The Annunciation Trust

to help you discover the God you already know

Month: May 2016

Why death?

I find myself keep coming back to a question that my body posed to my mind during the conversations we shared after the operation for bowel cancer and before we decided whether or not to proceed with chemotherapy [see ‘Listening and Deciding’]. My body asked: “Why am I doing this to myself?” i.e. ‘why is a part of my body, the cancer, seeking to damage the body itself, and possibly bring about its death?’ It’s as if my body was at war with itself. Why?
One answer is that I don’t know, and I doubt anybody does. But I’m aware that my body is not alone in behaving thus: my mind often chooses a course of action that it knows is unwise, so does my heart and even my soul. I seem to possess this self-destructive capacity within me. And again, I wonder why?
Another answer is that our bodies seem created to decay, run down, cease to function. It is simply the reality of the matter that our bodies die. Death may be internally caused, as with cancer, or externally, as with an accident, but it will inevitably come. And this is true of all of creation: all things come to an end, everything has its ‘sell by’ date. Why?
I’m reminded of the hymn ‘Abide with me’ and its line; “Change and decay in all around I see,” written by a man dying of tuberculosis as he watched the glories of the setting sun.
We are each of us going to die one day, and we find the notion difficult to take, sufficiently so that we spend a good deal of our lives ignoring its reality. And again, I wonder why? Is there something within us that rebels against the finiteness of everything, and especially of oneself? It might simply be an unwillingness, or an inability to accept that ‘I’ will one day cease to exist. But I’ve come to suspect that its something other than that.
I have for a long time been fascinated by the idea of consciousness: the inner life that goes on inside our heads and which we think of as our ‘real’ selves as opposed to the external image we present to the world. There is a spectrum of consciousness in our inner world, ranging from rational, problem solving thinking at one end, through feelings & relationships, and our sensory awareness interpreting the external world, into our use, at the other end of the spectrum, of imagination and intuition that take us beyond the objective 3D world, and where we dream, have visions, listen to music, appreciate art, and literature, can enter altered states and encounter mystery.
All parts of the spectrum appear to be ‘wired into’ the human brain and can be accessed by most of us, and there seems no obvious reason why we should not accept them all as equally genuine and basically reliable: which in itself is pretty astonishing! They provide us with a fascinating set of tools which we can use to negotiate and make meaning of life, and the trick is surely to trust that we need the full range of options to maximise life and to learn to use all of those on offer rather than assuming that a favoured tool should be used for almost everything.
I’m reminded of some words of Zoe Heller: “Increasingly, I regard my atheism as a regrettable limitation. It seems to me that my lack of faith is not, as I once thought, a triumph of the rational mind, but rather, a failure of the imagination – an inability to tolerate mystery: a species in fact of neurosis.” Our imaginations, dreams, spiritual experience, take us beyond the rational and the physical and show us something more, which amongst other things, fuels a sense that death is not the end. We trust our rational consciousness to deal with life’s practical problems, are we not invited to trust the imaginative end of our consciousness spectrum to access wisdom beyond where our rational knowing can take us? Indeed is that not why its there?
Suppose that we assumed that death is a part of the plan rather than a sign of the failure or absence of a plan, where might that take us? What creative part might death play in such a plan? How about these for a starter? It makes life precious: our most precious gift; it focuses our attention upon the here and now with an element of urgency; it encourages creativity; and it makes us yearn for something eternal, something beyond ourselves.
Suppose that we took on board Deepak Chopra’s sense that every life is framed by two mysteries: birth and death. But we only consider one of them, birth, as a miracle. The reality, I suspect, is that death is equally a miracle. Maybe we should view death as a gateway into something beyond, just as birth was? Do you know the story of the twins in the womb?

In a mother’s womb were two babies. One asked the other: “Do you believe in life after delivery?” The other replied, “Why, of course. There has to be something after delivery. Maybe we are here to prepare ourselves for what we will be later.”

“Nonsense” said the first. “There is no life after delivery. What kind of life would that be?”

The second said, “I don’t know, but there will be more light than here. Maybe we will walk with our legs and eat from our mouths. Maybe we will have other senses that we can’t understand now.”

The first replied, “That is absurd. Walking is impossible. And eating with our mouths? Ridiculous! The umbilical cord supplies nutrition and everything we need. But the umbilical cord is so short. Life after delivery is to be logically excluded.”

The second insisted, “Well I think there is something and maybe it’s different than it is here. Maybe we won’t need this physical cord anymore.”

The first replied, “Nonsense. And moreover if there is life, then why has no one has ever come back from there? Delivery is the end of life, and in the after-delivery there is nothing but darkness and silence and oblivion. It takes us nowhere.”

“Well, I don’t know,” said the second, “but certainly we will meet Mother and she will take care of us.”

The first replied “Mother? You actually believe in Mother? That’s laughable. If Mother exists then where is She now?”

The second said, “She is all around us. We are surrounded by her. We are of Her. It is in Her that we live. Without Her this world would not and could not exist.”

