Giotto, 1297-99, Basilica of St. Francis, Assisi, (WikiArt).

Welp, I know what I want to give up for Lent this year:

Chemotherapy. That’s what.

Yesterday I celebrated Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, by beginning my last cycle of chemotherapy at the Southern Illinois University medical school’s Simmons Cancer Institute. No pancakes, but I did eat a couple of packs of peanut butter snack crackers during the infusion. And next Tuesday, Feb. 27, I’m scheduled for my last infusion. (It’s also International Polar Bear Day, if you keep track of these things.) I don’t have the details yet on how we’ll celebrate it, but celebrate we will.

And it’s close enough to the beginning of Lent, I can say I’m giving up chemo for my Lenten discipline.

Lent, of course, is the Christian season of fasting, discipline and reflection “commemorating the 40 days Jesus Christ spent fasting in the desert and enduring temptation by Satan.” (International Polar Bear Day is “an annual event “to coincide with the time period when polar bear mums and cubs are sleeping in their dens, and to raise awareness about the conservation status of the polar bear.”) Spring, even in the Arctic and even in chemotherapy, is in the air.

Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent have taken on a special resonance for me in the last few years. I was counting it up, and the Ash Wednesday service in 2020 was the last time I was at a public gathering without wearing a surgical-grade mask. Came down with the flu, as a matter of fact, and blogged about it HERE and HERE when it developed into pneumonia just as the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic came sweeping into town.

A year later, for Ash Wednesday 2021, I blogged again, HERE, about why I considered we were coming up on the 53rd Sunday in Lent. Now I’ve lost count. Then, just as the pandemic was settling into some kind of negotiable “new normal,” I was diagnosed with cancer. And on my first day of chemo, back in December 2022, Debi was in HSHS St. John’s Hospital a few blocks away with what turned out to be a heart attack. So in some ways it’s like Lent 2020 never ended, and this week we’re just going into a fourth year of Lenten discipline and self-examination. […]


LATER (Saturday, Feb. 25, to be exact). And that’s as far as I got with it before the side effects from that last infusion said, oh no you don’t, we’re not quite done with you yet. So I set it aside until I was feeling better. In the meantime, I lost my train of thought. Stuff happens. Here’s something else I started:

Most chemo days, I take a chair in the SIU infusion center that has a lovely view of a parking garage for Springfield’s adjacent Memorial Medical Center. The window, set high in the wall, looks out over a nicely landscaped garden. From my vantage point in the infusion chair, all I can see is a couple of birch trees. Or they might be sycamores. Or shagbark hickory? It’s hard to tell at this time of year. Over on the righthand side of the window, there’s what might turn out to be a redbud (judging by its seedpods on the bare branches). I’ll bet it’s lovely in the spring, parking garage and all.

What better time and place to start reading up on St. Francis? No, seriously. I mean it.

I’ve been taking a little book by Ilia Delio with me to SIU. She’s a Franciscan sister who has two PhDs (one in pharmacology and one in theology, from Fordham) and has an intriguing way of resolving the tensions between science and religion, especially in an age of quantum mechanics and astrophysics, by bringing them into harmony with the medieval Franciscan theologians St. Bonaventure and Duns Scotus, and, of course, the saint himself.

Her book is hardly a page-turner. It’s titled A Franciscan View of Creation: Learning to Live in a Sacramental World, and it’s part of a series of short books, pamphlets really, brought out by a group known as the Commission for the Retrieval of the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition. In a brief introduction, Joseph P. Chinnici OFM of the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley characterizes this vision as:

[…] Francis’s Gospel answer to the world’s challenges and his Gospel “yes’ to the world, the Church, his own human existence and that of his brothers and sisters. Here was a Gospel proclamation of goodness at the heart of reality. [Italics in the original.]

Delio’s focus is narrow, centering on Bonaventure and Duns Scotus, but they are at the heart of the Franciscan world view. As she develops it, Delio makes it clear the vision is incarnational, that “Francis came to realize that the entire creation is holy.” An outward and visible sign of God’s inward and spiritual grace. Much of this is familiar to me. I grew up in an Episcopal parish church dedicated to St. Francis, just down the street from the TVA Division of Forestry, Fisheries and Wildlife, and it wasn’t lost on us that St. Francis was the patron saint of, well, of forestry, fisheries and wildlife. (The St. Francis parish webpage notes its “name was chosen because of its location in a wooded area where deer, birds and other wildlife were often seen.”) This emphasis is very familiar — Fr. Richard Rohr, popular Franciscan author, calls it “birdbath spirituality,” and it’s not to be discounted. Delio puts it like this:

Everything spoke to Francis of the infinite love of God. Trees, worms, flowers by the side of the road — all were for him saints gazing up into the face of God. Creation became the place to find God and, in finding God, Francis realized his intimate relationship to all creation.

