Category Archives: Humiliation

Reprieve!

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality 2003

My two-month course of chemotherapy intended to stop the spread of cancer in the lymph system ended in mid August 2003. Another CT Scan followed in early September. It found that the cancerous nodes in the lymph had indeed been reduced, and that an operation to remove a cancerous bladder could go ahead.

This was the first indication that I could indeed be cured of cancer, that I was no longer in the ‘departure lounge’, and that I could hope for a resumption of normal life. Naturally I was relieved – but the experience of the nearness of death had changed me. I found that I wanted above all to remember that experience in all of its detail, not to escape from it.

The reason was that as a writer I had discovered the validity of what my church had always taught: the reality of a mysterious presence just beyond the range of our normal perception, available to us in time of greatest peril, especially when we come to evaluate our own lives. Trusting to that reality I had given myself to it completely, and then experienced also its power to heal our bodily ills as well as our closest relationships. I wanted above all to maintain contact with that reality.

The operation that followed involved major surgery. In a four-hour procedure, the cancerous bladder was removed. Then a 40 cm section of the smaller intestine was excised and formed into a new reservoir, connected to the kidneys and urethra. This has become the standard procedure to deal with bladder failure in the US and continental Europe, but it is comparatively new in Ireland.

I awoke to find myself seriously weakened and surrounded by infusion drips, with several tubes draining the new reservoir to allow it to seal itself before becoming fully employed. I felt as though I had suddenly become many times heavier, as it took an immense effort to accomplish even the slightest movement of an arm or a leg.

This was my time of greatest dependence, as I could not move, wash or even drink without help. When the human bowel is handled by a surgeon, it shuts down completely, refusing even to receive the contents of the stomach. In my case this meant that the saline infusion gathered in my stomach, creating an intense pressure. There was only one way of relieving this – by passing a tube through my nose into my oesophagus, and from there into my stomach. My very worst hours now followed, as I had to try to sleep with this tube in place, attached to my nose and impeding even my ability to swallow.

It would be great to be able to report that even in this crisis my faith and serenity were unaffected – but the truth was otherwise. I suffered, and there was no way round this. I could, and did, pray – but I was overwhelmed by the bodily pain and discomfort that enveloped me, and I experienced, at times, a profound despair.

I am now convinced that anaesthesia does not allow the human body to escape the effects of the deep trauma involved in the excision of a major organ. I felt as a child feels in the aftermath of a heavy blow: traumatised and expecting further similar blows – and unable to dwell on anything else.

Pain of this kind has a deep spiritual impact – persuading us that somehow we have merited the blow that has fallen, and leading to a profound loss of confidence in ourselves. Even now I am battling against this tendency.

In the middle of all this I was told that an exhaustive biopsy undertaken during the operation had confirmed that the lymph system was now entirely clear of cancer. I was indeed now ‘cured’, and had everything to look forward to. Only gradually did this sink in, as my strength came back, and with it my independence.

Almost four weeks after the operation I am home now, recuperating. My new bladder is fully operational, only slightly less efficient than my old one at its best. I don’t receive the same signals, of course – and need to remain aware of time passing, and of the need to relieve the new reservoir before it relieves itself!

One thing above all I have learned from all of this – how dependent we are upon the normal functioning of our own bodies – something we take entirely for granted – as well as the fragility of that body. An amazingly complex organic machine, it is the medium through which we experience and learn to function within our physical environment. When it becomes dysfunctional – as it always does eventually – we are faced with total separation from that environment, and with the question of what happens next. There is no evading this question.

I am above all profoundly grateful that my church has given me a framework within which I can face that reality, connecting my bodily environment with one that transcends it – one that will receive my essence with love when the moment of final separation comes. In that truth I will try to live out the rest of my earthly life, knowing that in the end God will find it sufficient that I commend my spirit to him, in love and trust.

In the meantime I must never forget what happened when, believing myself close to death, I trusted to what I had been taught – to the real presence of the Lord, especially in the valley of the shadow of death. If I can pass on that assurance to just one other person in the same awful circumstances I will perhaps feel that I have earned my reprieve.

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“You have possibly incurable cancer.”

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality, 2003

“You have an aggressive cancer of the bladder – best cured by removal of the bladder. But the cancer appears to have spread to the lymph system, making this probably inadvisable. You first need chemotherapy, which has a fifty percent chance of enabling the operation.”

