An artist friend sent this verse of a Dickinson poem to me several years ago, relatively early in my cancer journey. The calligraphy, which she penned herself, is matted and framed and sits atop my bedroom dresser. I’ve read that this simple, metaphorical description of hope is typical of Dickinson’s homiletic style, derived from Psalms and religious hymns. It continuously inspires me.
We hadn’t seen KL in 20 years or so when she, her husband Blair, and adult son Brett stopped by for a short visit earlier this week on a drive down the West Coast. KL has survived a bout of breast cancer herself, so knows something personal about this bird that perches in the soul. I got to finally thank her in person for her thoughtful gift, but more importantly spend time with a family we love and respect and for whom “hope” is more than wishful thinking.
In his book, “Turn my Mourning Into Dancing,” Henri Nouwen takes several runs at defining what he means by “hope.” His best attempt, in my opinion, is the following: “For those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, much in our fleeting lives is not passing but lasting, not dying but coming to life, not temporary but eternal. Amid the fragility of our lives, we have wonderful reason for hope.”
A briefer definition is that hope is the life of the divine Spirit within us. Become aware of this mysterious presence and life takes on deeper meaning.
In the Gospel of John (6:40), the apostle writes that anyone who believes in Jesus has eternal life. That’s a radical, even revolutionary thought, that in this fleeting, temporary world he comes to plant the seed of eternal life. Nouwen adds that in many ways this is what is meant by the term “the spiritual life”—the nurturing of the eternal amid the temporal, the lasting within the passing, God’s presence in the human family. We often see this presence in the friends and family who surround us. His love is demonstrated through the love of others with whom we may share affection but no social obligation. I would call this hidden reality “grace,” when people who have not laid eyes on each other in years can reconnect, love and once again learn from each other, as we experienced on Tuesday.
As people who have had lives interrupted by cancer, KL, I and many others have learned that hope does not mean that we will avoid or be able to ignore suffering. I believe that hope born of faith matures and is purified through difficulty. The pain and complications of cancer have their consolations, of course. Hope is much more than the surprise we sometimes experience when things turn out better than we expected. It does not depend on the results of our latest scans or blood test. For even when we get bad news, we can still live with a keen hope, the basis of which is the One who is stronger than life and suffering.
“Faith opens us up to God’s sustaining, healing presence,” Nouwen writes. “A person in difficulty can trust because of a belief that something else is possible. To trust is to allow for hope.”
This also means that to trust is not always to demand specifics of what will transpire. God wants us to know life, but what that actually means is open-ended. He wants me to experience healing, but how can I know precisely what healing looks like? If my cancer remains in remission but my life is slammed by a seizure and Addison’s Disease, do I remain any less in God’s grace? I believe not. I know that regardless of my physical health, he wants to bring me to a new place of faithfulness. If I try to figure it all out intellectually I risk losing a trusting spirit.
During this season of Lent, I have prayed that I relent in my constant desire to have all the answers. God is going to work out the details anyway that I’m tempted to seek after but ultimately cannot entirely grasp. I desire to see God even amid my weakness. I want to be open to him every day and in each moment, providing space for his spirit to perch in my soul.