Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger

As I quipped to one of the fine nursing staff a week or so ago while recouping at St. Peter’s, “women put up with this all the time.” I did not need to explain. I was marveling about what I had been learning about going with the flow, accompanying the pain. The biocycles of life with which women are all too familiar.

With the discovery of a cancerous sigmoid polyp (Oct. 2), after a colonoscopy (Sept. 23), my life was now not in my hands. I don’t (like to) consider myself a control freak. I am committed to consultative management, delegation, collaboration, collegiality, subsidiarity, synodality and all the woke ecclesial buzzwords. And I mean it. I really believe in these things. But there is something about being hit with very personal, biological red flags that cannot be mine alone to manage, delegate, tweak or outsource. “This is your life” (or death) suddenly hit home: YOU’VE GOT CANCER!

It was no accident (I believe) that I read the pathology report that morning on my MyChart medical record while in Mexico City on mission (see “Hope of the Poor,” The Evangelist, Oct. 13). I was staying at a convent with fellow pilgrims, a short walk from the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. With the tilma in full few — the miraculous image of Our Lady still colorfully embossed on the burlap cloak of St. Juan Diego — I prayed for another miracle: that the excised sample the lab had examined would be the full extent of the carcinoma, though the same report could not determine how far beyond the submucosa the cancer had invaded.

Flash forward. Surgery was inevitable. What I was not anticipating, however, was how the errant polyp would be a trigger for a lesson in the reality and magnitude of God’s grace. I could not help but be impressed by the professionalism and care of the doctors and staff at St. Peter’s, the state-of-the art instruments (they used the “laparoscopic,” DaVinci robot, minimally invasive). My surgeon prepared me well for the timeline, stages, desired results and risks. I was fully informed of what might lie ahead when I entered for surgery on Nov. 10.

Honestly, while hoping for the best — bloodwork and C-scan had turned up no red flags — I was preparing for the worst. When I received the surgeon’s call on Nov. 18, I did not expect her to announce that the lab results contained no trace of cancer in the colon tissue excised, nor in the 20 adjacent lymph nodes, which she had also removed. I was “cured.”

As I took a moment to thank God and Mary, I was also humbled by the awareness that none of this had anything to do with me, with what I had done. I was completely dependent on the goodness, skills and prayers of others. I was the recipient of enormous grace. I also thought of the many survivors who do not receive such news, some of whom still fight for restoration to health, indeed their lives. There is no denying reality. These things can go in any direction.

What I am learning, however, is that, come what may, for good or for ill, God’s presence accompanies us. While I was in hospital for five days, our good chaplain, Father John Tallman, brought me daily Communion. Numerous prayers poured in and, when I was discharged, I became even more aware that throughout my medical ordeal I was surrounded by the positive energy of so many, the greetings and prayer cards. More than anything else — not to mention good advice from friends, some who are doctors as well — I am learning that cure and healing are more than points on a time scale. They are attitudinal, a way of loving and living.

I began this article praising the patience of women. I do not imply thereby that men cannot be patient. Patience is an essential virtue all humans must grow into. Patience is perhaps the most palpable reflection of a God of love, who never abandons or gives up on us straying sheep, no matter how often we wander and fall. I was becoming more aware, however, how respecting the cycles and rhythms of the body is essential for health and wellness, not only physical, but mental and spiritual.

It is now approaching two weeks since my surgery. While I feel my energy strong and my systems responding well overall, I am aware that I am not “recovered,” that my body continues to heal and will do it on its own time. I cannot get back to “normal” just by willing it, I am not ready to drive or travel far, and I must allow the goodness of others to supply for my lacks and inadequacies, not only this time, but all the time. What I am learning is a lesson in life, not just in facing an illness or medical challenge.

As one friend put it beautifully, “you have a new yardstick with which to measure the world.” Or another, “you have more to do with a different perspective, getting in touch with your mortality can be a great source of clarity.” Amen! Amen!

I am so moved by many who have reached out to me and disclosed that you, too, have experienced a similar journey, if not with cancer, then with any number of trials and challenges that interrupt the illusions we are tempted to entertain about the control we have over our lives or the lives of those we love. I think of the unsung heroes who have learned from their struggle with various addictions that “letting go and letting God” is not just a formula to ward off evil spirits, like sprinkling holy water at the devil. It is a daily reaffirmation of our total dependence on God’s mercy, without which none of us can face both the reality of our cold and abject nakedness in God’s eyes, and our being clothed and warmed by his loving mercy. 

No, there is no denying reality. Contrary to the “me-ist” idols of modernity that lie to us about our vaunted independence, control and connectivity, nothing will keep us from falling apart and crashing at the tomb but the One who alone knows what true love and freedom are: Jesus Christ, God and Man, our Savior.

In my experience of being “temporarily disabled,” I am learning my common humanity with those we often dismiss as “disabled,” or then absolve ourselves by deeming them “people” with disabilities. Forget the woke or political correctness. The reality is we are all broken, “disabled,” and imaged in the broken, “imperfect” body of Christ crucified — a body which, by the way, is risen and glorified in heaven.

During the Advent season, as we await the coming of Christ into the world and into our lives, may we all come to the Cross of Jesus, bringing our disabilities — mental, physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. The ground is level at the foot of the Cross. This is the solid ground on which I stake my hope. This is where we discover one another, who we really are, and Him, bruised and broken, who calls us each by name, loving us without condition.