Wednesday, January 18, 2017



The Year After

Many times over the years I have had clients who have been caregivers. For a child, a spouse, a parent, a friend, even a colleague. For people who have been ill with a chronic disease, been depressed, been in a conflictual marriage. The caregiving role becomes preoccupying, sometimes consuming all waking thoughts. But the caregiver remains committed and, it turns out, comes to identify themselves in this role in this relationship. They get to realize all of that sometimes only in hindsight because when the situation has resolved (through healing, death, separation, etc), they are a little bit lost. There is an emptiness where the activity and emotional involvement used to be. Sometimes it takes on the form of depression. Over the years I suggested the image of standing on the curb after the parade has gone by, and the papers and streamers are blowing around and no one is there. It is empty.
I have noticed something a bit similar in being a cancer survivor the year after all the heavy treatments. Very preoccupying, they were. Giving rise to a self identity of ‘patient.’ News of remission came on July 22 2016. But now in January 2017 the memories of ‘this time a year ago I was in the second round of chemo,’ etc. Those memories evoke a range of feelings, from relief to the anxiousness of what now…. They also evoke thoughts of ok what does God want from this? More than one person had told me during treatment that ‘you aren’t going anywhere, God isn’t done with you, you are still needed here.’  Other thoughts include the memory of how intensely spiritual the journey was, how beautiful and freeing that was, and yet how riveting it was when my life was really on the line and I had no idea what the outcome of the treatment might be. But now with the big treatment done and with the good news that resulted from it, there is an easing in the intensity. Will I be just a hard times prayer person? Will I let all that recede into the rear-view mirror now that we are free of the in-your-face nature of the illness and the treatment? Is this what will happen as opposed to keeping the intense relationship with God alive and front and centre in everything I do? Are the papers blowing around in the street?
Three things have occurred that help answer the emotions and the thoughts.
First, I have discovered that so much of this is natural, a shared experience, if you will. Check out this article if you or someone you care about is in this situation: http://www.dana-farber.org/For-Adult-Cancer-Survivors/Caring-For-Yourself-After-Cancer/Your-Emotions-After-Treatment.aspx . You sort of already knew this, but nice to have it articulated again.
Second, I recall that from the very beginning, I had a mindset of uniting my will with God’s. If God was permitting me (not causing me) to have this experience, then I accepted that. Moreover, I took my lead from St. Therese of Lisieux who died of tuberculosis over a period of a year and a half with a lot of pain. Clarence Enzler picked up on that attitude of hers and explicitly united his own cancer experience to the Passion Jesus experienced on the way to his execution. So all of that was a tremendous help to me and there were many graces given to me that enabled me to stay with that. I am so grateful for what God gave me both directly and indirectly through my ever-constant-companion-reminder-person Peggy. And now I notice something very interesting as I contemplate the papers blowing around in the street; I still have a few reminders of the experience. The parade and the excitement have gone by, total remission is the news. But what about that little neuropathy in the feet? What about the little tingling in the tips of the fingers? What about the inability to turn a key in a sticky lock? Or to do up a tight button because the finger strength isn’t there? I was impatient with all this for a while, but now these experiences bring smiles. Through these natural side effects of the chemo, the Lord is keeping me in the experience, he is helping me because he knows full well I cannot hold that level of awareness on my own. My my. I just marvel at this.
And finally, the whole thing about what is the Lord asking of me now? I have come this far, and a whole lot of people have not. What is that about? And those people at St. Paul’s saying to me that the Lord has other plans for me, things he still wants from me, so I am not going anywhere just yet. They were very clear and confident about that, take it for what you will. But as time goes on, I am getting no answers. Until one day recently, this passage comes in a daily reflection email I get: “Jesus entered the house of Peter, and saw his mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. He touched her hand, the fever left her, and she rose and waited on him.  Matt 8: 14-15
More prayerful discernment is needed around this, but the first message is, I think, don’t be staring out the window straining your brain. Don’t over think it. The Lord is asking you at the very least to recommit to your relationship with Christ. That relationship is the same one every one of us has who is a bapitized follower of Christ. For a Deacon that relationship is characterized as permanent, public and committed. For sure, Peter’s mother-in-law didn’t disappear out to the garden while she thought through what had just happened. Nor was she overwhelmed at the thought that she had just been given a new role in life. No, she got up and did what she would have done in any case. But you can be sure she did it at a new level of awareness, with a heightened sense of intentionality.
The passage hit me that day, and I took notice. Being a cancer survivor gives you that experience. I am even willing to guess that being a cancer patient – or a heart patient, or a diabetes patient – and having awareness of the gifts God is giving you throughout your illness, will bring this awareness. Renewal.
God is good.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The retreat that began October 16, 2015, can end now