This was the essence of the news I heard from a consultant in one of Belfast’s major hospitals in mid June of 2003. Knowing that bladder cancer can kill if unchecked, I realised my near future was all I had left for certain.

Now, in early August 2003 I am two-thirds of the way through the chemotherapy course. Until this point, with my earth-survival horizon still uncertain and my family still fretting, I haven’t been sure that I could ever find the strength and the inclination to write about this – or anything else for that matter.

I have written before, from a safer distance, about the prospect of dying. For about nine years now I have been a committed Christian and Catholic, familiar with St Paul’s assurance that if we go into the tomb with Christ we rise again.

But there are many degrees of distance from the tomb, and for most of those nine years my distance from it has been very comfortable. I had, especially, until February 2003, good physical health – and therefore no experience of the shattering impact of physical collapse and dependency.

It’s all very well to write and speak heroically about death from that distance, but now I found that when an essential natural function collapses, begins to cause intense pain, and threatens basic survival, all of this romantic long-distance heroism about death collapses also.

I simply wasn’t in any way prepared for the bitter prospect of imminent departure. Aged sixty, I am the eldest of three brothers, with both parents still living, aged ninety-one. They lost my older brother to cancer in 1962, so shouldn’t I be allowed to survive them – to look after them? Wouldn’t any reasonable God agree?

And what about that better book I had planned, and that course of study, and those articles on this and that – and that first trip to the US I had looked forward to, taking advantage of a friend’s invitation?

Most of all though, I was assailed by an intense sense of loss – of losing everything I loved. My wife, my children, my parents, my home, the daily routine, the Ireland I love. I might soon, now, lose everything – to go into total uncertainty, dispossession and powerlessness.

I had previously in my writings drawn a distinction between death and humiliation – but now all separation between the two was lost. Death, I discovered, is in itself the final humiliation – the extinction of everything we humans are surrounded by in life, everything that gives us a sense of our own identity and significance.

I felt also an intense sense of isolation – of having been shut into a cell on my own, which no-one else could really enter – because it was an ante-room to death itself, a departure lounge from which there might well be no return, from which every instinct tells us to fly.

My worst night ever was that night in the hospital – as I faced a painful biopsy and no certainty of living far beyond the end of 2003. My wife was 60 miles away in Coleraine – as I had blithely travelled to Belfast on my own. Doctors and nurses were kind and encouraging, but they could not be with me in my isolation either. When the lights in the ward dimmed about ten and my neighbours turned to sleep I felt a degree of abandonment and loneliness that totally overwhelmed me emotionally – in a way I had never before experienced.

Desperately I sought some solace. As fate, or providence, would have it, I had brought a portable CD player with me – and my wife Patricia had packed a two-disc compilation of Taizé music. Not expecting it to be much help I had no other recourse.

“Lord, hear my prayer!” was soon echoing in my head – and my prayer was for a sense of His presence with me, there in that strange place, with people I did not know. Soon enough came something even more appropriate:

“Within our darkest night you kindle the fire that never dies away!”

Somehow the faith of choir singing this became at that moment my faith too, and I began to echo the music and the words.

Suddenly I felt a sense of warmth, and a certainty that I was among friends – even, in some sense, at home. I also felt a sense of time slowing down – and an awareness of slight movements around me that indicated living souls – dependent like myself upon the nursing staff nearby.

Dependent! That was part of my problem – the fear of dependence, of being incapacitated and increasingly useless. But, watching those nurses, I had realised already that their role and sense of duty and fulfilment rested wholly upon the dependence of others. For them it was the expected duty – not something burdensome and tiresome.

There, then, I began to come out of the shell of isolation into which the shocking news had pushed me, and to take a new interest in everything going on around me. By the time the discs had finished, time itself seemed to have slowed down. I even fell asleep for an hour or so.

A few days later I was reminded even more strongly of this sacred relationship between patient and carer, when my chemotherapy regime began. Tethered to an electric pump infusing various obscurely named liquids over a forty-hour period, I was confined to the oncology ward. The pump was clipped to a wheeled stand, allowing me, in theory, to push it ahead of me.

At 2 a.m. I received an urgent bladder signal in the darkened ward. For the sake of my morale I needed to make it to the bathroom eighty yards away. But when I had swung my feet to the floor I found the pump wouldn’t move more than a few inches.

