In July of 2008 an old and dear friend of mine was diagnosed with his third round of cancer, his “7 year bitch” he calls it, as it has shown up in his life every 7 years or so since he was 30. The first two times the cancer was localized and relatively easy to tackle – as cancer goes. Surgery was all that was ever required and prognosis for recovery was always excellent. This time, the bitch is back with a vengeance. With symptoms of congestive heart failure, my friend went to see his doctor where an ultrasound of his heart showed a tumor the size of a baseball. Subsequent body scans showed tumors virtually everywhere – in his lungs, his abdomen, and bone.
My friend is a stubborn and determined sort of fellow and not one to roll over easily. He is also methodical and meticulous, especially when it comes to designing the war of all wars against this most unwelcome intruder. So, after a lot of research on traditional and alternative approaches to battling cancer he opted for a multi-faceted treatment plan than includes everything from acupuncture, traditional chinese herbs and essential oils, to prayer, meditation, and working in his own vineyard; from sleeping in a tent on the ground outside and playing music, to chemotherapy and a radically altered diet.
Somewhere fairly early on in his journey he posted a progress report on his blog titled “Report From The Battlefront”, and gave himself a “C” in the prayer and meditation department. Now, I know virtually nothing about cancer treatment, which is quite frustrating when all you want is to be of some help to a friend in need. But I do know a little about prayer – as a lifelong student of it and a continuous though haphazard pursuer of its benefits. As such I was compelled one night to post on his blog a reply to what I felt was his unnecessarily critical grade of his own efforts. Following is what I wrote:
When I first glanced at your post today, I saw the title as “Report From The Butterfly.” Then I saw it said “Battlefront”. Ah. Of course. But I like “Butterfly” better. It’s way more poetic, way more Zen…
I’ve been thinking about your prayer/meditation grade of C. Hmmmm… I feel a sermon coming on…
In my 25 years of practicing Christianity as an adult (more or less, give or take) I’ve been on many meditation and prayer retreats (some of them silent) from monasteries to mountain tops and everything in between. There were very few times that I ever felt like I got it “right” until, sometime later in my life, a couple of things came together for me. I guess the first and most obvious thing that got through is that there is no”getting it right” or really, there is no “getting it wrong. “
Hence my first prayer/meditation realization: It’s helpful to set your judgment aside.
Another rather disturbing realization was that God – all knowing, all powerful – already knows everything about me and so already knows my need, my longing, my frustration, my sadness, my failure, my fear, my hopes, my desires, and my joy. So, if this is true, why pray? I’m going to tell God something God doesn’t already know? Please. God already wants the best for me, so why go begging for it like Oliver after a second helping of porridge?
Prayer/Medidation realization number 2: Perhaps prayer is designed to change MY mind, rather than as a tool for me to try and change God’s…
Another thing is that meditation, (which IMO is listening for God, as opposed to prayer, which is talking to and asking of God) was virtually impossible for this mind of mine which is chattering incessantly and working overtime to find any gray area where I can sit uncomfortably and just be ambivalent… As such, I discovered that I could hear God’s voice when my hands were busy and my mind detached; that is, when I was engaged in some sort of physical labor or activity. This is most definitely when God talks to me and when I am most able to hear.
Prayer/Meditation realization number 3: You don’t necessarily have to sit cross-legged like a yogi to meaningfully meditate.
All of this is to say, that from my perspective, weeding the vineyard is both an act of prayer and an act of meditation on your part, as is sleeping in your tent, as is breathing in essential oils, as is seeking any and all treatment that you somehow “know” in your “gut” that you need. What you are asking God for in all of these activities is healing. Weed is to vineyard as cancer is to your body, my friend. Every weed you pull is imploring God to pull the cancer from your body. Every night you lay on the ground underneath the stars is a request to be reminded of and returned to what is real. When you breathe deeply, whether from a 3 mile hike or inhaling frankincense, you are asking, insisting really, that Spirit and Life enter your body, infuse every cell and reside there. And I can tell that all of this is happening because I can see the desire of your heart (prayer) written in your posts, as well as the wisdom gleaned (the fruit of meditation) from your daily experience and the conclusions at which you arrive. I see proof of the asking, and proof of the answers you’ve been given.
So, what is left but the granddaddy, the pièce de résistance, the biggest realization of all: Gratitude.
That’s the key. Offering up to God, the Universe, your Higher Power, or whatever you’d like to call it, your gratitude. This is what changes us. This is what opens our hearts and frees us, and what makes healing and wholeness possible. All it takes to get started is a pen, some paper, and 30 minutes maybe to sit on a bench in your backyard (looking out on one of the most truly beautiful views in the world) to offer up everything you’re grateful for on a daily basis. Big and small stuff. All of it. The hard part will be finding within yourself the will to be thankful even for your trials and tribulations, even for this cancer. You touched on it briefly when you said how much you loved working in the vineyard and how it took cancer to get you off your ass… Isn’t that just another way of saying that you have cancer to thank for getting you out into your own vineyard? I would like to clarify that being grateful for cancer doesn’t mean you want to keep it around. You can also be thankful to see it get on the first bus out of town and never return.
In all my time and years seeking to know the will and see the face of God via prayer and meditation, I’ve only gotten glimpses, and brief ones at that. But they were fleeting moments of bliss and contentment that I wouldn’t trade for the world. They’ve kept me on the path in pursuit of more…
So, my friend, I pray peace for you. I pray love and healing for you, and I leave you, again, with a favorite scripture that provides great relief to me when I have nothing left in me with which to pray:
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”
The Spirit intercedes for us… With sighs too deep for words… Too deep for words… Too deep for words…
My friend has had a number of setbacks over the months, as those battling cancer often do, but he is finding a modicum of success with a trial chemotherapy drug called Trabectidin. I hope he continues his attempts at prayer and meditation, frustrating and fruitless though they may appear. My experience is that the bounty of the practice comes randomly and unexpectedly as glimpses of light in the darkest and most despairing of moments – just when all appears lost – as proof of the promise that we are never really lost. Of course, prayer provides no assurance of a cure, and we all know this because prayerful people succumb to cancer and disease every day. But practiced faithfully it has been known to heal hearts, change dispositions, and provide hours if not days, months, and lifetimes of inner peace – and that is something most worthy of pursuit.