[An excerpt from my book, “Embraced by God: Facing Chemotherapy with Faith.”]
During the period of remission between my first and second rounds of chemotherapy, I attended the funeral Mass for the brother of a friend from church. As the Mass ended, the musicians began playing a song I love and know well, and the chorus of the old Quaker hymn flowed over me like a cleansing, refreshing morning shower:
No storm can shake my inmost calm,
while to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?
As a musician and a singer myself, I have always been drawn to this song for what I guess are obvious reasons. I have always felt a “call” to sing and make music, and this old song always resonated within me. There is nothing, I once thought, that would ever keep me from singing. But I found out over time that that wasn’t entirely true. As I experienced some of the tougher days of my disease and treatment, there were times when singing was the last thing I wanted to do. For me, this was one of the more difficult aspects of coping with my disease. It wasn’t that I couldn’t sing; it was that I just didn’t feel like it.
During the days following the funeral, this powerful phrase from the song returned to me again and again: “No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that rock I’m clinging.” And even as the disease and the chemotherapy sapped my energy and sucked me into moments of despair and lethargy, even as they began to shake my inmost calm, I began to realize that it wasn’t singing or music that gave me strength and life. Rather, it was God who gave me these important gifts. My singing stemmed from my recognition and acceptance of the gifts and the Divine Giver. I realized that in order to sing, in order to live my life to its fullest, God needed to be at the center of all that I am and all that I do. Music – and all the other joys in my life — would then naturally follow.
The life of a person with a life-threatening or life-altering disease can be depressing and it can be terrifying. On good days, when our heads and hearts are in their right places, it can be also be majestic. Our lives can be frightfully ugly and they can be gloriously beautiful. But even when we seem to be in the midst of our lowest and most distressful times, we can choose to focus on the good and on God and his movement in our lives. Every day we have life (joy, giving and forgiving) and death (pain, evil and disease) set before us in so many ways. It is up to us to choose which we will follow. It is up to us to decide whether life or death controls the way we live, even if we cannot control whether or not we will live.
Our daily lives – whether we are battling a disease or not — are where we do the work of the kingdom of God and where, at the same time, evil and illness and violence often seem to reign. So it’s hard to maintain that inmost calm even during the best of times.
Even if we consider ourselves people of faith and feel like we have a good relationship with God, it’s easy to lose our focus from time to time as the storms of the world swirl around us. Sometimes it seems like it would be easier to just give up and call it day, retreating into our own little lives and places of relative safety. Sometimes we just want to stop singing.
The image that comes to my mind is that of a whirling ballet dancer, spinning furiously but always under control, always spotting that one unmoving point at the top of her spin, where for the briefest stutter of a moment she trains her eyes on something out in front of her and so knows where she is in her spin. She keeps her balance and her center because she is focused not on the spin or on herself but on something beyond herself.
This is our faith. This is more love and grace than we can fathom. This is more strength that we can muster on our own. This is where we fix our eyes. How can we keep from singing?
Up Next: Making Sure of God
I will be giving a retreat based on my book this summer from July 14 – 16 at the Marianist Retreat and Conference Center just outside St. Louis. “Embraced by God” will be a weekend retreat exploring the spirituality of living with cancer and other chronic diseases. For more information, visit: http://mretreat.org