Saturday, July 22, 2017

We believe the Spirit helps us in our weakness

The 'Thinking Anew' column in The Irish Times today.

Michael Commane
In St Paul's Letter to the Romans he writes about the Spirit coming to help us in our weakness.

He goes on to say: ‘For when we cannot choose words to pray properly, the Spirit himself expresses our plea in a way that could never be put into words, and God who knows everything in our hearts knows perfectly well what he means, and that the pleas of the saints expressed by the Spirit are according to the mind of God.' (Romans 8: 26 - 27)

Everything to do with God is in a sense surrounded in mystery and so too is any communication that we try to have with God. It's so easy to be glib or disconnected about God and everything we try to say about God. It can be easy to rattle off formulaic prayers, sometimes never giving the slightest heed to what we are saying.

But these words of St Paul are surprisingly consoling. He knows there are times when we cannot choose the right words in which to frame our prayers, and to know that the Spirit comes to our help is reassuring for those of us for whom prayer so often is an experience of fumbling and muddling and hoping for understanding. 

It's almost a year now since I began work as chaplain in St Luke's Cancer Hospital in Dublin. The exact date was August 28, 2016. Every day I meet sick people but every day too I see wonderful examples of love, kindness and goodness. The goodness, love and kindness that I encounter helps me try to make sense to the pain, suffering and turmoil that is the reality of life in a hospital. 

Some weeks ago I was asked to review a book written by a woman who had been diagnosed with breast cancer and is now in recovery. The review is for Spirituality, which is a Dominican Publications magazine.

The title of the book is Cancer - A Circle of Seasons with the sub title A way to journal and pray through life's challenges. The author is Anne Alcock and it is published by Columba Press. 

Reading the book and then writing about it complements in many ways the work I do in the hospital.

No matter who we are, how we are or what we do or think, our lives are journeys, and there is always an element of mystery, of chance, good fortune and misfortune, about how we travel through our lives. There is also a confidence that is given to those who have faith.

Anne Alcock begins by thanking all those involved in cancer research and then immediately quotes the Book of Numbers: 'May the Lord/bless and protect you,/May the Lord's face/radiate with joy because of you./May He be gracious to you,/show you His  favour/and give you his peace.' (Numbers 6: 24 - 26)

Throughout the book she dips in and out of the Bible with quotations that are so relevant to the mystery of life and suffering. Just as so often we can't put words on anything to do with God, so too it is almost impossible to put words on pain and suffering.

In her preface, the author talks about how her cancer has turned her venture with God into an adventure. Of course, cancer for many is terminal. We are all assured of death. But to believe that the Spirit helps us in our weakness is reassuring. Pie in the sky? I hope not, and most times I believe it is not. 

Reading Anne Alcock's book and working where I do, I’m inclined to believe in that Spirit, also knowing it is close to impossible to put words on that Spirit and that faith. And then on to something else, far bigger and mysterious, something far bigger than my head can ever get around - life after death, God, eternal life. In the community of grace, comforting, suffering, and – for some, healing – that is a cancer hospital, we catch glimpses of the light it casts every day. 

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