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Rev. Jim Cotter Address 2012

Before my name on the order of service is my courtesy title, the Reverend, my regular credential for standing in a pulpit - though having recently retired and celebrated my 70th birthday, I rather like the idea of The Irreverend instead. But the letters after my name, CLL, give me - perhaps - the only authority that matters today, Chronic Lymphocytic Leukaemia. Let us keep silence ... From the silence in the depth and darkness of our being may there rise living words to challenge and encourage and console, after the pattern of Jesus and in the power of the Spirit. Amen. It is fourteen months now since the bombshell changed my life utterly, in a moment. You hear the words, and nothing will ever be quite the same again. Amidst the rubble of the fallout from that explosion, I have searched for sense and meaning. The pickings seem thin, but I hope they may be of some help. I feel I have been inhabiting three different worlds, distinct from one another but not separate. The first of those worlds has its own picture language. One example: it became the background refrain of the week - Examinations, Tests, Waiting, Results. It threw me back to childhood: Would I pass the next test and earn the approval of my parents and my teachers? The stakes are high. The future depends on the results. What are the figures from the tests on this week's blood tests? Early on in my treatments, I asked my consultant without thinking, Have I done all right? He paused and looked at me, It's not your fault, you know. I smiled, acknowledged to myself I'd regressed to childhood, and became adult again. But I now live for the rest of my life with tests always hovering, not knowing what the next appointment will reveal, all future events in the diary in pencil. If it's not a matter of school or college tests, it's certainly an ordeal. But this first world has another set of images, even more 'testing'. I've already used one word, bombshell, and I've already heard this afternoon from those who have spoken the word 'fight' a number of times and the hope that one day we will win the 'war'. We work and pray for the day that cancer will be 'defeated'. I wonder if that will ever be - cellular mutations happen faster than we can keep up with them - but let that be for now. Starting chemotherapy is akin to fighting on a battlefield, poison the weapon, taking you into the border country between life and death. You become like a climber in the Himalayas. Above 22,000 feet, if you have no support, you begin to die. You have entered what they call the 'death zone', where you soon being to hallucinate, to stumble and fall. You do not know in advance whether you will ever come down again, through the mists, and know you're safely back in base camp. One of my doctors changed the picture again: he spoke of my bone marrow being like an overgrown garden with the weeds taking over. He was sending in the weed 'killer'. Unfortunately, it didn't discriminate between the plants we wanted and those we did not. At the end of the six months of treatment the bone marrow was like one of those paintings of the devastated landscapes of Ypres and the Somme during the First World War: all brown and grey and gaunt, nothing green, no flowers. They would come back - all being well - but slowly. I learned something of the behaviour of those cells that were causing the problem, how a switch was not working that would cause them to die. They were multiplying, consuming the variety of healthy cells in their path, much like a goose stepping relentless army of uniform soldiers in uniforms. The battle was on: one side would win, the other side would lose. Or perhaps it's more accurate to think of an armistice, a truce. The cancer retreats, to wait another day - much like the fascism that stirs once again all over Europe. Strange how similar the battles seem, one an a vast scale, the other microscopic. It was of course an emergency, and the chemo was the only way that my life could be prolonged. All was done with precision, with skill, and with care. Of course there was no hostility in this war to me as a human being. And it has worked - at least for the time being. Remission. Respite. Recovery time. A cure? I'm not sure of that, but certainly a gift that people two generations ago were more rarely given, the wounds from the battle being so much more severe than they are now. But we must be realistic. The spiritual guide, Richard Rohr, gives us these pungent truths: Life is tough. You are not in control. You are going to die. The second world overlaps this first world, mingling with it, distinctive but not separate. Both permeate the Alaw Unit at Ysbyty Gwynedd, the cancer department in the hospital at Bangor: the ward, the day unit, the consulting rooms, the treatment rooms, and the reception and waiting areas. It is a concentrated cluster of acts of kindness, an outpouring of compassion, mirrored by that of the village of Aberdaron where I live - and my family and friends. It raised my spirits, convincing me yet again that there is more good than evil in the world. I was reminded of William Wordsworth's line about the "best portion" of a good person's life", those little, nameless, unremembered, acts of kindness and of love. A word that takes it deeper is one that embarrasses alpha males, and even a gamma male isn't entirely at ease. The physical examinations and the taking of blood samples, the tone of voice and the choice of words, showed a quiet 'tenderness'. And I think of the 'tender shoots' which even now may be showing themselves in the nursery of my recovering bone marrow. Then there are those 'tenders', the little 'tugs' that nudged the mighty liners into berth here in Liverpool two generations ago, ships so heavy and relentless that the tenders were always at risk of being crushed. And what about this: "Ay! it's tenderness really ... and it's touch we're afraid of ... Especially the English have got to get into touch with one another, a bit delicate and a bit tender. It's our crying need." That is the gamekeeper Mellors to Lady Chatterley. Ah! I've waited a long time to quote D.H.Lawrence's novel in a cathedral ... The Catholic writer and spiritual guide, Donald Nicholl, echoed the American Indians when he said: "... every person is infinitely precious," a 'holy land' which you do not enter "without taking off your footwear: because only then, through the tenderness of your own feet, will you come to know the holiness in the place where you are treading." A footnote to this description of this second world. In the border country between life and death I became aware of the presence of those I love who have died before me. The details are private, but I felt reassured that when my time comes there will be a quiet crossing with all the help I need - if I but trust and open myself to receive. And I was reminded of an African poet, Senghor, who wrote, "I mix up death and life - who are joined by a tender bridge." Two worlds then, in each and all of us, each in tension with the other, that tension raising all kinds of unresolvable questions. We simply have to live with them without craving resolution. Perhaps that is a good description of faith: living trustfully the unresolvable questions. But I find I can't quite leave it at that. In and amongst, between and among, these two worlds there seem to me to be hints of a third. I approach it by asking what is now a challenge to me in this time post-chemo. Technically, there is no detectable cancer, but I know enough about leukaemia to realize that it is unpredictable. And yes, I'm in remission - though I don't like the word: it makes it seem as if I've been in prison and I've been let out early for good behaviour. I think I prefer 'intermission', an 'interval' in the drama of cancer, for me a play in at least two acts, perhaps more. And the interval, whether short or long, does give me time to ponder the wider and deeper perspectives of these unresolvable questions - as well as for an ice cream or two. Whether by means as yet unknown to us, by a combination of prayer and touch and openness and the affection of friends, something sometimes happens which we term a 'miracle', a 'cure'. Let's not claim anything more than that, but let us respond with gratitude and wonder. But that can also happen after years of painstaking research into possible medications. So, when I was very young, the new 'miraculous' drug, penicillin, cleared up a nasty abscess on my jaw - and there was much rejoicing. Now I'm awed by the history of chemotherapy and its experiments and trials, humbled into wonder and gratitude by those who endured a much rougher time of it than I have done - and that was bad enough! But let us face the inevitable: however marvellous, cures are temporary. A condition returns, or something else lethal gets us first. I wonder what Bartimaeus in the Gospel story, cured of his blindness, eventually died of some years later. If we want to talk about 'healing', it must be about something more than 'cure'. We have a hint in the kind of people Jesus of Nazareth touched: the outcast and the despised. Everybody in the community distanced themselves from such people (think of those who talk about immigrant 'scum', treating human beings as less than people). Jesus embraces them, brings them back to life in the kind of community he came to inspire. We do belong together. Sometimes it takes an illness to make us realize this truth - and you see it enacted day by day in a cancer unit in a hospital. Go deeper still. The parable of the Good Samaritan is much more than being helpful to those in need. Indeed the man with the donkey is kind to the man who is helpless in a ditch. But remember that the Jewish and Samaritan people were at enmity. Not only did the Samaritan love his enemy, the wounded man was challenged to let his enemy love him - which he did, of course, with tenderness and generosity. Such is a sketch of what life is like in this third world. In