“Are you all right there, darlin’?” came a Belfast accent. A nurse was at my shoulder.

“It’ll work off the battery,” she continued – unplugging the pump from the wall. She looped the cable round the pump, and I set off successfully, dignity maintained.

She had answered my question, the question everyone seems to be asking these times: – “Where is this God of yours when you really need Him?”

The answer was in another one of those Taizé hymns:

“Ubi Caritas et Amor, Deus Ibi Est! – Where there is caring and love, God is also!”

And it was there in the ward – among patients I could observe, many of them more ill than I was. I could observe them second-to-second, and I suddenly realised that my perception of time itself had changed.

Our attitude towards time seems to be strongly influenced by our perception of how much of it we have left. For children it seldom passes quickly enough, because it stretches away limitlessly. Although many of us now plan our lives a few years ahead, we somehow assume that the final frontier to this life is beyond every horizon for which we plan.

I could no longer do this. In fact I couldn’t plan anything now but my immediate response to the possibility of death within a year. “Depend upon it, Sir,” said the great Dr Johnson, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

I had a lot more than a fortnight, but my mind was indeed concentrating hard. By now I was aware of different schools of thought on the subject of cancer itself, its causes and treatments and how to fight it. My daughter had presented me with three different books on the subject and many of her own ideas coincided with those of a friend who is also fighting cancer from an alternative medical standpoint involving a completely organic diet. Hadn’t he told me he had sailed through chemo as a consequence?

First, however, I made what has turned out to be my most crucial decision: to place myself completely under the protection of the one I now call the Great Physician – the healing Lord of the Gospels. The Taize music had given me a sense of the Lord as always present – and especially in the darkest valley of Psalm 23. Above all I did not want to lose my awareness of that presence, whatever happened. I determined that from now on I would simply check out if I felt myself losing this awareness.

By ‘check out’ I mean simply disengage from the moment, close my eyes, and place myself again in the presence of the Lord. By now I had a prayer that allowed me to do this – one familiar to every Catholic:

“Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins. Save us from the fires of hell. Bring all souls to heaven, especially those in need of thy mercy.”

It’s the first three words, not the mention of hell, that are crucial for me. They immediately state and invite a relationship. The rest of the prayer states a lack of presumption that anyone else is less loved or precious than I am. We don’t know what Hell is – unless it is endless futility and loneliness – but we surely wish to get wherever heaven is. And if we are truly into the spirit of the Gospels we know also that Jesus wishes to save every last one of us.

Something else had helped me immeasurably through that crisis – the messages of support that came from all who knew me – old teaching colleagues, Cursillo friends, Internet contacts abroad. I might now be in the departure lounge, but I was not forgotten – and the most powerful force for healing was active in my regard: prayer.

By day twelve of my hospital stay I was buoyantly looking forward to going home – and I had with me a journal detailing the state of my mind, soul and body from the start of the crisis. I continued to keep it at home – for I had much more to learn from that seat in the departure lounge called cancer. Editor permitting I will cover that in a second article under this heading.

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Towards a New Evangelism I: What’s so good about the ‘Good News’?

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2001

“No – I don’t want to hear about Jesus!” This is the signature message of one member of the Internet mailing list alt.recovery.catholic – an international (but mostly north American) e-mail support community. Its members are mostly people whose experience of Catholicism has led them to see it as abusive or addictive.

The message succinctly sums up the problem of the ‘New Evangelism’ so persistently called for by Pope John Paul II. Just as people stopped listening to the boy who cried ‘wolf’ when none appeared, so countless millions in the west today suppose, on the basis of their own experience, that there is nothing especially good about the Christian Good News.

This is particularly true of Ireland, where people often suppose that an experience of nine or more years of Catholic education, and regular family Mass-going, have exhausted the possibilities of the Gospel they experienced there. The perceived de-sacralisation of the priesthood that has followed from a spate of scandals also takes a toll. So does Christian fundamentalism, of all varieties. When you ask perfectly sensible people today if they would like to be ‘saved’, many are liable to ask ‘you mean from the saved?’

Furthermore, the medium by which the Gospel has primarily been communicated for two millennia – the language of the bible and of theology – has less and less traction on human attention. All language has been debased by the children of Madison Avenue. Cynical political spin doctoring has had a similar effect. As the Ulsterman says, “If you believe all you hear, you’ll eat all you see!” In a welter of claims to veracity that are mostly spurious, we no longer associate word with truth. Our perceptual in-tray is labelled “Claims Mostly Unreliable” – and in it we place everything from Reader’s Digest promises of millions to papal encyclicals.

