Two years ago, while plunging into the final stage of studies for Jesuit priesthood, I was diagnosed with recurrent leukemia. My first thought was: why didn’t I enter the Dominicans or Franciscans where I could have finished formation years ago? The correct response is that no one finishes formation; rather, we arrive at deeper levels of the faith journey. Still, that particular part of the pilgrimage seemed awfully crowded and wayward. What helped give it focus was returning to a tip offered at the beginning of my Jesuit formation: pay attention.
Paying attention is a mighty task, but it is at the core of any credible formation, whether it takes place in a classroom, an unlit chapel or a smelly hospital bed. Living with a life-threatening disease has an abrupt way of getting one to listen with greater intensity, perhaps because we are a bit unsure what to say, or perhaps even more because we are hungry to hear any scrap of God’s good word.
Through the miraculous combination of modern medicine and many persons’ ancient trust in God, I survived what was considered incurable leukemia—again. As I now approach ordination to the priesthood this spring, here are two lessons I heard proclaimed loudly during each ordeal.
We cannot choose our form of Christ
When my leukemia was diagnosed 11 years ago, the first person I told was my father. He had always been as steady as a rock, and I knew what he would say: “Everything will be fine. Don’t worry. We’ll go through this together.” I went to his office, told him I had what was considered incurable leukemia, and then stood there, listless, waiting for him to respond, to say things would be fine. He said nothing. Instead he did three things in rapid fire. He first let out a strained shriek of pain. He then pulled me toward him and put his short arms around me. Then he picked me up. He did not know how tightly he was embracing me. He never said, “Things will be all right.” Instead, he held me, embraced me. My only response was to join him in weeping.
This was about as much love as I could handle. I did not know how I was going to tell others, how I was going to wake up in the morning, how I was going to stop thinking about this disease. All I knew was that there is a calming strength when one is surrounded by such love. It is not a love that assures that all will be well or manageable. It is a love that puts one in touch with amazement. In that brief moment, the worry and anxiety do not abruptly disappear as much as they quietly dissolve in witnessing raw, spontaneous compassion.
What is it that allows a person, however briefly, to transcend the innate impulse for self-absorption? When we receive this burst of generosity, it makes it easier to show weakness, to trust God and to have hope. When it is most baffling to understand where God calls us, it is consoling to be baffled with others along the way.
It is not easy to comfort another in the shadow of bleak news. Perhaps that is why it is so moving when people try. They do it not because they feel helpful or wise, nor do they do it because they have no choice. They have too much love to keep it cramped. If the last 12 years, with two diagnoses of leukemia, have instilled in me any wisdom, it is that this explosive love is not granted to spiritual gurus but to the stumbling, doubtful and unprepared. Our salvation never comes in the form we have chosen.
The great miracle of living with a life-threatening disease is more than beating the odds. It is that one is given a chance to deny no longer the uncertainty of life and the endurance of love. It is tempting to dismiss both truths, but it is also, I now realize, silly and regrettable. There are certain people and events God throws at us to shake us out of our complacency, discouragement and self-imposed isolation. While it may not make much sense, it seems evident that we have a calling to unite with all our heart, with all our strength.
What becomes clear when we pay attention is what Jesus never tired of saying: be overwhelmed at the preciousness and power of kindness, both human and divine. The experience of leukemia put that in concrete terms: be gentle with those around you, expect a few pokes on the way, get enough sleep and, finally, relax—someone else is in charge.
Gratitude has its costs
I have discovered that when we least care to admit it, we feel more confused than thankful, more caught than called, more worried than gracious. In humble moments when we can no longer gloss over the roughness of life, gratitude has a way of pushing out the real soreness of feeling cheated or inadequate to the rugged realities of the world. Gratitude seemed to be a handy response to dodge the tough things for which there are no simple or comforting answers.
When it looked certain last year that the treatments had failed—every examined cell was cancerous—the lesson seemed to be that gratitude is not worth sacrificing honesty. It is not worth discarding the truth, that unease that engulfs us when we choose not to be numb. And anyone who speaks casually about gratitude just hasn’t been there.
The enduring lesson of gratitude—the genuine kind that stirs our soul and humbles our arrogance—comes at a great cost. It requires that we abandon any trace of believing that our lives belong to us. Our lives belong to a force that is unlimited, intimate and explosive with tenderness. When the news about the leukemia looked so gloomy that the doctor had run out of options and words, I discovered, ungracefully and stubbornly, that one’s vocation comes when one no longer runs from the stench and misery that is part of the human pilgrimage. We reach this point not through any mystical connection but simply through exhaustion. It becomes too draining to pretend that this mess—or any segment of our journey—is controllable.
This is a gratitude that isn’t cheap. To ground our lives in this kind of gratitude is to take an enormous risk. It is an acknowledgment that our lives will be forever unfinished, unbalanced, uncertain and untamed.
Through the bleakest moments, the seemingly pointless irritations, the heaviest of worries, there is some spark of hope that refuses to disappear. To hold such a belief is not a convenient illusion; it seizes the deepest truth of our lives. We are here, we are born, not because we are faithful or nice. We know better. We are here out of unimaginable love. No matter how hard we are on ourselves, no matter how much we live with mixed motives, no matter how much we bury ourselves in cynicism, nothing will squash this love.
This is not how we want to see it, but it is the truth that appears before us when we are wise or weary enough to quit kidding ourselves. There is something very real and very lifegiving that compels us to keep plugging along. While we are usually not calm enough to recognize it, there remain moments—usually ones of intense loss or love—when we feel tugged and ultimately carried by something that is beyond us. I have come to believe that this is the Catholic version of “being saved”—recognizing there is something which allows us to keep going, amid the day-to-day angst of living in a world of violence and grace.
It is waking up to how much this world glitters with holiness. And when we wake up, we wonder how we could have missed what now seems obvious. A little peasant, Platon, says it in a Tolstoy novel: “When we die, the Lord’ll give us a word or two of explanation and we’ll wonder why didn’t we figure it out for ourselves.”
If we do figure it out, we are able to glimpse the source of light that somehow pierces our despair, our darkness. That’s when the idea of a god being born in squalor does not seem so absurd. We don’t need to be strong or noble to believe that. I have been too afraid, withdrawn and tense in dealing with my leukemia to pretend otherwise. But we need to pay attention and to be grateful.
It is a gratitude, a way of life, that ultimately asks one thing but at a great price: fall extravagantly in love with what is given. When we choose this given with fierceness, we know that when we crumble, we crumble into an embracing tenderness. We know that when we shatter, we shatter among the many images of this divine scattered throughout this growing creation. We know that when we are frustrated, we are intimate with the Source that breathes stillness into our restless bones.
To fall in love with the given is not to romanticize anguish or dread. It is to say that our faith, at its best, invites us to be in awe. It is to be amazed at how the Father of Jesus refuses to back off, insists on gripping our slightest quiver, our loudest wail, our most robust joy. To accept that is to know that our lives, wherever they take us, are filled with a boundless, unstoppable force of love.
That is what we are given; that is what our God demands we accept. Our only response is be grateful and know we all have the possibility to consecrate this world.