Roman arch over the Via Dolorosa, Jerusalem, November 2012

Overheard the other day in the infusion center at Southern Illinois University while I was headed toward the bathroom for the umpteenth time: NURSE 1: “He took his Lasix before he came in.” NURSE 2: “So he’s going to go wee, wee, wee all the way home?” I had a snappy comeback, but I can’t recall it now. (Which is probably a good thing.) At any rate, I’ve passed sort of a milestone lately. It’s been a little more than a month since I started chemotherapy, and it’s been quite a learning curve.

Maybe what the Brits sometimes call a “U-shaped curve,” in fact. More on that later.

I’ve been learning a lot about the disease, and the body chemistry affected by chemo — the side effects really clobbered me after the last go-round. But much of my learning has been deeper, more inward, even spiritual in nature.

Parts of it are brand-new to me. But much of it, I’m coming to realize, I already knew.

Take for example the Prayer of Good Courage, sometimes it’s known as the Holden Village Prayer, after the (ELCA) Lutheran retreat center in Washington state. It was written by the Rev. Eric Milner-White, dean of York Cathedral in England, and brought to the US by Lutherans who learned it from Anglicans with whom they were imprisoned in a Japanese POW camp during World War II, and I’ve made something of a mantra out of it. (I’ve journaled about it over the years, HERE, for example, HERE and HERE. And it helps keep me going now.) It goes like this:

O God, you have called your servants to ventures
    of which we cannot see the ending,
    by paths yet untrodden,
    through perils unknown.
Give us faith to go out with good courage,
    not knowing where we go,
    but only that your hand is leading us
    and your love supporting us
        through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Everyone’s experience of chemotherapy, I’m learning, is a little bit different. But fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea and a whole litany of gastrointestinal complaints seem to come with the territory. So does a certain kind of gallows humor. Wee, wee, wee all the way home. (I’ll spare you my witticisms about prunes.) Mostly I guess you trust the process and hope for better days to come.

When I was little, I’d yell when Dad put rubbing alcohol on a skinned elbow. “It’s supposed to hurt,” he’d say. “That’s how you know it’s working.”

A little U-shaped curve? Making things worse so they get better?

Again, it comes back to trust.

Two books I’ve found especially helpful are by Brendan McManus SJ, an spiritual author, poet and retreat director of Belfast, and and his co-author Jim Deeds, a poet and spiritual director, also of Belfast. Perhaps typically, I found their second book first. It’s titled Deeper into the Mess: Praying Through Tough Times; I read it in December when I was hospitalized for exacerbations of COPD, apparently brought on by chemo, and I blogged about it HERE under the headline “A Jesuit, a Protestant reformer and a spiritual mutt walk into an ER (instead of a bar): How I’m learning to trust God.” In a way, this post is a sequel to that one.

But I read the books out of order. So … first things first. In the first book, titled Finding God in the Mess: Meditations for Mindful Living, Deeds and McManus address the existence of God in a meditation titled “Believe in the Unseen.” They believe in the wind, they say, and they believe because they have seen it. As it is with the wind, they add in the next meditation, “so is it with God, “the source of life.” They explain:

We believe that God gave life to each one of us. We believe God wants us to spin a beautiful interconnected web through life, strengthening each other as we go. And we believe that God, the source, can give us strength as we face the heaviness of life’s worries and problems. How do we connect to the source?

We can do so through prayer, silence, reflection, music, nature, art, liturgy, service, love, and mercy, to name but a few. […]

Deeds and McManus also note that Jesus and other spiritual leaders often begin by saying “Be not afraid.” The best antidote to fear, they suggest, is trust:

Instead of fearing, we can simply trust. Trust that things will be OK even in the midst of the pain and misery that come our way things will be OK, because there is a bigger story, a bigger picture, a story with a great ending. From a Christian perspective, we trust that God is working with us, in us, and through us.

Again, it’s all about trust.

Finding ‘resurrection days’ in a time of pandemic

Most helpful of all, as I adapt to the challenges of chemotherapy, has been a remarkable series of posts that McManus wrote for the Jesuits in Ireland website in 2020 at the height of the Covid-19 epidemic.

Faced with an all-consuming national crisis, and what turned out to be months of lockdown in the early months of the pandemic, he found comfort in what he describes as a “U-shaped curve” inherent in phenomena including the stages of grief and the Passion of Christ. More generally, the concept of U-shaped development describes a learning process in which our skills “start out at a high performance level” but “descend to a lower position on the Y-axis” over time, before “once again ascend[ing] to a higher position.” Wikipedia cites research in the development of cognitive, artistic and physical skills alike. Blogging on May 5, 2020, a couple of months into the pandemic, McManus found a U-shaped curve in his reaction to the lockdown:

After a ‘honeymoon’ start to lockdown, recently I’ve had to abandon all my high-flying plans for reading, writing and exercise. The last few days in particular have been very tough, even though objectively it seems like the worst is over, often it feels like an endless nightmare. At this stage, it is a question of enduring and getting through, arriving alive at the other side. Whenever that comes.

