I’m an unlikely ascetic, although I at least look the part when I pull the hood of my black sweatshirt over my bald head. Partly of necessity and partly by choice I’ve abstained from most worldly pleasures (not good coffee), leaving more space in my life for pursuing spiritual matters. This is not as holy as it may sound. Given enough time and privacy, I suspect most of us would find our minds and hearts wandering to things of a higher order. Because my circumstances permit me these luxuries, I can some days—by no means all—spend hours in prayer, meditation, and contemplation.
I’ve not rejected the many other joys of life, but their absence allows me to draw closer to God and attunes my ear to the promptings of the spirit. The usual distractions of daily living drop away. It helps that this is a season in which the earth itself rests, the days are short and dark, and especially that it’s Advent. As I’ve written before, one of the graces of my having cancer is that it opens new possibilities that might otherwise never have become available to me. In the void left by the quieting of life’s usual buzz, God rushes in.
I should add that while the solitary, ascetic life I’ve experienced may be alien to 21st century American culture, it follows in a grand tradition that’s existed in all times and in many religious traditions. In Christianity, John the Baptist, St. Paul and even Jesus himself all spent long periods of time alone and in communion with God, usually in a desert place. In a damp Oregon winter, I’ll settle for a recliner positioned strategically in front of a wood stove.
In coming days, my routine is likely to change again, although in ways I can’t fully predict. On Monday morning, I’m scheduled for a brain MRI followed by a whole-body PET/CT scan. In the afternoon I’ll meet with my oncologist to talk about the results and discuss what needs to be done going forward. Everything I’ve gone through medically since mid-September has been directed toward corralling the metastatic melanoma in my body. Now we get to see what success my treatment, and the sacrifices I’ve made because of it, may have been.
I’m hopeful that the scans will be clear, but am prepared if they’re not. Given my high risk for recurrence, I’d be foolish to deny the probability that I will again need treatment sooner or later. I’m ever the defensive pessimist! Almost everyone in my clinical situation spends the rest of their days managing their life around cancer. That’s the price to be paid for availing myself of the best medical care I could surround myself with. It’s a bargain that until now I’ve been willing to accept. If the immunotherapy and brain radiation have done nothing else, they’ve given me time to draw deeper into God’s embrace. Without good healthcare, I might never have had this blessing.
The morning after my appointments at the cancer center, Ellen, Nick and I will be at the Portland airport to welcome Allie and Jon home from their sojourn to Argentina. It will be a sweet reunion after six months apart during a trying time for us all. Allie and Jon will be living with us in a downstairs apartment until next summer, when they move on to wherever Jon pursues his doctorate in theological studies. So I’ll have great company in what I know will be deep conversations and prayer about matters of life and faith. My hermitage will become a monastery. The change will be for the good.
Allie wrote on her blog several weeks ago: “After a long while of discernment, Jon and I have decided to leave Argentina in December and go be with my family through the first half of 2013. My dad is a week away from completing his radiation and immunotherapy treatments for brain cancer and has weathered these medically-induced assaults on his body and soul exceptionally well so far, but we’ve felt clarity that this is a season for us to be close to home, to accompany my parents especially during a difficult time, and to share life together with them in a more daily, intimate way—that is, without 7000 miles between us. As I shared in a post several months ago, we’re learning not to settle in too deep anywhere. It’s a hard lesson to learn and one that I would have outright raged against a few years ago, but it seems to be God’s will for the time being.”
Not settling in too deeply… Easy to say; so very difficult to do. By living lightly, by exploring meaning in places other than the material world, we can begin to see the real purpose for our lives. Opening up time and space for that exploration, by whatever means, is the best gift we can give ourselves in any season, at any time.