In January 2016, my Blog entry was about that retreat. The retreat had started as usual, but after a few days, I began to experience abdominal pain. I ended up driving home early from Guelph to check it out in Kingston. I thought it was appendicitis. But after 8 hours in Emergency at KGH, the doctors had done a CT and found a mass. I was quickly referred to hematology oncology, and started treatment after the diagnosis of lymphoma was confirmed.

There began the most incredible spiritual journey. The amazing thing was that the beginning of the retreat, prior to the pain or the trip home, etc, turns out to have been the beginning of my spiritual journey with cancer, and the opening of a retreat that did not end with my leaving the property. Here is a paragraph from the January Blog that describes what took place when Fr. Govan gave me a book to read by Clarence Enzler, titled “Let Us Be What We Are.”

Enzler had a devotion to St. Therese, and also faced cancer surgery. Following the spirit of abandonment that St. Therese wrote about so eloquently, Enzler decided to approach the surgery by uniting himself to the Passion of Jesus. Like St. Therese he let himself experience his “smallness” so as to be completely filled by God’s will for him.

Now why would I write that? Well, I was going to be having minor surgery for a basal cell skin cancer, and I had been talking about my devotion to St. Therese, in particular about her ‘Little Way’ and her uniting herself to God’s will.

The book set the tone for my treatment experience, and I do not mean basal cell treatment. From the beginning, after absorbing the news that I had lymphoma, I was given the grace, as was Peggy, to treat this as our reality. I learned to stay in the present with God’s graces, and to trust that nothing happens outside his Will (which is not the same as saying that He causes bad things like this to happen. Only that it would not be permitted to happen if He willed otherwise). The gift of peace came with that, along with the realization that slipping out of the present into the future (the land of what-if, and of terrible possibilities) brought terror with it.

Through the six rounds of Epoch and the subsequent three rounds of high-dose methotrexate, the physical toll got bigger as the doses increased and the effects accumulated. Worries about the chemo pump alarming over air in the line or ‘occlusion’ in the line became the attention-getters. Two trips back to hospital with fever spikes provided additional drama, especially when of those trips led to a two day admission. But I was spared the terrible experience of getting sick, as sometimes happens, and mostly had to deal with losing my hair, with fatigue, and with vigilance about catching infections. I was very graced in that regard. I understand it can be really awful. I am so grateful for the development of the science in the chemo itself and in the supplementary meds that counteract side effects. I am so grateful for the skilled hands of doctors and nurses in our Regional Cancer Centre.

And I never once Googled anything about my condition. I left that to others, because I know from experience that the results you get are varied, and you could develop panic attacks thinking about the worst case scenarios, even if they have low probabilities attached to them. That’s just me.

Anyway, throughout the seven months, I also made the decision to keep the parish informed. My motivation was to prevent rumors, and to dispel the ‘elephant-in-the-room’ phenomenon in which no-one talks about the thing that is on everybody’s mind! Well, the dividends from this decision were unexpected and wonderful! People talked about their own journeys with cancer. I heard some incredible survival stories that buoyed my own ability to remain hopeful. Most of all, though, were the prayers and the promises of ongoing prayers. We talk about being a community of love in a parish like this. No experience has ever driven this home or made it more real than have these interactions.

And all the while, my role, I came to realize was to witness to the goodness of God, and to show people what it looks like when someone trusts the will of God for them, and is at peace. I heard over and over that this was being noticed. People would comment that such an attitude would bode well for my own healing process. But I think an even more important outcome was that people were shown, perhaps, how to do it, and to be encouraged to trust in the same way - for cancer or any other body blows that life might deliver. I am grateful for the grace that was given to me to do this right from the beginning.

And so it all came down to the ending of the nine rounds of big treatment. Two CT scans had shown shrinking of the mass, and no involvement of other organs (we won’t mention the compression fracture in my back! Hopefully on the mend). The second of those scans showed an ambiguous bit of tissue that might be scar tissue or cancer still present.

