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Where might the gift be in all this?

On a Thursday in mid March of this year my GP referred me into our local hospital in Worcester because I clearly had a problem and it was getting worse: I hadn’t eaten much for some time and was losing weight, digesting food was very painful, I had little energy and spent more time than usual sleeping. I was very glad to go into hospital: I knew I wasn’t well and I needed help.

They gave me a CT scan and the Registrar came to give me the news. The bad news was that I had a tumorous cancer in my colon, the good was there was no sign that it had spread and it ought to be removable. It took me a while to take that in!

The doctors operated on the Sunday morning, I was back on the ward that afternoon, and went home on the Thursday, where I am gradually recovering and now await a course of chemotherapy. I feel much better, my appetite has returned, and slowly life is returning to normal. It has been quite an experience, and a profoundly spiritual one.

One of my favourite questions in spiritual direction is ‘where might the gift be in all this?’ So, not surprisingly, friends have been asking me where the gift has been for me in all this? And my answer has been that this has been a time full of gifts: a time of rich blessing. Not what I might have expected, and not all of them either welcome or recognised at the time, but gifts nevertheless. Let me name some of them.

[1] The overarching one was the gift of finding myself vulnerable, weak and largely passive. I recall a book by W H Vanstone that I read years ago. In it he noted that for most of His ministry Jesus was active: calling, teaching, challenging, healing, feeding, moving from place to place. And then He was arrested in Gethsemane and that all changed: He became passive, done to by others; He initiated nothing. Yet we tend to think of that time after His arrest as the most significant of His life. Most of the gifts I received came through my being passive, weak and vulnerable.

[2] The first was the pain. I didn’t experience it as gift at first, of course, but it was in fact my body’s way of letting me know that it had a problem and that it needed outside help to deal with it.

[3] I have preached just one sermon this year, on Valentine’s Day. From the beginning of the year I knew intuitively that I wanted to talk about the different languages of love. I had thought about it, offered my sermon to our small congregation, and then continued to mull on its content up to and including my time in hospital and beyond. I know that most of my sermons are preached primarily to myself, and this one keeps on nourishing me spiritually. It seems as if something unconscious in me knew what was going to happen, at the beginning of the year, and was preparing me to face it. I have heard many different languages of love while I’ve been ill, but I’m not sure that I would have recognised them without that sermon! [I’ve written about the subject elsewhere on this site]

[4] There was the practical love, kindness and care of my wife and my four daughters: each incarnating it differently.

[5] There was the love, concern and prayer of more friends than I thought that I had, expressed through cards, emails, phone call and small gifts.

[6] There was the earthy, practical care and teamwork of the nursing staff in the hospital.

[7] There was the skill of the surgeons and doctors, with all their technical equipment.

[8] There was the gift of being prodded to review my life in the face of the reality of my mortality: there’s nothing like a major operation in hospital, and the word ‘cancer’ to kick that process into action. It wasn’t welcome, it was sometimes dark and uncomfortable, and it was mostly lonely work because you face the prospect of death alone. But gradually I experienced it as gift: it prodded me to focus on what is really important, of the value of setting time aside for reflection, and to write pieces like this.

[9] There was the gift of being gently stimulated from outside when I lacked the energy to stimulate myself. I couldn’t read for long, I hadn’t the concentration, but I could listen to the radio [something I otherwise rarely do], podcasts and music. I could look at art and watch a film. I thank God for mobile phones, tablets and my ipod!

[10] Rather like my sermon, it was amazing how what I seemed to need came my way without my having to do much except recognise and accept it:
waiting for my operation, on a whim, I listened to Daniel Barenboim playing Bach’s ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’ and found myself taken into a place of stillness and peace where I experienced my unity with all of creation and a deep trust in God.
a friend who was also unwell, told me how he was listening to an audiobook of a Jane Austen novel, and I thought that’s just what I need. So I downloaded it, listened to it and was entranced.
gazing blankly out of a window an image of a painting by Giotto came to mind [from where I don’t know, but I’ve learnt to trust these things] and I went to a lovely book of Giotto’s paintings in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua that I have, and was hugely nourished by reflecting on one particular sequence of images.

