Dear tokens of my passion

by
21 December 2018

Four years ago, Cally Hammond was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was Christmas

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Virgin and Child by Joos Van Cleve (1485-1540/41) and collaborator; c.1525

Virgin and Child by Joos Van Cleve (1485-1540/41) and collaborator; c.1525

HARD cases make bad law. We gather our best principles for living from what is typical — in other words, not from what is extreme or extraordinary.

Apply this to theology, though, and the opposite turns out to be the case. Then, difficult or extreme ideas turn out to be essential for making sense of what is typical or ordinary. In particular, we need the extraordinary (sinless, virgin-born) humanity of Jesus to make sense of our ordinary humanness.

Now apply this to Christmas, and the same fact is underlined even more emphatically. It is the extraordinary nature of the season that makes sense of what we call “Ordinary Time”. Most of the year, we trundle along in the familiar grooves and habits of life, doing the same things, following the same pattern.

Then, at the darkest season of the year, there is a collective sense of pressure to be different, to do differently. We buy food we would not normally buy — why all the nuts, dates, and shortbread we are perfectly happy to do without the rest of the year? We invite people we don’t normally spend time with. We might even break the habit of a whole year’s idle reluctance, and actually go to church.

Something about Christmas calls forth extraordinary behaviour in us; but it is that shift out of our habitual comfort zone which is telling us the true message of Christmas.

 

IN THE course of any human lifetime, the Christmas season is overlaid with a varnish of memories — inevitably, not all of them are good ones. Alongside the crisp, cold mornings of early half-remembered childhood, there are failures, bereavements, and broken relationships, which make the Christmas mixture more than one of neat joy.

Four years ago this month, I was diagnosed with a disease I didn’t even know existed: inflammatory breast cancer. One day I was taking the college carol services, the next I was having a scan in hospital. The day after that was clinic, and the next day was my first cycle of chemotherapy.

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My life was handed over to medical professionals, and I had to trust in them, because, as the Prayer Book collect puts it, I “had no power of myself to help myself”.

The paradox of treatment for cancer is that it is the treatment itself rather than the disease which causes most of the initial suffering. But curative suffering is something that Christians really do understand, thanks to the cross.

The willing acceptance of suffering, not as an end in itself but as a means to new hope, has only begun to make full sense to me several years after my treatment ended. It took that intensity of experience to open up to me new insight into the meaning of the incarnation.

Everyone has the same potential to use their most challenging life-experiences as a way into divine truth. Hard cases make bad law; but hard experiences make good theology.

The two ends of the human life of Christ are knit together into a single message: that the Son of God accepted weakness and mortality, turning his back on the power and dominion that were his due — all so that we could share the life of his divinity; and learn to accept, and even love, our brokenness, as the part of us which unites us most closely to him. This way, our suffering becomes a way to enter into the mind of Christ.

 

CANCER treatment is lonely and frightening, but that is not the whole story. There are good things, too; and perhaps addressing them here, in the context of the incarnation, will help to deflate the balloon of fear that a diagnosis tends to inflate in people’s chests. The whole experience of suffering — whether illness, bereavement, or other kinds of sorrow, such as lost hope — really can draw us deeper into the truth of God and the meaning of that incarnation.

Many people cope with having cancer by becoming experts in their own condition. I tried not to go down this route; not because I thought it an inappropriate way to manage my fears — after all, people are different, and have different needs and ways of coping. Rather, it was because I felt that I was never going to be in a position to acquire enough understanding to approach the matter objectively, and with intellectual rigour.

I chose, instead, to take a different path, and the only one I saw that suited me was the path of trust. I tried to keep in mind the Passion of Christ: how he handed himself over into the power of others, through whose actions and choices salvation was effected, in him, for the whole world. His willingness to let go of power and control over his own destiny seemed to me like a better model for what I was enduring in my treatment.

