It can take a brush with death and an experience of total dependency on others to open a window into a deeper sense of who we are and what we are here for
I celebrate this Christmas and New Year with extra delight. Not just because I am still alive after major surgery, but because I have learnt a little more of what it means to live. I hesitated to write about my illness. The sick can be self-centred; eyes glaze over as one recites the litany of one’s pills and symptoms. Virginia Woolf tells the ill not to expect any sympathy. Those who are well need to get on with their own lives. I dare to do so because I hope it sheds a glimmer of light on our belief in our God who became incarnate.
I was admitted to hospital the day after the Assumption for an operation for cancer of the jaw. It took 17 hours. I was out, bar a minute or two, for 30 hours. Five weeks in hospital were eventually followed by six weeks of radiotherapy. But on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, I felt the first return of a hint of energy. There is still a long haul ahead but the corner has been turned. It is time to try to preach again.
This experience of illness was embraced by two great Marian feasts, which are both about Mary’s body: the beginning of her life in the womb, and her sharing in Christ’s victory over death. In the days after the operation, it was almost impossible to pray. I ran out of steam after the first words of the Our Father. Two prayers sustained me: the daily Eucharist livestreamed from Blackfriars, the gift of Christ’s body, and the Hail Mary, whose few words embrace the drama of bodily life, from the conception of her child, then one pregnant woman greeting another, and finally our prayers for help to live this present moment and face its end, “now and at the hour of our death”.