Another Letter From a Long Suffering Friend.
At my request, my friend Richard agreed to share a few stories bout his cancer treatment. Some of the stories are heartbreaking due to the suffering Richard had to endure. Many other cancer patients have similar stories about the course of their disease, its treatment, and the loving care given by doctors and nurses. Richard’s story is unique in that Richard is an atheist, who was treated at a Catholic hospital. Praise of his caregivers was paramount in his stories, but this story has a twist, which I believe you will enjoy. Richard had a bedside visitor, a Catholic priest, who asked if he could pray for Richard. So, what’s an atheist to do? What would you do? I have not decided what I would have done.
I was rereading “Moby-Dick” recently and came across a passage early in the book which reminded me of Father John.
The passage is from Chapter 9 “THE SERMON” in which Father Mapple is introduced as the clergyman in charge of the Seaman’s Bethel in New Bedford and is about to begin his sermon in front of the whalers including Ishmael and Queequeg who have just met and become friends. After some shuffling and changing of seats, all became quiet in the chapel with every eye on the preacher. “He paused a little; then kneeling in the pulpit’s bows, folded his large brown hands across the chest, uplifted his closed eyes, and offered a prayer so deeply devout that he seemed to be kneeling and praying at the bottom of the sea.”
Father John came in to see me the evening of my first full day on the Oncology ward. Father John is a black African Catholic Priest and heads the Chaplain’s office at St. Vincents Hospital and has the distinctive English accent typical of educated Africans. He is a relatively small man, unimposing and with a gentle voice, a firm handshake and very kind eyes. He, unlike the casually dressed nurses and staff, was in his clerical collar and black Priest’s garb. He was the antithesis of the “fire and brimstone” type of TV evangelist and I did not expect that he would be comfortable attempting a “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” type of message. He greeted me effusively with a huge welcoming smile and asked how I was feeling. I explained my circumstances in brief and we chatted casually for a few minutes. He did not ask me my religion or lack thereof or if I had any particular preference in terms of denomination but following some introductory talk he asked if he could pray for me.
As a non-believer, this is sometimes a tricky question. Reactions seem to run the spectrum from non-committal acquiescence to a “Christopher Hitchens” type refusal. I tend toward the former, as I am loath to offend others in the matter of religion so long as I am not being attacked and the other person seems to have a sincere desire to be of some service. I don’t see the point of carrying the “New Atheist” attitude to the point of alienation. If someone wants to pray for my recovery I welcome the offer. If they want to pray for my lost soul because I am such a sinner and on my way to Hell, that is a different matter.
Father John was clearly sincere and his eyes and entire demeanor bespoke kindness, which is a quality I have come to value more and more as I have aged. I nodded my assent and he took my hands in his and closed his eyes, as did Father Mapple. HIs prayer was not spoken aloud so that I have no specific idea of his conversation with God but it was not silent either. I could see his lips moving and hear his prayer but not loud enough that I could make out the words. I assumed that Father John was simply exercising his routine with new patients on the cancer ward and that he probably had a canned prayer which he had performed hundreds of times and that it would take a minute or two. After several minutes of intensity, sweat beads began to form on Father John’s forehead and upper lip and his prayer became, if anything, even more intense. I could see the strain on his face. He seemed to be imploring God to take notice of me and render me some comfort and special dispensation. His actions were bathed in sincerity and his grip on my hands tightened as he emphasized the points to God as if he were a defense attorney making his final argument to the Court or the jury when his client’s life was hanging in the balance.
After several minutes, he slowly relaxed and wiped his brow and smiled at me. He said, “I believe God will look after you.” At no point did Father John ask if I were Catholic and did not seem to care. His mission was between him and God and Father John was pleading my case. I appreciate religious people who are good and kind to others. I don’t really care what they believe if it results in kindness and compassion. Father John came back to see a couple more times during my stay of November and December and seemed to be genuinely pleased at my progress which he had gleaned from the nurses. I don’t mind that he believed that God had intervened on my behalf. Father John is a wonderful example of the positive things that religion is possible of inspiring and is a positive asset to the hospital and to his calling. I wish all Christians and all religious persons of whatever persuasion would follow his example.
Richard had a rich and fascinating experience, and I think he welcomed the chance to share it with me. The priest no doubt, believed God had answered his prayer(s). Richard, of course, did not and neither do I. Richard and I share many scientific and philosophical convictions about religion and belief in god. I also share Richard’s attitude concerning the well meaning but ineffective prayer session and the well-meaning priest. It is in shocking contrast to the current political maneuvering of Bishops hoping to impose their beliefs upon non-Catholic taxpayers and to restrict women’s rights. The Catholic Church needs to place all their efforts on cleansing their own house and putting an end to child abuse in their ranks. Richard’s compassionate priest is what religion should be all about, giving psychological comfort to the needy, not politicking for advantage.