Said the first: “Well I don’t see Her, so it is only logical that She doesn’t exist.”

To which the second replied, “Sometimes, when you’re in silence and you focus and you really listen, you can perceive Her presence, and you can hear Her loving voice, calling down from above.”

Perhaps the primary part of the body’s task is to provide a context in which we can grow and then to let us go: to send us out into what comes next, just like a wise parent. Life is certainly constantly teaching us to learn to let go and to embrace the new, the different, the other., and we might reasonably wonder why? It seems to be the way we grow. And life is full of these little deaths, as if it was preparing us for………….for what? Maybe for death and for what will seem like a final letting go: although hopefully by then we will have learnt that it will be a letting go into something new, and that we can trust that it will be alright.
John’s Gospel has a vision of Jesus being a part of God from the beginning, before His incarnation as a human being, and then of being reunited with God after suffering, death and resurrection. I sense that this is the vision for each of the rest of us too: in this as in much else Jesus shows us the way. We come from God at our birth and return to God at our death.
I’ve been finding this line of thinking increasingly persuasive for some time, and am grateful that my body’s question has challenged me to try to articulate it in words. Even as I write though I am aware that I cant prove that what I say is true. Proof in a rational sense is simply not the primary language of this sort of reflection. I am trusting here in my intuition and my personal spiritual experience, on the basis of which I’m happy to say that I confidently trust that there is truth in what I am saying. It’s not the whole truth, it cant be, but its true enough to be trustworthy. Trusting in this I can move forward in faith, and whatever else I need to know will, I know from experience, surely be shown me in due course provided I stay open.

Listening and Deciding

I’ve just had my first dose of chemotherapy.

I was initially quite opposed to the idea of chemo. I consider my body to be a valued and trusted friend, and he had just gone through a hard time. He had been in pain for some months and then faced major surgery from which he seemed to be recovering well. I was very reluctant to put him through a course of chemotherapy.

Two things changed my mind: the conversations I had with an oncologist whom I trusted; and those that I had with myself. And it’s the latter process that I want to write about. I have a dear friend who is also suffering with cancer, and who is handling it with a similar process but to a different conclusion, and quite rightly so I think. So I am writing to commend a process and not an outcome.

Many years ago God gave me an insight that I greatly value, and frequently use. I think of my body, mind, heart and soul as members of a board of which I ‘Henry’ am the chair, and in order for me to make good decisions about matters that affect me, I need to consult my board, and to listen carefully to each of them. Experience has taught me that it is easy for one or more of my board members not to be heard, and indeed on a bad day for one of them to have effectively staged a ‘coup d’etat’ and to have acted without consulting any of the rest of us. So my role as chair is very important [I’ve described this exercise in more detail in ‘The God you already know’].

So faced with a decision about chemotherapy I knew that I must ask my body what his views on the matter were, and not make assumptions on his behalf. And I then sought the views of my other board members as well. Reviewing it now I have found it both a fascinating and an encouraging process.

Some of my board members articulated things that I hadn’t heard from them before.

They each said that this is not just Body’s problem, his distress was felt and owned by them all, and they each felt that they may have had some responsibility for its arising. They expressed regret and sought Body’s forgiveness for not responding more quickly to his distress.
They proposed light duties for all through the summer in order to support & care for Body

What I heard Body say:
I was surprised to realise that I was giving myself this problem? Why am I doing this to myself? Can Mind offer an explanation?
I could not solve this problem myself. If I cannot digest food I will slowly starve to death. So I’m very grateful to the others for getting the outside help I needed and could not access myself. The others have saved me from dying.
I didn’t enjoy the surgery but accepted it as necessary.
I am aware that I feel guilty, that I have failed & let the others down. I have a need to apologise.

What I heard Heart say:
I felt Body’s pain and discomfort at not eating, but didn’t understand what was causing it & so felt helpless, shared his vulnerability & tried to encourage him to rest, which is what I felt he needed.
I found the journey back from Yorkshire difficult & was glad to get home. I felt an increasing sense of isolation & loneliness.
It was a relief to go into hospital, where it felt as if Body’s suffering was being taken seriously at last. The registrar’s report on the CT scan with the use of the word ‘cancer’ for the first time was a shock, but I felt in safe hands. I felt that Soul took over at that point & did a good job on behalf of all of us through the operation.
I was impressed by the care and kindness shown us in the hospital. I felt safe there in the hands of kind people who understood our problem & were dealing with it competently and caringly. But it also felt good to go home.
I was moved by my wife’s care and love, and that of my 4 daughters who were and are quite wonderful. It felt very good to be back amongst familiar and well loved things.
I felt moved to tears by all the cards, emails, phone calls, texts and visits of love, prayer and careful support. I remember feeling that I didn’t deserve it, that if people really knew me they would feel differently. But Mind, quite rightly, reminded me straight away, that I would challenge anyone else who said that. Love is not deserved, that is the whole point of it, it comes as unexpected gift.
I was not keen on chemo & the damage it might do to Body, but I was reassured by Mind. I struggled for a time with thoughts of our mortality that Body’s plight brought on, & of the possibility of our time being cut short with still so much to live for. I have learnt over the years to look fears and anxieties like these in the eye: its always uncomfortable but its better on the other side having gone through them. I feel that its something that we do together, with Body, Heart, Mind and Soul all contributing, which is probably why it is so valuable. I’m now feeling much more positive about the future.