It is only looking back, four years later, that I can see that it was just as much about the incarnation as the Passion: a lesson in human vulnerability which is common to us all. Whereas the extreme suffering of the cross is something that few of us endure, the experience of the incarnation is universal. Every one of us is born vulnerable (literally “can be wounded”) and mortal (“subject to death”). The vulnerability of being born unites us all to Christ in his incarnation.

That pattern is clearest to us Christians in the story of the Passion, in that the life of the man Jesus was given to us precisely because we could not otherwise accept the divine “truth sent from above”. But it actually begins before the foundation of the world.

This is what the Welsh poet and priest R. S. Thomas had in mind in his short poem “The Coming”: Father and Son look down on the needs of humankind, its hunger and yearning, and the Son’s response is what we have come to know by its theological name: the incarnation.
 

. . . The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.
 

The theological message of Christmas is rooted in this divine choice to side with human vulnerability. It has become so familiar to us that we often fail to see how radical it is. Gods are not supposed to be vulnerable. They are supposed to be powerful.

Above all, they are supposed to be our powerful allies, and we can win them over to our side by prayers, offerings, praise, and flattery. According to this model, if we serve them obediently enough, and promise them offerings enough, then our god or gods ought to exercise their power in our favour, by making us well again. We are their servants — their slaves, even. Obedience and submission are our duty.

It is a very understandable take on divine-human relations. But it is not the Christian way. The incarnation cuts across all that. It is the ultimate expression of what St Paul said: “When I am weak, then I am strong.”

 

NO ONE feels weaker or more helpless than a cancer patient. Whether you try to be an expert in your own illness, or whether you opt for a doctor-knows-best approach, the experience of helplessness is unavoidable.

There are the infuriating clinic waits. There are the crowded waiting-rooms, full of sick and miserable people, with helpless friends and relatives. There are the systems of where to go and what to do and whom to talk to, which no one explains; about getting weighed and having blood taken and making your next appointments.

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There is the bubbling anger of the powerless always just below the surface.

The ultimate example of helpless vulnerability in such circumstances is surely chemotherapy. It is much feared, and understandably so. A complex system of poisoning, in fact. Cancer cells are abnormal and — oh, the irony! — themselves more vulnerable than normal cells. Because they are fast-growing, they can be killed without killing slower-growing normal cells.

But other fast-growing cells get knocked out, too — white blood cells (hence the cancer patient’s compromised immunity), and hair and nails.

For me, there were two kinds of chemo. One involved sitting in a chair, knee to knee with a nurse: over the course of hours she pushed three syringes of poison the size of kitchen-roll cardboard tubes into me through a vein in the back of my hand. Somehow, the obligations of human politeness drove me to engage in the most witless of small talk, as though such proximity to a stranger, and such willing co-operation with my own harm, was as normal as the cup of tea and biscuit that came round afterwards.

The second set of stuff was easier, administered through a drip; but I couldn’t help thinking that putting it in a black bag (presumably to protect it from light) was unhelpfully gloom-inducing.

The room was full of people co-operating in their own immediate suffering, accepting vulnerability for the sake of a longer-term good. Looking back, the parallel with the incarnation is striking.

It may seem strange to say it, but it was a life-enhancing experience, as are all human experiences lived at a deeper level than the surface trundling of the day-to-day. It mattered. The patients mattered, the staff mattered, the friends and family mattered; and the stakes were as high as they could possibly be. Whatever else it might be, chemo is not boring.

 

IT WAS Christmas and New Year when I went through chemo. But, at the time, my mind was not on the incarnation, and I took no comfort from the annunciation or nativity, except in the most general way: “Holy is the true Light.”

I prayed the Advent Sunday collect daily, and that was it — content to think no further than casting off darkness, being clothed in light, and rising to the life immortal. Mary did not figure in my thoughts much, either. It was all Jesus. “What is not assumed is not saved” goes the old teaching on salvation. It was the God-Man who mattered to me then, and him alone.

I sometimes wonder if it is only our ability to live in the moment which allows us to endure life at all. We cannot safely be consumed with thoughts about the past (that way lies PTSD) or fears for the unknown future (that way lie phobias and anxieties of every kind).

