Friday, January 29, 2016

The retreat began October 16: it has not ended yet

The trip to Loyola House in Guelph is a much-anticipated annual getaway for my retreat – some 23 years now, and counting. Pretty much always in the fall, and for many years my week has been embedded in the larger 40 day retreat that is already on. The retreat atmosphere of silence is already in place, and my immersion in it is seamless and easy.

Every year I spend some time thinking about the grace I will be asking for on the retreat. Every year, God takes me on a turn in the road, a change in direction. I smile when this happens, and I take it as a clear sign that God is watching over me from the very beginning.

This year, I was still reflecting on a gospel I had preached on recently, the one of the young man asking Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life. The message from Jesus was that he should basically empty out and come follow him. For me, this led to a reflection on emptying myself out to totally trust God for upcoming surgery I was to undergo for a basal cell skin cancer. That in turn very quickly led me to reflect on the suffering of St. Therese of Lisieux in the last year and a half of her life when she was essentially suffocating with tuberculosis. I talked to my director about this and came back to it a couple of times. He gave me a book to read by Clarence Enzler, “Let Us Be What We Are.” Enzler had a devotion to St. Therese, and also faced cancer surgery. Following the spirit of abandonment that St. Therese wrote about so eloquently, Enzler decided to approach the surgery by uniting himself to the Passion of Jesus. Like St. Therese he let himself experience his “smallness” so as to be completely filled by God’s will for him .

This is where my turn in the road really began. I was just getting into this and resonating with it not only for my upcoming minor surgery, but for my life in general. And then, I started experiencing the pain in my lower right abdomen . It became sharp, and I began to be worried about an appendix attack.. I left the retreat three days early and drove home, straight to the Emergency department . After several hours of investigation, a CT scan was done, and they found the mass in an abdominal lymph node. There followed a referral to hematology oncology and a whole new diagnostic process. Long story short, a diagnosis of lymphoma was confirmed a couple of weeks later. It was decided that chemotherapy would begin right away, on an inpatient basis. I would have six rounds of this, a week at a time, every three weeks.

At time of writing this, I have completed three rounds and have tolerated the chemotherapy very well. The Kingston Regional Cancer Center has just adopted the Princess Margaret portable pump protocol for my particular brew, and I have been able to have this last round at home!

Back to the retreat. It clearly has not ended, and it clearly has continued to deepen the themes that were opening up in the few days that I was in Guelph. I have smiled many times at St. Therese and asked her if this is what she had been up to all along, preparing me for this over the past three or four years of my devotion to her. The first fruit of that devotion and of my being totally taken with her Little Way was that I have not had a moment of anger or sadness or despair or indignation or “why me?”. Very shortly after absorbing the significance of the news, my response was, okay Lord, what are you asking of me here?

The answer to that also unfolded over the weeks. I developed a very sharp perspective on what was important and not important in life. I suddenly could not believe the things that have upset me in the past, including how righteously indignant I could be at the behavior of other people! I recalled in a whole new way the story St. Therese tells of how she decided to love the nun who drove her crazy by criticizing her every little move. Therese eloquently framed the discussion within her own reflection of the love Jesus has for all of us with our foibles, sinfulness, and brokenness.

This is all stuff that I had previously read and reflected on. I was amazed at how much deeper it was all going. And then I recalled a reflection exercise we had done at a workshop on Discipleship here in Kingston on November 28 last year. The reflection was on the story of St. Paul being knocked off his horse by a blinding light and being led blind to Ananias. Ananias laid hands on him and said “Saul, my brother, the Lord has sent me, Jesus who appeared to you on the way by which you came, that you may regain your sight and be filled with the holy Spirit.” Immediately things like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight.

I have tried to be a prayerful person. I have lived long enough to become aware of my own brokenness and sinfulness. I am grateful every day for the gift of being in ministry as a Deacon. I therefore had no idea that I had scales on my eyes. But I did. The cancer is the blinding light that knocked me to the ground. Therese of Lisieux is Ananias. And Jesus has blessed me, dramatically getting my attention! I have never seen or appreciated or experienced my relationship with Jesus as clearly or as personally as I am now. And I know that this is not done! For that reason, there is no other way to characterize this journey than as one of great giftedness. Can you believe that in the middle of the chemotherapy and everything that goes with it, I am overwhelmingly grateful for what is happening in my relationship with God.

For that reason, the retreat continues. More later.


Deacon Joe said...

Thank you Phil for sharing this wonderful, personal and insightful reflection of you journey. We wrap you in the mantle of our prayer. God is good. All our love. Joe and Debbie.

Aidan Murphy said...

Thank you Phil. An inspiration to all of us who suffer on the journey.

Maria Phillips said...

So happy to have stumbled upon this tonight. I hope God gives you the strength and willingness to continue to blog through your cancer ordeal. There is much for all to gain by your insight. Wonderful to see you at mass last Sunday. I'll pray for you, in God's hands, Maria.