This has not been a good period of time for me and I need all the comfort I can get. Reading Etty Hillesum's writings has meant I was able to once again squash the idea of a cruel, lesson-teaching God and reacquaint myself with a God who comes in comfort. So thank you, Emmy, for reminding me to go back and read Etty. The passage below never fails to do the trick. If Etty Hillesum can find God's comfort in the midst of massive human suffering, cruelty and pain, I can feel safe to find comfort in my God in the midst of my own suffering, fear and pain.
Now I hope my God of comfort will get me through all my treatments, no matter how long it takes, and hopefully the long-term survival of stage 4 breast cancer. The results of the CT scan that week in 2012 were actually very good, with statements like "IMPRESSIONS: Marked decrease in metastatic disease within the liver, with the liver now appearing smaller and micronodular secondary to treatment." So, I was sad about more chemo, and at the same time grateful for my marked improvement. And I can always find comfort in my loved ones and my comforting God.
Etty Hillesum's writing:
Sunday morning prayer. "Dear God, these are anxious times. Tonight for the first time I lay in the dark with burning eyes as scene after scene of human suffering passed before me. I shall promise You one thing, God, just one very small thing. I shall never burden my today with cares about my tomorrow, although that takes some practice. Each day is sufficient unto itself. I shall try to help You, God, to stop my strength ebbing away, though I cannot vouch for it in advance. But one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that You cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well. Alas, there doesn't seem to be much You Yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold you responsible. You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last. There are, it is true, some who, even at this last stage, are putting their vacuum cleaners and silver forks and spoons in safekeeping instead of guarding You, dear God. And there are those who want to put their bodies in safekeeping but who are nothing more now than a shelter for a thousand fears and bitter feelings. And they say, 'I shan't let them get me into their clutches.' But they forget that no one is in their clutches who is in Your arms. I am beginning to feel a little more peaceful, God, thanks to this conversation with You. I shall have many more conversations with You. You are sure to go through lean times with me now and then, when my faith weakens a little, but believe me, I always labor for You and remain faithful to You and I shall never drive You from my presence."
(From Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork, Henry Holt and Company, Inc, 1996, p 178.)