During the time of my treatment, I did almost no academic work. Nothing had the power to interest me, with one exception. Worship. My son would drive me to Caius on the Sundays when I felt well enough, so that I could go to evensong in the college chapel.

It had no discernible purpose — at least, not by worldly standards; it yielded no tangible harvest. And yet this alone brought me peace. I could not kneel or stand; so I just sat, and let it all wash over me. And I felt at one with God and the world, and not abnormal or broken, but just me.

During worship, I wasn’t a sick person, or a dying person, or a burden, or an embarrassment. I was just God’s beloved, fragile child, happy to be in my Father’s company.

It took cancer for me to understand this. But it could have been bereavement; or breakdown; or any kind of trauma. The insight is there for everyone to grasp, not just the sick.

I think this was why I wasn’t thinking sad thoughts about its being my last Christmas. Our earthly celebrations, like all the worship I delighted in, must be pale shadows of the joys of heaven. There was nothing to regret in leaving behind the shadows, and clinging to the more reverent conception of heaven itself.

I was not afraid of dying, or angry about the likelihood of it. That is not a reflection on others who are. I wasn’t being brave. It’s just how things took me. The process of illness and treatment was physically gruelling, but, somehow, also mentally stimulating. After years going on an even path, I was being forced to think new thoughts, and make sense of new complexities — and I enjoyed that, although it took me a while to realise it.

 

CHRISTMAS draws us out of self-centredness, into a wider world. Mary and Joseph braved small hardships (a winter journey) as well as big ones (birth in a stable; Herod’s persecution), to do their best for the child who was coming. The universal tidings of joy for the whole world were, first of all, personal tidings of joy for them.

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All our human relationships cost us something, as they call us away from self-centred living; but they also set us free — from the oppression of the self and its demands. The kingly gift of myrrh is a powerful reminder that the suffering we associate with the end of Jesus’s life is rooted in his incarnation.

The simplest way for human beings to share in the self-emptying love that is characteristic of Christ himself is parenthood. We must set self aside to focus on the needs of one who is helplessly dependent on our care. Through parenthood, the Christmas story takes on a new significance: the vulnerability of an infant embodies before us the fragility of goodness.

Our own experience of the protective fear that comes with love for something totally vulnerable acts like a lens, bringing the Christmas story into sharp focus. It is as sharp as the two-edged sword that is the incarnate Word of God (Hebrews 4.12). Love for others is also the best insulation against the loneliness that suffering can otherwise impose on us.

The simple truth of Christmas is that love hurts, but that not all pain is an evil. Cancer has taught me this afresh, from a new angle, just as new parenthood once did.

The interaction between Christians and their manifold pains and sufferings is a complicated one. Christian faith gives dignity to suffering; but we do not believe in fate, or punishment, or submission. Our faith legitimises questioning — even reproach of God.

But, somehow, in the midst of our darkness of body or soul, there is a spark of blessing which cannot be put into words — as if that darkness makes us newly aware of the preciousness of life, and those we love. We could not endure, day by day, the intensity that awaits us once time and history are done, but we never feel more alive, and blessed, than when a shard of that light, that love, pierces our soul and transforms it.

 

MARY was given a warning (Luke 2.35) by Simeon that a sword would pierce her heart. This, too, helps to make sense of the universal experience of suffering. The hardest pain of the whole cancer process, for me, was not what I endured physically: it was what my husband and children endured emotionally.

Their fears, their helplessness, their inability to find words, made sense for me, in a new and living way, of that ultimate Christian icon from the other end of Jesus’s human existence: the cross. He hung on the cross, watching the grief of his mother and his friend, unable to do anything to comfort them, either by word or action; both parties were suffering, and neither had the power to change that suffering.