Yet, even as McManus “began to hit the ‘wall’, reaching the limits of [his] strength and endurance,” he took inspiration from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and their emphasis on the Passion of Christ. As much as I’ve read about Jesuit spirituality in the last few years, and as many times as I’ve sung at Good Friday services when I was in a parish church choir, I’ve got to admit this is still pretty new to me. Good Friday, as far as I was concerned, was something you had to get through in order to get to Easter. But McManus says, and I’m coming to believe him:

The life and death of Jesus is not something that happened years ago and no longer relevant. Rather it is the very essence of the lives we live, the dying and the rising is a continual process that marks our lives and especially shapes our Covid-19 world. […] This is the experience that Jesus himself passed through in the Garden of Gethsemane, the ‘why have you forsaken me’ moment which is chilling but inspiring in its raw humanity.

After Gethsemane, Jesus went on to the Via Dolorosa, also known as the Way of the Cross. (It’s the route that tradition says Jesus took through Jerusalem to the crucifixion. The picture above shows part of it.) One year we incorporated the Stations of the Cross, based on the same tradition, into the Good Friday service in our Lutheran church back in Springfield. Sitting back in the choir loft, I thought it was an interesting liturgical exercise. But it hadn’t been part of my spiritual formation, and I think it largely went over my head. In Gethsemane, Jesus prayed. And 2,000 years later, McManus prays with him. He explains:

That’s where the radical prayer comes in, the prayer of the cross, imitating the same ‘U’ shaped process that Jesus has lived through. Reaching the limits and handing it all over to God, holding nothing back, stepping into that dangerous mysterious void. It means trusting the ‘passionate one’, the one who has been there before us in the depths, who has beaten the rap and taken the hit for us. To pray using the words of the psalms, as Jesus did in his darkest hour, has an extraordinary power:

Into your hands O Lord, I commend my spirit
Take away this cup
Why have you forsaken me

I begin to see a chink of light, I begin to pull out of the dive, I begin to rise again.

Again, this reminds me of something I’ve known for a long, long time — the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and other recovery groups. The 11th Step counsels “prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.” (It doesn’t have to be the Christian God we pray to. Any higher power that lifts us out of ourselves will do. But I’ve long thought the spiritual discipline here is pretty exacting, and rewarding.)

Praying only for knowledge of God’s will and the strength to carry it out. Isn’t this pretty much the same as what McManus calls the “radical prayer […] the prayer of the cross” in Gethsemane? “The hardest thing,” he says, “is hanging on in the bottom of the dive and remembering that it’s not about me, that I am being carried and I need to let myself be lifted and freed.” Anything else is likely to come from what St. Ignatius terms a bad spirit and not from God.

Drawing on the discipline of discernment of spirits, a Jesuit process for determining whether an impulse reflects God’s will or the illusion that “there is no meaning (the work of the ‘bad spirit’) and that I only deserve the worst,” McManus says discerning God’s will is part and parcel of the “U-curve.” It is, in fact, what lifts us out of the bottom of the curve and back up the Y axis. He adds:

This cycle can last a year, a month or even a day. The challenge is to live every day like a resurrection day. To be so fully present, in the moment and living the paradoxical tragedy-wonder of life. It is all about gratitude: to see the absolute giftedness of every moment, the wonder of every encounter, the silver lining on every cloud. The mask of mundanity is pulled away and I see the wonder of things, fragility and strength, the way we are held in being at each moment.    

Even in tacky jokes and gallows humor? Well, why not?

I don’t know yet. I’ll have to think more about all of this. But I sense there’s something powerful here, and I sense it can help me as I come to terms with the paradoxical tragedy and wonder of chemotherapy, and of life in general.

Links and Citations

Jim Deeds and Brendan McManus SJ, Finding God in the Mess: Meditations for Mindful Living (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2017), 74-75, 95, 100.

Brendan McManus SJ, “Resurrection in dark times,” Blog — In All Things, Jesuits in Ireland, May 5, 2020

Joseph Tetlow SJ, “Discernment in a Nutshell,”, Loyola Press, Chicago

Nancy Winder, “Origins of the ‘Prayer of Good Courage’ with Nancy Winder,” Audio Archive, Holden Village, June 29, 2019

[Published Jan. 29, 2023]

2 thoughts on “Praying only for the knowledge of God’s will and the strength to carry it out amid the ‘paradoxical tragedy-wonder of life’

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