My wonderful doctor had warned me that this might very well happen. And so, as we had discussed, she sent me to Ottawa for a PET scan - kind of like a CT but able to confirm cancer sites. If it was cancer, we would be in for a course of radiation. If not, we go straight to maintenance chemo (2 hours every three months, for two years).

On July 22, 2016, we went for the results appointment. Fully prepared to receive a date with radiation. Our doctor walked in and said: “All good. You are in total remission. Perfect health, my friend.”

What? The world stood still for a moment. What? Peggy jumped up and hugged her. Me, I’m crying. Well, sobbing if you must know. Lol. Then I hugged the doctor. Plans were made for the first round of maintenance which I have now had.

I was preaching on the weekend that immediately followed. Scripture on prayer. Homily on prayer. And mercy. And trust. I saved the big announcement for the end of Mass, though. Cheering and sustained applause.

I told the parish that this was the result of the power of prayer, I have no doubt about that. And since their prayers have been steadfast for the past now 8 months, I offer this outcome to them as a gift from God. Let it be said that our God is awesome. Let it be said that God mostly wants us to trust him, and to let him show his miracles in whatever way he chooses. For me, the first miracle was the peace I received right after the diagnosis. And then the deepening trust in his Will for me. I would have still been there if the PET scan had said cancer.

And so the retreat that began October 16, 2015 can now end. July 22, 2016. It has changed me. Praise God. God is awesome. God loves us. God loves you. Never ever give up on that thought.

Friday, January 29, 2016

The retreat began October 16: it has not ended yet





The trip to Loyola House in Guelph is a much-anticipated annual getaway for my retreat – some 23 years now, and counting. Pretty much always in the fall, and for many years my week has been embedded in the larger 40 day retreat that is already on. The retreat atmosphere of silence is already in place, and my immersion in it is seamless and easy.

Every year I spend some time thinking about the grace I will be asking for on the retreat. Every year, God takes me on a turn in the road, a change in direction. I smile when this happens, and I take it as a clear sign that God is watching over me from the very beginning.

This year, I was still reflecting on a gospel I had preached on recently, the one of the young man asking Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life. The message from Jesus was that he should basically empty out and come follow him. For me, this led to a reflection on emptying myself out to totally trust God for upcoming surgery I was to undergo for a basal cell skin cancer. That in turn very quickly led me to reflect on the suffering of St. Therese of Lisieux in the last year and a half of her life when she was essentially suffocating with tuberculosis. I talked to my director about this and came back to it a couple of times. He gave me a book to read by Clarence Enzler, “Let Us Be What We Are.” Enzler had a devotion to St. Therese, and also faced cancer surgery. Following the spirit of abandonment that St. Therese wrote about so eloquently, Enzler decided to approach the surgery by uniting himself to the Passion of Jesus. Like St. Therese he let himself experience his “smallness” so as to be completely filled by God’s will for him .

This is where my turn in the road really began. I was just getting into this and resonating with it not only for my upcoming minor surgery, but for my life in general. And then, I started experiencing the pain in my lower right abdomen . It became sharp, and I began to be worried about an appendix attack.. I left the retreat three days early and drove home, straight to the Emergency department . After several hours of investigation, a CT scan was done, and they found the mass in an abdominal lymph node. There followed a referral to hematology oncology and a whole new diagnostic process. Long story short, a diagnosis of lymphoma was confirmed a couple of weeks later. It was decided that chemotherapy would begin right away, on an inpatient basis. I would have six rounds of this, a week at a time, every three weeks.

At time of writing this, I have completed three rounds and have tolerated the chemotherapy very well. The Kingston Regional Cancer Center has just adopted the Princess Margaret portable pump protocol for my particular brew, and I have been able to have this last round at home!

Back to the retreat. It clearly has not ended, and it clearly has continued to deepen the themes that were opening up in the few days that I was in Guelph. I have smiled many times at St. Therese and asked her if this is what she had been up to all along, preparing me for this over the past three or four years of my devotion to her. The first fruit of that devotion and of my being totally taken with her Little Way was that I have not had a moment of anger or sadness or despair or indignation or “why me?”. Very shortly after absorbing the significance of the news, my response was, okay Lord, what are you asking of me here?