it forgiveness reigns: how often do I forgive? Seven times. No, seventy times seven, in other words, you never stop forgiving. A Catholic friend of mine put it like this: the God of Jesus Christ does not know how not to love. And it is a tough love, by no means sentimental. Its laser beam discerns the truth, often unwelcome to us. Its 'Presence' is fierce with love - but gentle with judgment. We are moving beyond the world of cures and remissions, being strengthened in our 'intermission' to hear the next challenge from the radical man from Galilee. "Follow me." This decidedly does not mean that we shall escape the dark challenges to come, that because Jesus faced them we do not have to. No, the invitation is to accompany him and be accompanied by him into and through the heart of darkness. Yes, for the time being my cancer cells are few and sleeping. I imagine them somewhere in the basement of the house of my being, in a comfortable room, but not allowed out. I try to simplify my life, clearing my house of clutter. I try to keep times of silence, not least so that the cancer cells don't wake up. I sometimes, changing my mood and my picture, imagine myself in dialogue with them. I try to learn from this 'enemy', this shadow companion which I now realize has always been there, and may well be the dark means by which I come to my dying. In the European stories of dragons, they are the enemies to be killed. The Chinese version is different. Dragons are indeed fierce, but their flames keep at bay those who would otherwise plunder the treasure they sit on. They will allow you near when they discern you are mature enough to be given some of that treasure - which is wisdom. So may we learn from the shadow and from the darkness. Of course our hearts cry out, Why me? Where are you, God? Why don't you cure me? Why are you silent and absent, so far away? But the response is: But, beloved of my heart, you are looking the wrong way. Look within: I am at the heart of your darkness, within the very flaws of your DNA, working with you - I need your co-operation and help - to bring you through suffering and darkness to a strange new joy and light and life. I love the poet Henry Vaughan's line: "There is in God, some say, a deep yet dazzling darkness." Here within the darkness is One who indeed bears the unresolvable yet gives us a vision as our inspiration and our empowerment: from deep within there is yet a denser light shining through a face, and a diamond light shining where there are wounds in the hands. Why is it in our different churches we split the darkness and the light, the suffering and the glory? Crucifixes have the first, with their agony, empty crosses have the second, with the temptation to pretend that all is well and the suffering is in the past. The first of course is the catholic custom, the second the protestant - another baleful example of the results of our divisions. Only an occasional artist or sculptor gets it right: look at a painting once and you see the darkness and the suffering, look again and you see the light and the glory. They are held together. In this life we cannot expect any more than that - but that is more than enough for now. Charles Wesley wrote of it in his Advent hymn, though I have dared to adapt it: Those dear markings of your passion still your dazzling body bears, cause of awe and quiet wonder to your wounded followers: with what weeping, tender touching, soul-deep healing, gaze we on those glorious scars. Let us make - all of us - the most of our 'intervals'. None of us know how long the play of our life will last, how many acts there will be, whether the intervals will be long or short, or even whether the theatre of our being will burn down unexpectedly before the next cancer act begins. Let us learn how to be still, how to be silent, how to listen deep within, to our cancer, to our companions, to the Mystery beyond us all. My predecessor but two as vicar of Aberdaron was the poet R.S.Thomas. Towards the end of his long life he wrote a very short poem which could well have been written on a calm summer evening in the village. All is unusually still. And he invites us: Let us stand, then, in the interval of our wounding, till the silence turn golden, and love is a moment eternally overflowing. Let us keep silence .. Let us stay seated to sing, quietly, the next hymn: On our familiar strand our feet we lightly place: we build our castle towers and walls but leave behind no trace. Relentlessly the sea uncovers graves and stones, reclaiming what we thought was ours, our cells, our flesh, our bones. The pincers of the crab attack us from the side: they drag us helpless, down and down, through surf and ebbing tide. Our journey to the west cannot postpone the sea: eternity soon swallows time, land's end for you and me. Our bodies' fibres part, the thread of gold is drawn, ourselves slimmed down for needle's eye, yet into glory born(e). © Jim Cotter www.cottercairns.co.uk


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