And biblical language has a special problem. ‘Sin’, ‘Salvation’, ‘Redemption’, ‘Atonement’ seem echoes of an age long dead – when every misfortune from floods to disease and earthquakes was attributed to divine anger. This problem is compounded by what might be called the Mandy Rice-Davies bind: the clergyman’s profession of faith is closely connected to his livelihood – so when he insists that God will call all to account at the end of time, people are inclined to think – and more and more likely to say – ‘but he would say that, wouldn’t he?’

A further problem relates to the ‘where’ of evangelisation. Spacial communities once centred on a single market place or village have been shattered by physical and informational communications revolutions – so people may sleep in one location, work many miles away, shop somewhere else, and socialise elsewhere again – and may do their thinking and discussing on the phone or the internet as members of an international work or hobby ‘virtual’ community.

As a possible solution to this problem of lost one-space community, the growth of broadcast media such as radio and television was initially met with as much enthusiasm by churchmen as by politicians such as Roosevelt and Goebbels – but multi-channel satellite and cable TV, as well as the VCR – have fragmented even these communities. Papal spectaculars are one answer – but quickly pall. They are too similar to mass political rallies in which charismatic personalities fly in, get waved at from a distance, and then fly out again, leaving little behind. For lay people wondering about their own lifestyle, there just isn’t any way of following an act like that. Radical change in the way we perceive and respond to life demands far more than a one-day sensation, and schools quickly found that replaying 1979 videos of Ireland’s papal visit was a sure recipe for an ‘Aw, Miss!’ response. Indeed, over-exposure on the media may well have done for the papacy what it has done for royalty – disperse the semi-magical aura with which people surround their mental image of an august person they have never seen.

We can summarise these problems as relating to the What, How, Who and Where of evangelisation. I’ll deal with just the first of these in this article. What exactly is the good news anyhow – in terms that will make sense to people today?

Readers of earlier articles in this series will know that I relate the appeal of Jesus, prior to crucifixion, to the fact that he upended the pyramid of worthiness or esteem that characterised the ancient world. The last would be first, the returned prodigal would be celebrated, the poor were blessed, the rich and powerful were not to be considered more favoured by God. Most importantly this verbal message – which astonished even the apostles – was authenticated by a table fellowship that scandalised the disciples of ritual purity by including the most reviled.

The Good News therefore was that those who had considered themselves at the tail end of the triumphal procession of the ancient world were in fact beloved of the God who was at the summit of it. He was to be glorified precisely because he acknowledged and raised up the lowly. ‘The World’ had got it wrong – and this claim was validated by the willingness of the messenger to associate with, and above all to eat with, the ritually unclean. Word and deed were not separate, but united – reinforcing the credibility of the message. As Peter’s astonishment over Jesus’s comment on the rich young man indicates, in the ancient world one’s sinfulness was a deduction from one’s exclusion, one’s social and spiritual unworthiness – so inclusion in the table of the messenger proved the latter’s integrity and one’s own salvation. The table of Jesus, like the Jordan baptism of John, was a challenge to the Temple system of ritual cleanliness and conformity with legal minutiae and expensive sacrifice – a system of salvation that favoured the relatively wealthy and educated.

A real, enduring fellowship offered to the shunned was therefore inseparable from the idea of salvation – and this association was maintained by the relative social humility of the early leaders of the church, and its rejection by the Jewish and Roman establishments in the first Christian centuries. Salvation is inseparable from a sense of ‘God with us’ – also expressed in the excitement of the Samaritan woman at the well. It was not ‘pie in the sky by and by’ that drew people to Jesus – but simply the fact of his willingness to bring personally the message ‘you are forgiven and loved’ – and to abide with those now evangelised, sharing their deprivation.

It is clear therefore that evangelisation is also non-hierarchical. Jesus’ humility collapsed the pyramid of esteem which had communicated to the rejected the fact of their rejection. As did his washing of the feet. As did the crucifixion most of all.

It follows from this that the Good News would not necessarily be good news for all – and that it was not simply a promise of life after physical death. It was an assurance of the love of God now and forever for those who had been taught by the world that they were of no account – with the sole proviso of genuine repentance. And it was therefore also a questioning of the presumption of those whose worldly success had been thought a sure sign of divine favour.