The answer to that also unfolded over the weeks. I developed a very sharp perspective on what was important and not important in life. I suddenly could not believe the things that have upset me in the past, including how righteously indignant I could be at the behavior of other people! I recalled in a whole new way the story St. Therese tells of how she decided to love the nun who drove her crazy by criticizing her every little move. Therese eloquently framed the discussion within her own reflection of the love Jesus has for all of us with our foibles, sinfulness, and brokenness.

This is all stuff that I had previously read and reflected on. I was amazed at how much deeper it was all going. And then I recalled a reflection exercise we had done at a workshop on Discipleship here in Kingston on November 28 last year. The reflection was on the story of St. Paul being knocked off his horse by a blinding light and being led blind to Ananias. Ananias laid hands on him and said “Saul, my brother, the Lord has sent me, Jesus who appeared to you on the way by which you came, that you may regain your sight and be filled with the holy Spirit.” Immediately things like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight.

I have tried to be a prayerful person. I have lived long enough to become aware of my own brokenness and sinfulness. I am grateful every day for the gift of being in ministry as a Deacon. I therefore had no idea that I had scales on my eyes. But I did. The cancer is the blinding light that knocked me to the ground. Therese of Lisieux is Ananias. And Jesus has blessed me, dramatically getting my attention! I have never seen or appreciated or experienced my relationship with Jesus as clearly or as personally as I am now. And I know that this is not done! For that reason, there is no other way to characterize this journey than as one of great giftedness. Can you believe that in the middle of the chemotherapy and everything that goes with it, I am overwhelmingly grateful for what is happening in my relationship with God.

For that reason, the retreat continues. More later.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

What just happened in Ireland?

    On May 22, 2015, the people of Ireland voted 62% in favor of including the following words in the Irish Constitution: that “marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.” The turnout for the vote was 60% of registered Irish voters. The result was therefore not a squeaker. Moreover, the census of 2011 shows that Catholics make up 84% of the Irish population. This means that many many Catholics voted in favor of the constitutional amendment.

    Polls taken prior to the referendum suggested that the amendment was going to carry. Nonetheless, I have to say that I was very surprised at the outcome.

    As I grappled with a way to make sense of it, I recalled being in Ireland in 2012 for a tour of the country and to attend the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin. Hanging over the Congress was the ugly specter of the history of child sexual abuse by members of the clergy over many years. Also hanging in the air and producing palpable anger in the Irish people was the realization that the abuse had been denied, that priests had been moved, and that documents had been withheld from investigators.

    Given that history, which remains fresh in the minds of people, I was certain that the outcome of the referendum was an act of revenge against what was perceived to be an autocratic ecclesiastical authority. Moreover, it appeared to be a repudiation of the Catholic Church itself.

    It seems that I could not have been more wrong.

    We had a gathering of our local Deacon support group at our house last night. We always have a topic for discussion, chosen by the hosts. The referendum seemed both timely and urgent, so I started to read up on it, confining myself to the Irish secular press. The most prominent headlines tended to focus on Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s comment that the Church needed a reality check in the wake of these results, “… A reality check right across the board, to look at the things it’s doing well, to look at the areas where we really have to start and say, ‘Look, have we drifted away completely from young people’?”

    In an article titled ‘All churches in Ireland in need of ‘reality check’‘, Patsy McGarry, a writer with the Irish Times said the following: “It’s not just young people. The people who voted for this referendum included tens of thousands of practising older Catholics in the cities, towns and country side of Ireland. People who will continue to practice their faith but who no longer accept that their gay sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, grandchildren, even their gay parents, are “objectively disordered” with a tendency to evil, as their Church teaches. Rather, by voting Yes last Friday, they embraced their gay minority and trumpeted to the world “You are my son, you’re my daughter you are my brother, you are my sister, you are my grandchild you are my mother, you are my father, you are my equal in law whatever the church may teach. It is an irony that those who opposed the referendum out of concern for the family were defeated by the family. The difference being that the No family was a concept, whereas last Friday’s Yes families were flesh and blood, living, breathing, flawed, impossible, loving humanity.”

    The writer goes on: “where our major church is concerned, the facts are stark and indicate that the Catholic Church as it was throughout the 150 years from the mid-19th century until the 1990s is gone.… Yet, there is hope. It rests with those priests who listen to and remain close to their people; those men in parishes throughout Ireland without whom the church would have been washed in the tsunami of scandals. It is such priests who bring solace and comfort to gay people in their congregations as they discover their identities and who then help ease families into accommodating that identity.”

