A broader view of life at the last

by
10 June 2016

David Bryant reviews the reflections of a priest nearing death

Into Extra Time: Living through the final stages of cancer and jottings along the way
Michael Paul Gallagher
DLT £9.99
(978-0-232-53252-4)
Church Times Bookshop £9

 

FR GALLAGHER SJ offers us a journal of his closing months as a terminal cancer patient. It consists of short reflections called Fragments and Springboards, and ends up with a cancer diary written while he was dying.

This underlines the book’s two fundamental weaknesses. It reads jerkily, lacking a single cohesive theme to hold the text together. What might concern the reader more is that the book becomes at times uncomfortably personal, bordering on the morbid in a few places where he deals with hospital treatment. Not everybody wants to hear in detail of chemotherapy, scans, and medical procedures. It sometimes seems as if you are intruding and reading the consultant’s notes at the end of the bed.

That said, the book contains some helpful theological insights. I particularly like Fr Gallagher’s definition of prayer. “Prayer is relaxing into the reality of being loved by God so as to arise to the realism of loving others.” He deals thoughtfully with faith, which consists of a mixture of divine presence and absence. No matter how far stuck in negative thoughts we are as death approaches, it is pertinent to remember that “the dawn will come after the dark.”

Something positive springs from his terminal illness. It is as if he is wearing tinted glasses and seeing goodness, aliveness, and fragility in everybody. In other words, the parameters of life are broadened, the heart is enlarged in compassion, and negative judgements are dissipated.

His analysis of each day reads well. “It is an interplay between God’s grace and our response. What emerges if we allow it is a shared work of art.” Another thought unfolds. “Death is the end of a long school of letting go that has lasted a lifetime. It is a learning from Christ, and an awareness that even in the midst of death we are called into life.”

The book ends with a short cluster of poems. One poem, “Monique in Caen”, stands out as a sensitive, moving tribute to a woman he lost when he entered the Jesuit order.

Despite the two riders that I have mentioned, an overly personal approach and a lack of clear drive, there are passages where the text comes alive, and the holy and numinous nature of God springs out. His refrain that stays with me is: “We know that we are passing from death to life whenever we love.” I like that.

 

This was the Revd David Bryant’s last review for the Church Times before his death.

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