Sad to relate, this is not quite what the Church relayed to me during my orthodox Catholic education in the 1950s. Then the good news had become ‘the Church is always right’. The reason was simple enough: the Church’s own growth, and especially the Constantinian shift in the church’s social and political status in the fourth century had led to Christian adaptation to, and approval of, social hierarchy per se. Thus, although salvation could still be merited by the poor, their happiness must be deferred in this life. Theology soon explained human hierarchies – even the institution of slavery – in terms of divine preference for hierarchies in heaven also. It was at this point that the gospels became detached from the real world – and almost incapable of fundamentally changing it. Jesus belonged in a landscape of poor people raised by him onto a different plane – but it did not follow that Christian kings would share their tables with the verminous. Their superiority was required in order to maintain Christian order. And it was this Christian order that became Christendom.

A story told by Bede about St Aidan in the seventh century well illustrates this analysis. This spiritual child of Iona, in evangelising Northumbria, impressed its King, Oswald, to the extent that he gave the saint the gift of a valuable horse. When Aidan soon gave this gift to a beggar, the king was angered – to the extent that Aidan lamented his greater valuation of the horse than the beggar. Yet if Kings and beggars were equal in dignity, kingship itself conferred none, so kings inevitably won this argument in the long run. Territorial churchmen in time learned to avoid such sorrow by keeping such gifts, regretfully delegating the virtue of humility to their subordinates. Thus the church became itself a pyramid of esteem, duplicating and ratifying the secular one alongside.

This is where we all come in – close to the terminus of this sad experiment in accommodating the gospels to the injustice of the world. Once the elites originally educated by the Church lost intellectual respect for Christianity, their patronage of the Church could be easily abandoned. The trauma of secularist democratic revolution beginning in 1789 led to a renewed tactical alliance between political aristocracy and Christian hierarchy in the nineteenth century, but this too was fundamentally cynical and tenuous. Although it informed the Roman Curia’s attempted suppression of liberation theology as late as the 1980s, it did so at the cost of that body’s scant remaining moral authority. And this is precisely why the call for a new evangelisation now seems so forlorn. If the gospel doesn’t challenge the world, it must merely support it.

It must be pointed out also here that the fundamental premise of most Catholic education has by now been proved bankrupt: that the education of the sons of the wealthy would ‘Christianise’ society from the top down. Education itself is an empowerment, and when it is bestowed selectively upon those already privileged it can only reinforce their privilege. This is why our intelligentsias endlessly analyse the problems of the world and argue over their solution at the top of towers of steel and glass – without ever getting to the root of the problem: their own preference for height, for remoteness from the mean back streets below. For it is social contempt that the poor feel most keenly, not the material difference that is its sacrament. As anyone who has spent any time with the poor will know, people can be happy with very little until they are reminded by the media of the material differential that excludes them from the award-winning tables of the famous and the well-to-do.

And this is why our society is now so thoroughly secular – in spite of the fact that the elites that govern it are mostly the products of elite Catholic schools. The acceptance by the church of the principle of social hierarchy is an endorsement of the very essence of secularism – worldliness, the assumption that it is the proud, rather than the poor, who are blessed by God , and therefore worthy of their self-conscious superiority.

Yet the paradox is that it is the survival of social hierarchy and privilege that guarantees the permanent relevance of the gospels. Suffering and injustice, exclusion, low self-esteem, addiction, depression – all these are the richest soil on which the good news can take root. Many are reinforced by the media cult of celebrity in our own time – the raising to ikonic status of mere humans as flawed as the rest of us. For the essence of the Gospel is that we are all indeed already and unconditionally loved, and will never be forsaken. All that is lacking is evangelisers so convinced of this that they will not just say it, but live it. Indeed, given the bankruptcy of mere language, and the chasm between the word and the deed in the hierarchical Church, it is the doing of it that can alone now renew the Church.

Who ‘does’ Christian love best today? Obsessed with the danger of getting the theology wrong, our leaders seem to pay little attention to this question. If one truly loves, in the name of the Trinity, their presence is revealed by that love, which speaks of nothing else, so where is the possibility of error? We should be looking for, and encouraging, such people, if only to vindicate the truth we argue over.

Luckily I know some of these new evangelisers, and will write of this next month.

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