What I heard Mind say:
I must admit that I think that a good deal of all this rather slipped under my radar! I thought that Body’s pain in December was probably linked to the back pain he was also feeling then, and I was, with hindsight, too willing to accept the doctors suggestion that we wait and see in January and February. I wish I had been more insistent then, though I’m not sure it would have made much difference: systems move slowly especially under current financial constraints.
Until the end of February I also felt that I should to continue to travel and see friends as part of my ministry. I was reluctant to cancel the trip to Poland at the beginning of March, until I realised on returning from Starbeck that the trip would be beyond me. With hindsight I pushed myself harder than I should, and neglected Body’s needs when Heart was already aware of them. I apologise to Body and the rest of you for that.
Once the seriousness of Body’s situation became clear to me I clicked into action. Heart was distressed, as was Body, so we saw doctors twice in a few days and was admitted to hospital. I felt a great sense of relief to be there and in the capable hands of kind people who seemed to know what they were doing: there was nothing more I could practically do for Body, but I spent some useful time before and after the op reflecting on ‘Letters of Love’ [to be found elsewhere on this site], ‘Cancer of the Colon’, ‘Insights when ill’, and ‘Life not in hospital’. There were also several profound mystical experiences which Soul experienced. I think that my reflections and his experiences linked together and combined to help us through.
I was not expecting the offer of chemotherapy, and in my post-op slow gear, found it difficult to take in the information we were given. I understood it rather gloomily at first, but after a second conversation with the oncologist took a more optimistic view and could see the good sense of accepting it I sought to persuade the others of the wisdom of this, and Henry decided to consult us all on the matter.
I am intrigued by the questions Body asks. Where does the cancer come from? It appears to originate in Body, but why does Body attack Body? Do the rest of us have some responsibility too?
How do we handle our mortality in a society which wont face the matter, and which obliges us to do so individually, while scorning religious insights? Is rational thought much help here? Do we not need to rely rather on the mystical insights that Soul describes? Most of these questions are in a way unanswerable, but they are important nevertheless.
But I have been helped enormously to find that my questionings alongside the different insights of the others have allowed us to find a sense of unity which allows us to face the future whatever it holds. It seems that good, deep relationships are key. It reminds me of my favourite ikon, Rublev’s Trinity.

What I heard Soul say:
I’ve written at length elsewhere, [ ‘where is the gift in all this?’] so I wont repeat myself.
But looking back I am struck by the way I found myself reflecting on ‘the letters of love’ soon after Christmas. This theme sustained me through these months in an amazing way. And I wonder if I had some foreknowledge that something difficult & challenging was on its way and was being prepared to meet it? I’m encouraged by the notion that that’s true, but I also berate myself for not making the connection with what Body was then facing, earlier: perhaps if I’d been listening better?
I’m also struck by the way that I seemed to take over in the time leading up to and following on from, the operation. And was gifted with a profound sense of the other/the divine/God, holding all of us and indeed all of creation, in love.
I am grateful that I was able to be of service to the others in that way, and indeed looking back, I’m full of wonder at the way that at different stages of our recent journey one of us has been able, appropriately, to take the lead for all of us. It brings tears to my eyes as I see that I feel proud to be a part of such a fine team. Thank you all.

And what Henry now says:
And so the wonder of the process [not rocket science this but splendid to experience] was that while we didn’t have the answers to everybody’s questions, it really didn’t matter, for the beauty of it was that simply listening to each other was all that was needed for each of the board members to be aware of a deep and welcome sense of being in this together, of it not just being Body’s problem; and in the end a decision just seemed to fall into place without much effort, that we were all comfortable and at ease with. Certainly as chair of the board I feel a wonderful sense of relief and peace about it all.

The chemo has begun. We’ll never know if we’ve made the ‘right’ decision. Statistically the treatment increases the chances of the cancer not recurring. If the cancer doesn’t recur that might be because of the treatment but it’s possible that the treatment was never actually necessary. If it does recur, then that doesn’t necessarily mean that the treatment was a failure, it might have slowed its coming, reduced its severity etc. We’ll never know for certain: there are no guarantees.
And one way or another death will certainly come sometime: we can’t put it off forever. But I sense that whatever happens I [we] will face it together and in good heart. Meanwhile, the task is to care for Body as best we can through the treatment, to continue our regular board meetings, to use the time as an opportunity to be gently caring of each other and of others who pass our way, and to grow deeper in our trust in the God Who loves us all, and Who is our beginning and our end.

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