I thought it was over for me when my wife died almost three years ago. Breast cancer, that is. Until I learned this past week that two close friends are wrestling with the ravages of the disease.
One is a woman I worked with at IBM many years ago. Her tumor had favorably responded to treatment to the point that her doctors thought the time was right to perform a mastectomy.
As a man, I learned from my wife that surgical removal of a breast is a shattering experience for a woman, beyond the trauma of the actual procedure.
My friend, Jewish, asked for my prayers, a Catholic.
My other friend had breast cancer visited upon her some years ago. The disease had been contained, only to return—multiple tumors in her liver.
We curse this disease as though it were an entity, a living, evil specter that comes in the dark of night to sit astride a woman’s chest and suck away her will to live.
When all the hormonal meds, the chemo, the radiation have run their course, only one antidote remains. Prayer.
When my friends told me of their plight, I responded the only way I know how, because there is nothing else to say: “I will pray for you.”
Laugh if you want. After all, Stephen Hawking, the new Einstein, has dismissively declared there is no God.
Except for the few things he chose to ignore in his last book, which is his legacy. Before publishing Hawking’s manuscript, any editor worth his salt would have asked him:
- You say that the universe merely “popped” into existence from nothing. Can you prove that?
- You say everything simply follows the “laws of nature.” Where do these laws come from, and why do scientists assume them rather than prove them?
- Why do you never explain why there is “something” at all—rather than nothing?
“I will pray for you” is such a feeble, rote response to someone who tosses and turns in her bed in the middle of the night, tormented by the imminence of her mortality.
Worse is the kneejerk message, “sending thoughts and prayers” and “positive energy coming your way.”
What the hell does that mean?
Just so much straw.
Better to simply kneel at your bedside at nightfall and actually pray.
In the last months of her life, after surviving breast cancer for sixteen years, my wife changed her own prayer.
She no longer asked for healing, but simply that she have courage. Her prayer was answered. To the end, she was brave beyond belief.
We Catholics believe our suffering unites us with Christ’s, and yields good in ways we may never know. I can say that since my wife’s death, I am a better person in the sense that I have grown closer to God and closer to our daughters.
And in praying for my wife, I learned something. I learned that asking politely doesn’t always work in the ways we want.
I remember our girls, when they were little, coming to us and, turning our own instruction back on us, complain, “I asked politely but she still won’t . . . “
Here’s Joe Heschmeyer, former attorney and now seminarian:
In raising your child to ask politely, your children become better. So, too, God teaches us to pray because prayer makes us better people, it makes us humbler.
This is the consensus among spiritual thinkers. Prayer doesn’t change God, It changes us.
The answer to our prayers is seldom what we want to hear. Consider the prayer of Jesus just before he was arrested and executed: “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.”
His prayer didn’t change the outcome, but it strengthened the man.
Studies seem to back this up. Tanya Marie Luhrmann, an anthropologist at Stanford:
There’s more and more evidence that this practice of talking to God or at least the person you represent in your mind as being a wise and good loving person, has health effects both emotionally and physically.
Here’s Jesuit writer William J. Byron saying it in a different way:
Intercessory prayer lifts me out of my own self-centered concerns and helps me focus on the needs of others. It helps me to be a sign of God’s closeness to someone in need, and it spurs me on, when I am able, to extend my prayer by doing whatever I can to help. And in all of it, I have an opportunity to recognize, and even to be, in my own very limited way, the very presence of God. While we always hope for good outcomes, we celebrate, and we become the loving presence of God, no matter what happens.
When it comes to truly satanic things, like cancer, the Gospel tells us: “This kind can be cast out only by prayer and fasting."
Intellectually arrogant scientism can’t agree even about cholesterol. Until it gets its act together, I will skip a meal each day and kneel every evening to pray for my friends.
(Image by digital artist Lente Scura)
Evil exists only if you let it. If you enjoyed reading this, you will like my new novel, Billy of the Tulips, a sensitive boy’s grim engagement with innocence and iniquity, now available in both print and Kindle from Amazon.