The Quest for Wholeness

There is a Time

Chapter 8

"For everything its season, and for every activity under heaven its time: a time to be born and a time to die," begins the third chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes. In the exultation of life's busy clamour we soon overlook the fact of our mortality, the brief apportioned span of experience here before we make our individual departure and move onwards. Onward movement is the essence of life, while the process of growth involves our learning from each experience, our assimilation of each encounter as it impinges upon us. The end of our mortal life is the development of a rounded personality, fulfilled in its own uniqueness and ceaselessly available for service to all who call upon it in pain and suffering. The healing ministry attains its peak of endeavour when it enables the person to enter into the divine nature of his creation, so that he may reveal something of that glorious heritage which is then contributed to the world around him. The end of fulfilled human life is a progressive spiritualization of society, seen in its most exalted form as the entire creation.

There are three resurrection miracles of Christ recorded in the Gospel: the widow of Nain's son, Jairus' daughter, and, most spectacular of them all, the long-deceased Lazarus. Why did Jesus perform these miracles? Presumably because the victim in question had not lived out his or her allotted span, and there was more to learn and to achieve before a definitively final transition. Whether the first two were instances of "clinical death" as opposed to the later irreversible decease of the body, we do not know, and in any case the matter is somewhat theoretical. Lazarus had been entombed for four days, and his resurrection was clearly a miracle. However, the really important circumstance in all of these instances was the new understanding of reality that must have dawned on these people at the time of their resurrection. The near-death experience occurring in "clinically dead" people (usually victims of severe heart attacks) opens their inner sight to a modality of existence distinctly beyond the range of customary human perception. They see something of the divine, however they may describe it, and with that vision there comes a grasp of the immediate importance of using their time on earth profitably, so that when they are ready to depart, perhaps many years later, they will have done what they had been sent to achieve at the time of their conception: to bring their talents back to God, hard-worn but resplendent through their dedicated usage among the people with whom their stewards once lived.

Much of my own healing work, the most significant proportion in my opinion, has been concerned with the incurably ill who are in the process of dying. In the great majority of cases the cause of the trouble has been cancer, since this disease, apart from the unusual exceptions that I have already mentioned, tends relentlessly to the destruction of the body's substance and its death if it cannot be completely eradicated at an early stage of its development. Quite often people seek my help only when the condition is far advanced in its spread, and then a remarkably fulfilling ministry frequently follows. One notable instance was that of Teresa, a woman of late middle age. Of very reserved disposition, she was before my time quite an active member of the congregation of my church. Latterly she had moved some distance away from the parish, but still maintained a loose association in memory of a previous incumbent whom she much esteemed. Only occasionally did she now attend services, and I assumed she was going to a more conveniently situated church in her immediate locality - as was indeed the case. She was not the kind of person one would approach with temerity, because of her great reticence. However, early one Sunday morning a note awaited me: Teresa was in hospital with terminal breast cancer, and she wanted me to give a message to a member of the congregation with regard to some work she could not herself perform. As soon as the morning church service had ended, I visited her in the specialized cancer hospital situated in an outlying London suburb. She was both delighted and moved to see me (moved because I had obviously forgone my lunch in order to be with her as soon as possible). She had considerable difficulty in breathing and needed intermittent oxygen, but we could communicate quite well, and I ended my visit with the laying-on of hands and prayer.

Teresa's condition slowly but steadily became stabilized, and then there was a great improvement, while we two were entering into a deep friendship, a situation unimaginable before the tragedy struck. I asked her why she had not told me about the illness much earlier on, but in fact it was her reticence that had blocked any communication - and of course she now worshipped locally. She confided that her heart really lay in my church and not in her local one, and she made it clear that she wanted the funeral service to be conducted there, giving me details about hymns and readings. She rallied sufficiently to go back to the hospice from which she had been sent to the cancer hospital, only then to develop an acute obstruction of the intestine. This is a most painful condition that soon leads to death unless it is treated surgically at once. Despite the underlying disease, the doctors and Teresa opted for an exploratory operation, which showed an obstruction at the lower part of the colon, possibly due to deposits of the tumour there. At any rate, a colostomy was performed; it relieved the obstruction completely, and soon Teresa had learned how to control it, an impressive feat in a terminally ill patient. It was evident that the cancer had gone into temporary remission, while Teresa and I were growing ever closer in friendship. In due course she left the cancer hospital for a second time to return to the hospice. There the tumour became active once more and she died about three weeks later.

