A prayer in the face of too much cancer

It is starting to get scary. 

I don’t know if it is the time of life or the cell phones glued to the side of our heads or the devil’s cocktail of man-made chemicals we’ve been imbibing in our food and drink, but I am suddenly surrounded by cancer stories. My mother-in-law, my brother-in-law, Missionary of Charity Father Joseph Langford, one of the most experienced members of the Our Sunday Visitor board of directors, the husband of a college friend: Every time I pick up the phone, it seems, I’m hearing about someone who is dying or battling not to die. 

At work we have a prayer intentions e-mail, and any employee can list prayer requests for family members, friends or colleagues. Requests come in nearly every day. So many are health-related: surgeries, diseases diagnosed, diagnoses that are being waited on. Sometimes, I admit it, it’s hard to read: so many people suffering from so many afflictions. I feel powerless except for prayer. 

Illness often leads to prayer. When we know someone who is ill, we reflexively say that we will pray for her. We make it sound so easy at times. But when we really pray, heart and soul, and our requests are rejected — it is hard. We can talk all about God’s plans and accepting his will, but the truth is, when we are really praying for ourselves or others, we want God to do our bidding. We can’t stand the thought of losing this man, this woman, this child. We believe that God must understand our request, that he must see that it’s sincere. 

And yet sometimes nothing halts the disease’s progression. We don’t get the miracle we seek. 

When we are healthy, of course, we are often less likely to turn to God. When life is good, it is easy to take God a bit for granted. We’re working hard and being justly rewarded. We are masters of our universe.

But all of us are just one diagnosis away from realizing we aren’t the masters of anything. 

As soon as we hear the phrase, “We’ve found a mass,” as soon as we cough up blood or feel shooting pains up our arm, we start getting very religious. Christopher Hitchens, our age’s most notorious atheist, is dying of esophageal cancer, yet rejects any solace from religion as he stares into the grave. There is a certain stubborn courage to his nihilism, and yet it seems to me at least to be, well, unnatural. 

He will know soon enough, as will we all. Right now I hesitate to find anything positive about illness. I hate it too much. But I know God uses it like a sculptor’s blade to transform us into something wondrous, if we let him. His ways are not our ways, and, like so much of life, the lesson that it teaches is that we must trust God’s will for us without reservation and without hesitation. 

Mortality, the will of God, our own fragility: It is all part of the terms and conditions, the fine print that comes with all the glorious gifts God also gave us. Our stay on earth is temporary, and whatever the drugs, whatever the surgeries, whatever the science fiction fantasies of cryogenics and man-made immortality, the truth is that we die. Even our Savior died. 

We know that our destiny is not this world, but to be with Christ, who also defeated death. We are pilgrims just passing through, heading home. But at the same time, in these passionate human hearts God crafted for us, I hear beating the defiant words the poet Dylan Thomas wrote to his father: “Do not go gentle into that good night! Rage, rage against the dying of the light!” We want our loved ones to fight. We want to fight ourselves. We are grateful for all that medicine — another gift of God — has been able to do for us. We grip our loved ones fiercely, and we pray God protects them all. 

A little longer, Lord. Not now. Not now.

Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.