The only word for this, surely, is agony. But even that, painful as it was, I experienced as a blessing. And I have come, over the past four years, to understand the cancer itself as a blessing, too. It showed me things that nothing else could: how much I am loved and valued; how my faith has been vindicated; how Jesus the baby in the manger, and Jesus the man on the cross, are the heart of my existence as a child of God.

And it is this paradox of blessing which I am trying to put into words here, in the hope that others may find it helpful, whether they are themselves going through such a grim experience this Christmastide, or whether they stand in the place of Mary, helpless observers of another’s pain, or whether, for now, they are free from such burdens.

 

NOT everything about having cancer is horrible. Lying on a sofa feeling bored and sick and so unfit for anything challenging or complex that you find yourself binge-watching Jeremy Kyle, day in, day out, is not nice. But there is no human experience so dreadful that it cannot be turned to some sort of reflection or good.

I was dozing one day in between episodes, when the doorbell rang. Without my glasses, scruffy and unkempt — and bald, too, of course — I stumbled to the door and opened it. Outside were two people trying to sign up donors to the RSPCA. They took one look at me, and said apologetically: “We’ll go next door.” That’s a perfect example of what I still think of as the “cancer dividend”.

I didn’t mind being bald, incidentally. Admittedly, it was a bit draughty in the winter; but if I had had an invisible illness, as so many people have, I could not have expected to be shown the same forbearance with my weakness, tiredness, and lack of focus.

I was a very impatient patient. I didn’t want to have to go to hospital all the time. I wanted to be left alone. The word “patient” is rooted in a Latin verb meaning “to suffer”, the same word from which the term “passion” derives. I might have striven for resignation and acceptance; but I still spent a lot of time immersed in anger, fear, and fatigue.

Although I went to church, and was glad to worship, I did very little praying. I was content to be the one prayed for, for a change; and was constantly grateful for the prayers of so many Christian friends which sustained me.

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At one moment, I recall seeing the prayers as a blanket, wrapping me with warmth and security, and finding comfort from that vision.

Christmas for us as a family, four years ago, was the first we had ever had to ourselves: just me, my husband, and our two children. It was overlaid with sensitivities — what if it’s the last one? I managed to take midnight mass at our local parish church in Harlton; and a Christmas Day service, too.

It was an effort, but it was also a labour of love — another cancer dividend, to be reminded that this work of a priest is never only work. It is also immense privilege. It mattered that I managed to celebrate the eucharist then, and, if I was a bit wobbly and lacking in concentration, people didn’t seem to mind too much.

Afterwards, I spent the day on the sofa, and, on Boxing Day, I was back in hospital having chemotherapy. A strange kind of Christmas. But still a good one.

 

THERE are very few poems about Christmas which do any kind of justice to the mingled themes of vulnerability, suffering, love, and compassion which have always been part of the festival, and which make theological sense of the universal experience of being human.

One that does is by Rowland Watkyns (c.1614-64), and I offer it here as the best theological reflection in English that I know on the subject of the incarnation, and its meaning for the whole of humankind. The “four beds” of Christ stand for the life-journeys each one of us must travel, following the star whose light promises us the true Light:
 

Now in a manger lies the eternal Word:
The Word He is, yet can no speech afford;
He is the Bread of Life, yet hungry lies;
The Living Fountain, yet for drink He cries;
He cannot help or clothe Himself at need
Who did the lilies clothe and ravens feed;
He is the Light of Lights, yet now doth shroud
His glory with our nature as a cloud.
He came to us a Little One, that we
Like little children might in malice be;
Little He is, and wrapped in clouts, lest He
Might strike us dead if clothed with majesty.
 

Christ had four beds and those not soft nor brave:
The Virgin’s womb, the manger, cross, and grave.
The angels sing this day, and so will I
That have more reason to be glad than they.
 

St Paul had to learn the truth the hard way: that when he was weak he was strong. He learned it because God told him directly what, through scripture, he tells us, too, and not just at Christmas, but for every day of our lives: “My power is made perfect in weakness.”
 

The Revd Dr Cally Hammond is Dean of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

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