There can be no doubt that this final encounter was an important chapter in the saga of Teresa's growth of personality up to the next stage, which she is now experiencing. She was able to open herself to me in a way that would have been inconceivable prior to her illness, a fact brought into the open in the diary she kept so assiduously (of course I did not read her private jottings, but was told later by her sister how very much Teresa had valued my constant caring). Her body was in fact interred in the family grave in the country, but I had the privilege of officiating at the service of thanksgiving in my church, where the hymns and readings she had chosen were used. I felt that I had been parted from an old friend as I commended her soul to the light of God's love. Was it right that an exploratory abdominal operation should have been performed on a terminally ill woman? There can be no definitive answer to this question, but in this particular instance I have no doubt that the correct path had been trod. It was good that Teresa had had this short period of remission to enjoy (as far as any person with advanced malignant disease can be said to enjoy the experience) and also the colostomy to control. She had learnt to love herself in a way that would have been impossible before the final experience. I have been told by other colostomy subjects that only when they give their strange guest a name can they really tolerate and eventually love it as themselves. This artificial anus opening on to the front of the abdominal wall and discharging faeces can be a most repulsive burden to the squeamish, while a loving friend to those whose lives have been prolonged by it.

A person especially beloved to me was another parishioner, Elizabeth, who, unlike Teresa, remained a pillar of my church, Like a number of other members of my congregation, her religious creed was broad to a degree that would have brought an intolerant pastor close to despair, for she had a warm heart. It is those like her who are the real salt of the Faith, for they can somehow live within its dogmatic structure without excluding the greater Lord, whose nature is mercy and whose outpouring is love for all people of all faiths. She loved the parish church which she and her husband, an amateur artist of great distinction, served with much devotion.

I was appointed assistant priest some time after the death of her husband, and a warm relationship sprang up between us - at that time she was in her mid-seventies and I in my early fifties. She had the sensitivity peculiar to very noble people not to intrude into my private affairs, even when she would dearly have loved to plumb the depths of my inner life. Some years later I was put in charge of the church, and depended even more on the help of Elizabeth and a few other dedicated parishioners. A little while later I became seriously ill after an accident that involved severe injuries to both shoulders. I was both physically incapacitated and mentally depressed, certainly in no condition to look after myself as I had done for nearly all my adult life. Elizabeth at once offered me hospitality in her delightful house (lent her by a rich relation, for she herself was of modest means) where I was able to make a slow recovery, interrupted by a further spell in hospital. It was very fortunate that she lived within easy walking distance of the church, for my private flat (I did not have the usual church accommodation) was a mile and a half away. How good it was, in addition, to be with her, to share her tastes and enjoy her tolerance and kindly sense of humour! She was not an intellectual, but her spiritual outlook was truly catholic and none the worse for its hospitality towards unusual ideas (how often can traditionally orthodox teachings become distasteful in the hands of the complacently intolerant believer, so that in the end they emit not so much the odour of sanctity as the stench of decay!). Her sympathies, rather like mine, were universal in scope, seeing the good rather than the evil in other people, systems of thought and religious traditions, and yet at heart being firmly rooted in Christ whom we know as a universal presence as well as an incarnated being. "The glory of God is a man fully alive", wrote St Irenaeus. Both Elizabeth and I knew intuitively that the truly living man was Jesus of Nazareth, who has to become fully incarnated in each one of us rather than simply idolized from afar. Elizabeth also loved animals and gardens, indeed all living creatures. It was a wonderful experience to share spiritual intimacy with a person who would never have imagined herself as anything so precious as an agent of the light.

