The first time I walked into the “chemo room”, I wanted out. I was there to support my friend, but he was far calmer than I. Let’s just say that going into a doctor’s office or a hospital has never been my strong point. The chemo room was set with about 15 recliners, accompanied by chairs for guests and side tables for drinks and magazines. The room was filled with men and women of all different ages, with all different types of cancer, coming from all different walks of life. Some may have over 50 years to live after their treatments, while others may only have less than one.
On that particular day it wasn’t the beeping of the IV machines, the occasional wail of someone in discomfort, or even my own anxiety of doctors that made me want to leave. Nor was it my friend’s cancer that was troubling me; since his cancer is, in fact, very treatable. What left me shaken was that I was encountering, for perhaps the first time in my adult life, the reality of my own finitude.
Looking around the chemo room was like starring into a mirror, seeing a reflection of not necessarily what might happen to me, but what probably will happen to me. As these thoughts came swarming into my mind I picked up a newspaper, put my head down, and attempted to distract myself. I did what our entire society continues to do – react with fear to the inevitably of our own death. It is the same fear, for example, that causes our society to focus on the beauty of youth, rather than on the beauty of the aging. When we encounter the suffering of others from sickness, we fail to admit that our fate is somehow bound up with theirs; and so we turn away in fear. Fear of nothingness. Fear of dying. Fear of failure. Fear of regret. Fear of change.
Distractions can only last us so long. In my case, only about 5 minutes. I couldn’t sit there and pretend that nothing was going on around me. When I picked my head up from my copy of the New York Times, I realized that I was the only one who was reading. And for that matter, I was the only one who was trying to distract myself. The rest of the people in the room were engrossed in conversation – sharing stories, and offering each other advice. In other words, transforming what some would consider to be a situation of hopelessness, into a hopeful place overflowing with love.
Christian Wiman writes in his remarkable autobiographical piece, My Bright Abyss, that when faced with cancer “what one craves is supernatural love, but one finds it only within human love. This is why I am, such as I am, a Christian, because I can feel God only through physical existence, can feel his love only in the love of other people” (164). I can find no better way to define mercy, and how mercy is found in the chemo room. Mercy, as we have seen throughout this edition of Vacation Bible School, is about entering into communion with God through embracing the other. As Christine McCarthy beautifully wrote in her recent post, mercy is “borne in conditions of brokenness”. Jurgen Moltmann echoes this sentiment by claiming that all of our theology has to be developed “in earshot of the dying Christ.”[i] If this is true, than what better place to define mercy and enact this “praxic love” of God, than from within a chemo room. I think mercy ought to be at the center of our theology because above all, mercy is the experience we have of God in others. It brings us closer to God’s ineffable love – even, and especially, in the midst of pain, agony, and suffering. Mercy allows us to confront the fears we have about the inevitability of our own death and encounter the mystery of the Divine by encountering the mystery of another person.
So what, if anything, does the Gospel have to say about cancer and chemotherapy? Well, nothing directly. But it does have something to say about how we, as Christians, ought to approach the uncertainty of life, of suffering, and of death. Discussions about the relationship between our Christian faith and illness tend to take one of two directions. One is the perpetual speculation of theodicy: the attempt to reconcile the prevalence of suffering with the existence of a loving and omnipotent God. The other line enters directly into the arena of medical ethics: what Christianity has to say about informed consent, the right to die with dignity etc. These conversations are no doubt important, but when we get wrapped up in theological and ethical arguments about sickness and death, we can forget how mercy for the sick was at the heart of Christ’s ministry. Here is a little snap shot. Take notes, class.
- Although John’s Gospel names the wedding feast at Cana as Jesus’ first miracle, all three synoptic Gospels agree that healing the sick was Jesus’ first miracle. Both Luke and Mark specifically name the healing of the demoniac as the first and the healing of Simon Peter’s mother in-law- as the second (Mark 1:21-31; Luke 4:31-39). They, like Matthew (4:23), note that the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry was marked by many healings (Mark 1:32-34; Luke 4:40-41).
- Christ wanted his followers to have compassion for the suffering. In fact, when Christ summons the disciples to preach that the Kingdom of God is at hand, it is immediately followed with the decree to minister to the sick (Matthew 10: 7-8).
- In the Gospels, mercy is understood as a condition for our salvation. This is particularly made evident in the Last Judgment (Matthew 25), where those who are saved are saved because they performed what we later called the corporal works of mercy – feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, visit the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead. In the end, according to the synoptic gospels, we will be judged by whether we are merciful to those who suffered (also see Luke 6). Where there are people suffering, Christ is present in their midst.
There is so much uncertainty when it comes to sickness, showing us the difficult reminder life is not guaranteed. Christ confronted that reality with a gentleness and tenderness that strikes us still to this day. That didn’t mean that Christ was never afraid of the sickness he saw. His humanity shows us that is understandable to react with fear (Jesus wept when he saw Lazarus). But Jesus overcame that fear through mercy, by showing us that our pain, and our suffering is not singular – it is a part of the human condition and as such, should be embraced.
I am beginning to think that we do not find strength in the midst of suffering because our pain is somehow diminished by belief in an afterlife, but that what gives us strength, and what makes our faith so radical, is that we claim God is present in the midst of that suffering. The corporal work of mercy to visit the sick does not ask us to have compassion for the sick by having pity on them. No. It asks us to visit the sick, to be with them, to show up and enter into the chaos of their suffering by being fully present. When battling cancer, what a person needs is not for someone to say “I am sorry.” What they need is for someone to say, “Here I am.” That is what Christ teaches us in the Gospels, and it is the mission that he entrusted to us as his disciples. It is a ministry of presence. What Christ continues to teach us is that suffering is not meant to be embraced alone. We must confront suffering together, and in encountering the love of one another in that suffering, we will encounter the Divine. It is in the presence of the other that we are able to find the merciful God telling us, “Be not afraid.”
Below is a prayer, for all of us who dare to “enter into the chaos of the other,” who seek to embrace the uncertainty of life, and who embody the praxic merciful love that Christ has called us to.
[i] Moltmann, The Crucified God, 201
Click to read other posts in Daily Theology’s Vacation Bible School 2015: Mercy Edition.
Meg Stapleton Smith is a master’s candidate in Ethics at Yale Divinity School. After graduating from Boston College in 2013, she was Director of Campus Ministry and a Theology teacher at Notre Dame Cristo Rey High School in Lawrence, MA. Her current research interests lie mainly in Salvadoran liberation theology and contemporary Christian social ethics. In her spare time, Meg enjoys playing with her family dogs Ruby and Ty, visiting craft breweries, and reading poetry by Mary Oliver, Rumi, or Rilke. It is clear that Meg is a true believer because she is also an avid New York Mets fan.
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