Going to God
Charles was a distinguished scholar, and long-time supporter of Compass. He sent these ‘musings’ as he called them about six weeks before he died ‘in case we thought they had merit’, but not to be included in Compass until after he had left us. Sadly, he died on Wednesday, April 11th, and we are missing him. We offer our deep sympathy to Charles’ family. May he rest in peace.
THE PHRASE is not mine, though the experience is (if one is not being presumptuous). Abbot Brian kindly wrote, ‘I would like to spend some time with you before you go to God.’ I had thought I should tell him of the prognosis, and request the prayers of the monks on the basis of our work together. I appreciated his readiness to ‘cross the Ditch,’ as he said, though urging him not to neglect the prior claims of his community.
Support like that, particularly at the early stage, meant a lot. I suppose I was still feeling singled out; proofing of Chrysostom’s commentaries on Job and Ecclesiastes exactly at that time hit home—though, to be honest, I didn’t fall to the former’s anguished appeals, Why me? After all, I had left the biblical age a few years in my wake, and buried my parents and sister; it was my turn.
But I admit to being taken aback when the GP looked grave on receipt of the scan, and (without much warning) spoke of ‘months, not years.’ It was not that I regretted his directness—just had to get my mind around it. As I left the surgery that day, and ran into a parishioner eager to discuss adult education, I felt light-headed, and couldn’t bring my brain to bear. Fortunately, when I got home, my wife didn’t go to water; Marie is made of sterner stuff, as has been confirmed in the meantime.
So support was much appreciated, especially from family (even across The Ditch) and friends. There was just the odd person who, when somehow acquainted with the facts (we preferred not to broadcast them), began looking at me askance as though now ‘one of them,’ no longer ‘one of us.’ I could concede that the difficulty lay with them, not me.
Acceptance, I found, eventually came fairly easily, especially to one without children. We had been reared on Grandma’s Irish obiter dicta, such as, ‘Two things you can count on: death and disappointment.’ It took no great insight on my part to draw the comparison between my situation and that of a young mother or father presented with the same prognosis—and I found some such each time in the cancer centre. To theirs could properly be applied the word ‘tragedy,’ not to mine.
A sense of humour, mine and others’, also helped. A catechist whom I had been teaching earlier in the year sent me a cartoon by Michael Leunig with the verse,
Use-by dates—they come and go,
I think I even began to enjoy being at the centre of attention, and even formed a picture of a blessed departure, propped up at home on pillows, with loved ones around, a peaceful and blessed demise. A’Kempis had said, remember, ‘Few are improved by sickness,’ and again, ‘Sickness doesn’t change a man: it only shows what he is.’
‘Going to God,’ in fact, soon proved to be anything but peaceful and blessed. There was too much to be done. And not just an endless round of medical consultations, tests, procedures, ‘medical imaging’ of various kinds. There was all the tidying up to do, clearing the decks, trying to leave everything ship-shape and free of mess for others, updating a will, putting in last year’s tax return, disposing of one’s books to appropriate libraries, getting rid of a mountain of paper, casting off pre-loved clothing, … This wasn’t what Job and Qoheleth regretted.
And, of course, this trimming the sails could be tiring and wearing, especially when one is ill. Support, again, was needed, and appreciated, as friends rallied around. There were ups and downs, hope and Grandma’s disappointment, times when things looked bright and times when bleak, times when one felt OK and times when flat on the back was the way to go. Fortunately, in my case chemotherapy was not a great trial; it had its rhythms, and one looked forward to getting good marks (if not release) periodically from the oncologist.
And then there’s the wear and tear on the carer. Even if a patient is mobile, there is a constant sense of the inevitable, where fun and hilarity are pretty rare. There are consultations and tests and clinics to attend most weeks. There are phone calls to take and visitors to entertain; the house has never been so busy. There are chores no longer within the capacity of the patient, and thus left to the carer. Though it has been said of some people that ‘they enjoyed poor health,’ there’s not much enjoyment in it for the carer; and fatigue can easily set in.
Where is God in ‘Going to God’? There is the temptation to read the face of God, if not do a querulous Job—the real one, not the plaster-cast Job of chapters 1 and 2. Is that closeness to God, or resentment? Perhaps a prayer of thanks would be in order for knowing ahead of time, when many people do not. Daily prayer in this condition profits from tighter focus; ‘Thy will be done’ can be said with deeper commitment. The many offers of prayer from others are gratefully accepted. A Greek Orthodox priest friend sent me a lovely prayer for daily recital,
Father, physician of the body and soul,
How widely to spread the word of one’s condition, and appeal for prayer? We thought it better to lie low, avoid an early entry into the parish bulletin, and thus keep well-meaning enquiries to a minimum; things were busy enough. The parish priest twigged to it, and offered the rite of anointing, accepted at a later stage with gratitude; it is a lovely and consoling ritual.
‘There are now these three: faith, hope and love.’ An ex-student, on being given a direct answer to a direct question, chided me for being ‘matter-of-fact’ in relaying the details. But there’s no point in falling about, wringing one’s hands; if through life you’ve been living and writing and teaching the faith, this is not the time to go wobbly. Paul also laments those who ‘have no hope and without God in the world’—an awful condition at a time like this; I hope mourners at my requiem won’t reflect that desperation. We have such wonderful things to look forward to, if not able (like Chesterton) to feel ‘like a schoolboy going home for the holidays.’ And then there’s love, agapê (and hopefully philia, friends’ love and loyalty), in place of Job’s anger; and isn’t that ‘an everlasting love’ from the one who has first loved us?
I’m obviously writing this before the end of the journey to God, while I have a clear head. I guess the time will come (‘months, not years’) when clarity will go missing. And yet it is then that ‘going to God’ will be at its critical stage, when one can only accept, not articulate. As a friend who cares for people like me observed, ‘It’s not death that’s the challenge; it’s dying.’ How long to hang on, if one has a choice? Michael Leunig has a little prayer, ‘God, give us strength. Strength to hold on and strength to let go. Amen.’ Another friend, in a similar position to me, questioned the readiness of a family close to her to give permission to withdraw life-support when consulted by the doctors, insisting that she wanted all the life there was to be had. Of course, she could have recited to me Dylan Thomas’s verses to his father,
not go gentle into that good night,
I’m not so sure; I think I prefer Chesterton’s serenity and detachment. I’m thinking also of Paul to his beloved Philippians, ‘My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.’ I suppose it depends on a lot of things—and Paul did hang on till the Vatican Hill, when he had no option. Chrysostom had no option, left to die on the pitiless Black Sea shore in exile just 1600 year ago this year. Jesus had no option; we won’t all have an option.
Please God, whenever the passage, it will be (as once imagined) peaceful and blessed. Say a prayer for us all, if you would.