In late January 1985, we attended an afternoon cinema performance, and as we were leaving at the end, Elizabeth slipped on some stairs and strained her back. She was obliged forthwith to enter hospital for investigation and treatment, while I was smartly ejected from the comfort of her home to fend for myself in my own flat once more. Had circumstances not thus forced me to leave her home, it would have been deceptively easy and pleasant, for both of us, that I should remain indefinitely, simply using my flat as a centre for the ministry of counselling and healing. Providence acts in strange ways, uncomfortably often, but with decisive authority; and so I resumed my private existence quietly, soon putting my past troubles behind me and proceeding onwards with the usual work at home, in church, and at various conferences and retreat centres.

But Elizabeth's future was less rosy. As I got better, so she declined. It became evident that, in addition to the comparatively simple back strain, she had a disease of the right kidney, which was removed surgically some little while later. There was a stone in the ureter (the duct by which urine passes from the kidney to the bladder) which was associated with a cancerous change in the adjacent tissues. Elizabeth endured a continuous ache whose origin she could not fathom. I feel the doctors were well advised at this stage in refraining both from revealing to her the proper diagnosis and from using anti-cancer chemotherapy (the tumour was clearly outside the range of surgery, and Elizabeth was eighty-two years old at this time, though remarkably youthful for her age). And so she was treated with painkilling drugs, and laxatives to keep her bowels open. It was pathetic to witness her slow decline both in energy and in physical stature. But she carried on courageously in her house until the help of nurses became essential. Throughout all this time I never let a day go by without telephoning her if I could not visit her. As the malady progressed it became obvious that she found my visits increasingly fatiguing, particularly as she always wanted to give me something to eat if at all possible. Sometimes she spent a few days with her family in the country, but this also became increasingly exhausting, and towards the end of the ordeal she was glad to remain quiet in her own home, quite often in her bed. This account of the lethal progress of cancer is distressingly common, but the redeeming feature was Elizabeth's widening of spiritual awareness and her progressive detachment from all material possessions, even, to a certain extent, human ties.

It was of interest that on the few occasions when she seemed to want the laying-on of hands, I felt a strong resistance on her part, and was not surprised that there was no result other than some temporary relief of her pain, which was becoming increasingly severe as the disease progressed and was barely held in check by the analgesics (painkilling drugs) that were prescribed for her. She was a very independent person who did not relish too much help from outside. Above all, she feared imposing on the resources of those around her. She dreaded becoming a burden on her loving family, and was mercifully able to remain in her own home until she was in too great pain to carry on alone. After her final admission to hospital, an exploratory operation was performed in order to ensure that nothing further could be done in the area of disease to relieve the pain. At this stage the true diagnosis was revealed to her, and concerted steps were taken to relieve the pain without dulling her faculties.

It is always good for a dying person to enter the final phase of life in awareness both of the past that has to be confronted in acceptance and forgiveness and the future whose advent can be greeted with suffused joy. An atmospheric radiance lit up our times together in hospital; all traces of Elizabeth's previous apprehension (based on an inevitable clinging to earthly things) had evaporated, and we could talk about current matters in a lucid delight stemming from a heightened awareness of reality that sees the present as the true focus of eternity. She lost consciousness only during the last few hours of her earthly life, and her body seemed to be transfigured in austere beauty as it entered the end of its allotted span. Even at the end Elizabeth was a great support to her family as well as a source of inspiration to the nurses who attended her. Her final illness dragged on for nearly two years, but the growth in spiritual awareness during that time seemed almost to have justified the suffering she bore with uncomplaining fortitude. Certainly all traces of possessiveness had been washed away as she entered the new life ahead of her. It was a solemn joy to officiate at Elizabeth's funeral service, attended by so many loving friends and relatives. There was an aura of calm release around the bier as it lay in state in the central aisle of the church. The subsequent cremation seemed to complete the soul's liberation.