[11] Having to move more slowly and gently: being less active, I found myself noticing things that I would otherwise have not noticed: the glorious signs of spring in our garden viewed through the window; the beauty of the surrounding countryside during my first short walk outside; the smell of good coffee; a decent cup of tea, my own bed, my shed.. etc etc….

[12] I know from experience that if I’m not well and take to my bed, then as I drift in and out of consciousness, unable to get my mind into gear, then sometimes everything can be seen with great simplicity and clarity, I know that I and all creation is held in love by something much greater, and I know that there is nothing to be worried about. There is no greater gift.

And I received it from time to time while ill this time too. Barenboim took me there, as did the zombie-like weariness of the post anaesthetic, waking up in the middle of the night can take me there, as do religious experiences. I guess that fasting has traditionally taken people there, and I certainly effectively fasted during my illness.

[13] My wife Sylvia showed me her copy of the autobiography of Oliver Postgate who some may remember as giving us, with Peter Firmin, such wonders as ‘Bagpuss’ ‘Noggin the Nog’, ‘Ivor the Engine’ and other childrens TV programmes. There is a section towards the end of the book [entitled ‘Seeing Things’] in which he described an experience he had whilst ill in hospital similar to what I have described above. He writes: “I knew that I was seeing clearly for the first time in my life……seeing how things are……..I had found something that had been lost, something I had known all along but in some fear or confusion had mislaid.” I intuitively felt that I knew what he was talking about. His life was not the same afterwards, as I suspect mine won’t be either.
I am reminded of what William Blake wrote: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is. Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ the narrow chinks of his cavern.”

This speaks of contexts where the rational mind is somehow bypassed and we access a deeper wisdom which we’ve usually mostly lost contact with. Illness has gifted it again to me.

On one level all of the above simply affirms what God has already taught me. The challenge, as always, will be to keep it nourished and alive, and above all to deepen my trust, my faith in God. As luck would have it [is it luck, or just another gift?] I have a course of chemotherapy ahead of me through the summer which I hope might provide a fertile opportunity.


  1. Helen Yates

    Thank you Henry…..thank you for sharing your reflections…..I too had a major operation two years ago….I can relate to some of your reflections…..I also remember The biography of Bishop John Robinson by Eric James, that the Bishop found God in cancer…….Someone said to me….the soul is incarnated as a body…..for me….what a beautiful adventure that the soul is consciously reunited with the Source……
    Henry…you are in my thoughts and prayers

  2. Hugh Valentine

    Thank you Henry. Please get fully restored soonest. You say “This speaks of contexts where the rational mind is somehow bypassed and we access a deeper wisdom which we’ve usually mostly lost contact with. Illness has gifted it again to me”. The experience you relate and which others have had (of insight and openness arising from being in one way or another in extremis) makes my mind turn to the question of why we find it so hard to be in touch with these things without having to be brought to some brink or other. There are of course the usual suspects – busy-ness, ego, defences to protect us from real and imagined foes, surrender to a materialist reading of reality. Still, I wonder why it is hard to attain this in ‘ordinary’ life (of course life is not in any sense ordinary but you know what I mean). Much of this must be to do with how we ‘see’. Thank you again for what you have written. Big best, Hugh

  3. Michele Simms

    Thank you for sharing your reflections, which have articulated for me some of my experience of recovery from a brain aneurysm haemorrhage a few months back. Not at all like cancer, in that it is not prolonged and there is little threat of a return, but still forcing one to release control, be ‘done to’ and to simply receive love, in all its forms and from surprising and varied sources. You have helped me appreciate that having to move more slowly and gently is a gift not a handicap.
    Every blessing for your treatment.

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