Less familiar, at least to me, is Delio’s discussion of John Duns Scotus, the 13th- and 14th-century Franciscan theologian. Drawing his inspiration in part from the prologue to the Gospel of St. John, he grounds the incarnation — all of creation, really — in the concept of Jesus Christ as the preexisting incarnate Word of God. Citing the prologue, Delio summarizes his christology as follows:

Christ is the meaning and model of creation and every creature is made in the image of Christ. Because creation is centered on Incarnation, every leaf, cloud, fruit, animal and person is an outward expression of the Word of God in love. When Jesus comes as the Incarnation of God, there is a “perfect fit” because everything has been made to resemble Jesus Christ. This means that sun, moon, trees, animals, stories, all have life only in Christ, through Christ and with Christ, for Christ is the Word through whom all things are made (cf. John 1:1).

This is not entirely unfamiliar, either, although it would be a stretch to say it’s a majority opinion today. That said, Father Rohr, author of The Universal Christ and director of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, carries it a step further into territory that, at least to me, is entirely new. Delio, who says Rohr is “one of the great vernacular theologians of our age,” notes that he downplays the concept of original sin. In a book review of The Universal Christ, she says:

In his newest work, Richard takes up the mystery of the cosmic Christ and, as a Franciscan, does so with passion.  The notion that Christ is the firstborn of creation, the head of the whole shebang from the beginning, was supplanted in the early Church by the emphasis on sin and salvation.  St. Augustine, in particular, felt the need to formulate a doctrine of original sin in order to highlight the saving grace of God.  By the eleventh century, the need to explain the damage due to the sin of Adam and Eve became the principal reason for Jesus Christ.  If Adam had not sinned, Christ would not have come. No sin, no Jesus. The reason for the Incarnation (God assuming flesh), therefore, found merit in sinful humanity, rendering generations of people focused on their faults and failings.  Salvation through Christ meant being rescued from a fallen world.

The Franciscan vision, on the other hand, is grounded in love rather than atonement for sin. Says Delio, paraphrasing Duns Scotus:

The Christ, therefore, is not an abstract symbol but the communion of divine persons-in-love expressed in personal form. The real content of this symbol is shown in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. So does everyone have to become Christian to know the Christ?  Absolutely not; Christ is more than Jesus.  Christ is the communion of divine personal love expressed in every created form of reality—every star, leaf, bird, fish, tree, rabbit and every human person. Everything is christified because everything expresses divine love incarnate. However, Jesus Christ is the “thisness” [or haecceity] of God (‘God is like this and this is God’) so what Jesus is by nature everything else is by grace (divine love). We are not God but every single person is born out of the love of God, expresses this love in his/her unique personal form and has the capacity to be united with God.

The upshot? For Father Rohr (as for Duns Scotus and Ilia Delio), it means to find God, we look inward. Says Delio, closely paraphrasing both:

We cannot know this mystery of Christ as a doctrine or an idea; it is the root reality of all existence.  Hence we must travel inward, into the interior depth of the soul where the field of divine love is expressed in the “thisness” of our own, particular lives. Each of us is a little word of the Word of God, a mini-incarnation of divine love.  The journey inward requires surrender to this mystery in our lives and this means letting go of our control buttons.  It means dying to the untethered selves that occupy us daily; it means embracing the sufferings of our lives, from the little sufferings to the big ones, it means allowing God’s grace to heal us, hold us and empower us for life.  It means entering into darkness, the unknowns of our lives, and learning to trust the darkness, for the tenderness of divine love is already there.

I can’t think of anything more appropriate to be reading during chemotherapy. Or during Lent, for that matter.

Links and Citations

Ilia Delio OSF. A Franciscan View of Creation: Learning to Live in a Sacramental World, Franciscan Heritage Series, VO. 2 (St. Bonaventure, NY: St. Bonaventure University, 2003), xiii, 12, 15, 34.

__________. “A Reply To Richard Rohr On The Cosmic Christ,” New Creation, Center for Christogenesis,  Oct. 16, 2017

St. Francis Episcopal Church, Norris, Tenn. “What We Do,” about page

Wikipedia articles on astrophysics, Duns Scotus, Giotto, haecceity, International Polar Bear Day, Lent, Memorial Medical Center (Springfield) and Shrove Tuesday.

[Published Feb. 25, 2023]

4 thoughts on “A chemo-infused reflection on Ash Wednesday, St. Francis and the first few signs of spring outside the window

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