The third instance of a healing death was that of Frances, another parishioner, who lived some distance from the church but found herself very much at home with our worship. She was elderly, a lovely person whose fine appearance belied her years, and who had had a distinguished record of social service. She had contended for a long time with recurrent cancer of the bladder, for which repeated treatment had been necessary. The pain and social embarrassment of this condition, with its frequent calls to pass urine, had left little trace on her composed face. At last she was ready for the final removal of her bladder and its replacement by an artificial one, tended by a leading urologist while being supported by the prayers of many friends. It was at this stage that I really became involved in the drama; seeing her at her delightful home frequently before and after she had left hospital. The operation itself was a technical success, and soon she was going about her activities with much more energy than for a long time previously. This happy state of affairs did not last long: she developed symptoms of secondary deposits of cancer in the liver which, rather unusually, showed themselves in exhausting attacks of fever. She was very disappointed but not at all disheartened. Though thinner and feebler than before, she was as delighted as ever to see me. Indeed, our times together were so agreeable and our concerns ranged over so many topics that each visit seemed a pleasant social occasion rather than one tinged with more serious business. But we ended with healing and prayer for others in special need. The silence brought us down to the gravity of the situation, but I always left her home with a feeling of uplift in the face of the desperate state of affairs. All this was, of course, an unspoken tribute to Frances's calm imperturbability, which could reach beyond the increasing turmoil of urgency to touch the eternity of the present moment where God is known. In the presence of truly great souls one receives ever so much more than anything one may set out to give; a relationship is born that is not dependent on results or the acclaim of others but exists entirely in its own right. With her usual courage, Frances, in the company of a close friend, went on a fortnight's holiday to France where she died unexpectedly about a week after arrival. And so she was able to avoid the discomfort of terminal care in a hospital, and be of as little trouble to her family and friends as possible. I was quite shocked to hear of her death, for while I rejoiced at her unexpected release, I was once again bereft of a newly found friend. There is little that is hidden from either party in the healing ministry that precedes death.

A number of thoughts arise in relation to these three case-histories: how little effect my ministry had on the course of the disease, how privileged I was to participate in the final act of a life's drama before the soul proceeds to the next stage of its unfolding, and how great is the healing power of death itself, both for the afflicted person and the mourning friends. The work I did in all three instances was simply to be available to give what support I could. My ministry, compared with that of the specialized medical agencies in charge of the patients, was trifling, virtually negligible. I was, as it were, holding their hands as do parents their children's in a moment of pain while the specialists were busy treating diseased tissues and administering potent drugs to relieve suffering. But even had their specialized expertise eradicated the cancer so completely that a full cure followed, I would still have been content with my secondary role. While the specialists contended with the disease, I acted as a channel of power to renew their patients, to strengthen them for the great contests lying immediately ahead of them. For we are more than mere bodies, marvellous as the physical body is in its construction and its built-in mechanisms of maintenance and repair. To be in a close relationship with a fellow-human is always a privilege, something that friends, let alone close relations, do not appreciate fully until the time of parting. As a minister of healing I have learned to be non-attached to both the person and the results of my service, so that God can work best through me as an unobstructed channel or an untarnished instrument, depending on the particular metaphor one prefers. The greater the degree of non-attachment (a term I prefer to detachment, which seems too clinical and impersonal for any living relationship to emerge), the greater the commitment. On the surface this seems paradoxical, but in fact until one's sight is firmly fixed on God and his service, one's emotions will tend to dominate one's work: when all goes well, the commitment may be one of heavily oppressive solicitude, but when the relationship falters, the commitment may fly out of the window. One's mind goes back to the devotion of Jesus' disciples during the time of his triumphant ministry, and their flight from him when he apparently failed. They learned more about themselves during the period of his passion and death than they did in their three previous years' breathtaking apprenticeship to him.