    The take away from this and several other articles I read, is that Ireland voted to keep their gay children, relatives, and friends, in the family, with all the meanings of the word family. The tone is not at all about revenge on the clergy or on the church in general. The interesting thing, though, is that the Irish Catholic Church more than anywhere else in the world, will now be challenged to make this meaningful within the life of the Church. It will be the first real proving ground of everything Pope Francis has been saying about welcoming everyone. The tension of course will be that Church teaching has to dialogue with the pastoral mission of the Church. Where does all this go? I do not know the answer to that, but I am pleased in the end that this is happening in Ireland and not in North America.  Over here it would have been framed entirely along the lines of ‘my rights’ with an aggressively anti-religious overtone, perhaps. In Ireland, the faithful will remain faithful. The Church is going to grow up in a way it had not anticipated.

    I can’t help but think that the Holy Spirit is really up to something here.   


Friday, March 6, 2015

Patch Adams: not the movie


I had the great pleasure of hearing and seeing Patch Adams for the first time, on February 20 at the Ontario Psychological Association Annual Conference where he was a keynote speaker.(Remember the movie? Here's a correction for you: the person who was murdered was not a girl, but a buddy of his. "Hollywood took some liberties.") He talked for an hour and a half with no notes. Partly because he has talked to groups all over the world, and knows his message very well. He dressed in clown get-up, and he showed two short clips of his work. One was a breathtaking scene in Peru in which he got down to face level with a young girl with cerebral palsy and whose head was in her hands on her wheelchair. He literally brought her to life.

He is funny, but he is very serious. He says he has been at this since he was a medical school renegade in the mid-60's. He will never burn out because it is not possible when you love people so much and have such great joy being with them. Hospitals are not happy places, he says, because they do not teach medical students compassion, and those students land in the treatment world full of themselves (he used harsher language than that). Well, make of that what you will, he is the embodiment of something different, that is for sure. 

A few quotes:

"Care is the verbing of love."

 "There is no treatment prescription in the Diagnostic Manual that says, "Could use more love."  

"Caring is the chance to be enthusiastic."

"Caring is good for you. There are no papers in science showing the value of being serious. Or nasty, rude, or apathetic."

The whole thing is interesting not the least because he made it clear "I do not believe in any God." But then he used examples of Mother Teresa and Jesus. He asked the audience to put up their hands if they have done anything recently that was life-giving for another person. Lot of hands went up. He said, you are heroes. Then he said, when I count three, shout out "I am a hero." He mocked the effort and had us do it again. Much better. Then he said, how could you ever burn out if you are a hero and if you are Jesus? That's what Jesus wanted, isn't it? To be him to the people you meet?"

"Can you imagine going down the street saying I am a hero!"? Can you imagine going down the street and saying I am Jesus? Don't say that one near a psychiatrist!"

I was amazed. And everybody was quite moved. He talks with tremendous confidence, and he says "I cause havoc in an elevator!" But "When we go to a hospital or a home, I always look for the kid in the corner. That's the one who will be missed."

I am thinking to myself, we need this guy to fire up our evangelizing efforts. "Be Jesus to other people"? When you sign on to spend time with Patch Adams ("We have people from 3 to 88 coming to the clowning schools")  you dress in clown and you go to where people need to be cared for. He was going to be doing a visit to Sick Kids, and so the President-elect of OPA was in clown get-up to accompany him.

When we sign on to be with Jesus, to follow Jesus, do we make that kind of commitment? Most of us do not, sadly. We let other people put on the Jesus garment. We are not able to do that. We are not worthy of doing it. We make our commitment by praying. By trying to be a good person.

But BE Jesus to other people? That is ministry, that is discipleship.

There is going to be a workshop in Kingston on November 28, and it will be about intentional discipleship, the very thing Patch Adams is about, in a slightly different context. Someone I was talking to the other day lamented that it might be just another workshop with some good ideas that we go home and forget about.

We will forget about them only because we are not really taken with Jesus yet!

You can't hang around Patch Adams and not be taken with him.

BE Jesus to other people?

Oh my goodness, he's got me thinking, wheels turning. More than anything, heart turning - to Jesus. Nothing but nothing will happen if we merely like the idea of Jesus. It happens when we are engaged with, in love with, embraced by, the person of Jesus.

Thanks, Patch. Whoda ever thought?