Posted by: Harold Knight | 07/19/2011

Dwellers all in time and space?

A Walk in the Park

A Walk in the Park

A boring church music history lesson:

Anglicans throughout the English speaking world know the hymn “Praise, my soul, the king of heaven” by Henry Francis Lyte (1793-1857)—sung to a quintessentially Victorian tune by John Goss (1800-1880). This text is based on Psalm 103. The poem’s first stanza reads

Praise, my soul, the King of heaven,
To his feet thy tribute bring:
Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven,
Who, like me, his praise should sing?
Alleluia! Alleluia! Praise the everlasting King.

Other stanzas tell us that

Fatherlike, he tends and spares us,
Well our feeble frame he knows,
In his hands he gently bears us
. . .

and

. . . sun and moon, bow down before him,
Dwellers all in time and space
. . .

Yesterday I tried to write about cancer. I’m with my sister who is taking aggressive treatment for breast cancer. My cancer writing is nearly finished. I have belatedly figured out what I wanted to say. But the writing reads like a bad attempt by an incompetent oncologist to explain what’s wrong with the way we treat cancer. That’s not what I intended.

I can’t finish it, and I wouldn’t put it out here for anyone to read if I could. I know the medical world is dedicated to curing (or at least arresting) cancer, and is valiantly using the best scientific methods available.

That writing doesn’t make sense because I don’t know enough to write it. And what I do know is scientifically naïve and personally difficult. The gist of it is that the treatment of cancer, breast cancer specifically, seems barbaric to me. First one gets the diagnosis—which in itself changes one’s life forever because

. . . a diagnosis of cancer is ego smashing. The world as one knew it no longer exists. That safe, predictable place where one felt in control is no more. It affects every aspect of life: body, mind, and spirit; family (extended and nuclear); friends; job; and future. It may even affect one’s relationship with God (1).

Treatment continues immediately upon diagnosis and violates one’s body. In the case of breast cancer, this can be inexpressibly shocking. A mastectomy amputates part of a woman’s body that is (sometimes in a healthy way but often in our society an unhealthy way) part of her identity as woman, as person. Again immediately, before she has time or resources or help from caregivers or family or friends to come to psychological or philosophical or theological or any other kind of understanding of and peace with this violation of her body, she is plunged into treatment that, even without the incomprehensible change in her physical (and mental) makeup is horrific. Chemotherapy ravages one’s body.

I’m not saying it shouldn’t be used, only that it seems impossible that anyone ever dreamed it up. How anything so devastating can have a salutary effect is beyond the layperson’s understanding.

This may seem all about me rather than about persons (my sister particularly) suffering (who have suffered) from cancer and its treatment in a way I cannot fathom. However, it seems an inordinate number of my loved ones have had various cancers with their horrendous treatments. My life partner. My ex-wife and lifelong friend. Two aunts. My grandfather (father of those two women). A cousin. My mother’s favorite cousin. One of my closest friends. One of my spiritual mentors. Perhaps everyone can string together a litany like that. I hope not.

And now my sister, my friend whose life and mine are joyfully and inextricably intertwined.

Back to the boring church music history lesson. I’m going to substitute for a vacationing church organist in a couple of weeks, and “Praise, my soul, the King of heaven” is one of the hymns I will play. It’s great fun—a big old “war horse” of a tune.  The type organists (unless they are baroque purists) love to play. Lots of chromatic harmonies and lots of noise.

Lots of chromatic harmonies and lots of noise

Lots of chromatic harmonies and lots of noise

I’m totally disinterested in arguments about why God allows cancer, but this hymn raises the question for anyone who wants to debate it. Fatherlike, he tends and spares us, Well our feeble frame he knows,

In his hands he gently bears us. Neither cancer nor chemo sounds much like being gently borne. What the hymn raises for me, rather than questions about God’s tending and sparing us, are questions about—I’ll once again wax sophomoric—the “meaning of life.”

The hymn suggests that the sun and moon, bow down before him, Dwellers all in time and space. The horror of cancer and the (sometimes) health-giving properties of chemotherapy are part of our being dwellers all in time and space. Only in make-believe, however, is dwelling in time and space “a walk in the park.” Unless, of course, it’s a walk in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, where animals vie with each other for dominance and for food, wild and dangerous. That’s what a natural walk in the park is all about. Is it too bizarre to say that’s what cancer is about, the wild and dangerous reality of life in time and space?

Many people I know who’ve had devastating illnesses have been transformed. They know something about dwelling in time and space. In that dangerous wilderness they have discovered themselves

. . . to be no longer alone. In the wilderness [they] meet other wizened souls who have weathered sun and heat, all of them healed of the same wound. There is a wildness in their eyes. They don’t give a damn for things they used to find so terribly important. Hardly fit for polite company, they nonetheless love with a fierceness echoing the land through which they have passed. The [wilderness] has taught them well. They are what [dwellers in time and space have] been summoned to be. . . broken people, painfully honest. . . rid of the pretense and suffocating niceness to which [we are prone]” (2).

On the dust jacket of his 2002 memoir, Michael J. Fox asserts of his diagnosis with Parkinson’s Disease that

Dwellers all in time and space

Dwellers all in time and space

If you were to rush in to this room right now and announce that you had struck a deal-with God, Allah, Buddha, Christ, Krishna, Bill Gates, whomever—in which the ten years since my diagnosis could be magically taken away, traded in for ten more years as the person I was before, I would, without a moment’s hesitation, tell you to take a hike (3).

His condition has, he seems to be saying, taught him how to, in the words of the hymn, dwell in time and space. I do not intend to say that suffering a devastating illness is a good thing. Or that we should not be distressed for our loved ones who suffer. I mean only that I am grateful some people I love and have loved have shown me it’s possible to learn not to give a damn for things [we] used to find so terribly important—to learn to dwell in time and space rather than in our heads and our “things.”
_____________
(1) Inman, Alice W. “The Cancer Journey.” Biofeedback 38.1 (2010): 24-27.
(2) Lane, Belden C. “Desert attentiveness, desert indifference: Countercultural spirituality in the desert Fathers and Mothers.” Cross Currents 44.2 (1994): 193.
(3) Fox, Michael J. Lucky Man: A Memoir. New York: Hyperion, 2002. Quoted in Ballard, Bruce. “Affective Constitution and the Problem of Suffering.” American Theological Inquiry 3.2 (2010): 69-75.

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Responses

  1. Thank you Harold. I have been thinking about a sermon on cancer. This pushes me further toward it. Prayers and good thoughts for you, Bonnie and family.

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  2. […] Here are some excerpts from Dwellers in time and space […]

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