The joy of a deathbed ministry is that of being able both to guide and to reassure the dying one and to be guided in turn by him or her into realms of experience seldom broached in worldly company. Hospital visiting is a special skill that is seldom appreciated until the visitors have themselves been on the receiving end of the calls. Both Elizabeth and Frances were sometimes exhausted by their visitors, as was I also in my incomparably less serious stay in hospital when Elizabeth proved of such inestimable help. Apart from those few people who possess a genuine healing gift, from whom the warmth of God radiates in love to all around them, most visitors deplete the sick in bed whether at home or in hospital. Therefore one should above all not overstay one's visit. This applies even to close friends and relatives, no matter how devoted they may be and how concerned they feel. A person in bed is a sitting target for all negative feelings that may well up, sometimes unconsciously, from those around him.

In my own illness Elizabeth was the only visitor who filled me with encouragement because she was uncomplicated, of warm heart, and always open to new experiences. Most of the others depressed me, but none more than those who sincerely believed they were spiritually advanced or had a healing gift. I learned so much from that dreadful experience that, as a result, my future healing-counselling ministry became very much wiser and more discerning. An astringency that was foreign to my previous ministry now revealed itself, much, I believe, to the value of those I was subsequently to tend, for now I could speak the truth with less inhibition when candour was desperately required. In hospital visiting the two pitfalls especially to be avoided are a depressed attitude and a tendency to speak too much. Quite a few visitors spend the time getting their own problems off their chests while using the sick person as a captive audience. It would be good if all hospital visitors could spend a few minutes alone in silence before they saw their sick friend, and then made a quiet departure after, at the most, ten minutes. If this were too short a stay, the patient would soon urge a visitor to remain longer, by showing obvious disappointment at the visitor's imminent departure.

Jesus, as we know from the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46), enjoins us to help the sick and visit those in prison. Therefore work of this type is our duty as well as our privilege. The question we always have to ask ourselves, however, is: "Am I doing it because I ought to or because I want to?" It is only when the two coincide that good will come out of the visit. Too much desire exhausts the one who is visited, while too much duty puts the patient in the invidious position of seeming to impose on the visitor's time. If we truly have the well-being of another person at heart, we will neither neglect him nor overwhelm him with our presence. This is the way in which we learn the secret of love, the love that God expends unceasingly upon us. Love enables the person to grow at his own pace into something of the fullness of being that is seen in the saints of the world. It never leaves us without strength, but it does not impose its strength upon us.

Death the healer is a theme seldom touched on by those still alive in the flesh, yet in the midst of life we are in death. Our stay in this world is necessarily a transient one, and thankfully so, too, once we have completed the particular task we came to perform. In the instance of my three friends, each had fulfilled her life - none was especially distinguished in the world's eyes, nor had any of them that degree of sanctity recorded in the world's annals of the blessed ones, but they all had grown as persons and left much love behind them (more than they could have guessed from their earthly vantage point). Teresa was in her early sixties, Frances and Elizabeth fifteen and twenty years older respectively. But what about the young who die prematurely? If they too have undergone the type of testing I have described with reference to my three friends, they also have done what they were born to achieve even if their lives were cut short before they could have attained worldly eminence. "The good man, even if he dies an untimely death, will be at rest. For it is not length of life and number of years which bring the honour due to age; if men have understanding, they have grey hairs enough, and an unspotted life is the true ripeness of age" (Wisdom 4:7-9).

Despite the apprehension that progressive, ultimately fatal disease brings to its victims, I am convinced that they have something here that is out of all proportion, in ultimate value, to the suffering they must necessarily undergo in the short term. While everything possible should be done to relieve their distress, the experience of transition is good for the soul, for the essence that is to continue after the outer vestment, the physical body, has been shed. While euthanasia in the context of directly killing an incurably ill person cannot be morally, let alone legally, countenanced because of the abuse that would follow such a course of action if it became generally accepted, there comes a time when the inevitable course of nature towards death need not be strenuously resisted. Here compassion, common sense, and a tacit agreement among the various parties concerned would guide the way. Prayer would be an initiator of action. The ministry of healing has one of its greatest works to fulfil in this field, not least in releasing the soul from attachment to the weary body that is due for dissolution.

Chapter 9
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