Cancer Survivors vs. Cancer Beaters

So I’ve been gone for about a month (again), but this time with good reason: I’ve just completed a month-long pre-fellowship (think auditions, or try-outs, but lasting for a month) for the Medical Oncology program at a hospital in Quezon City.

Why Oncology? Because of two cancer patients I met in my youth whose strength and courage were inspirational to me.

The first one was my mom’s dear friend, and my godmother, Ninang Chita. Most of my memory of her from my childhood was getting gifts from her on my birthdays and during Christmas. She was a seasoned classical singer, and as I discovered my own love for music, I played around with the idea that I somehow “inherited” my talent from her (though my dad would protest). I was in my teens when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, and strangely, I remember seeing more of her when she was sick (either that, or those later encounters just had more of an impact on me). Even in her illness, she never stopped being her sunny, thoughtful, caring self. She tried her best to carry on as she did before the diagnosis–she attended, and even sang at, her high school reunion, most people not aware that a tube was sticking out from her kidneys and into a bag, because the tumor had compressed her ureters so that she couldn’t void the normal way. Even in her final days, when her illness forced her to stay in the hospital, she seemed undaunted at the face of death. This I know because she never stopped loving, never stopped thinking of others. Whenever people would go see her, in her voice weakened by pain, she would ask her visitors to take a seat, and would they want anything to eat or drink?

Only a person who knows where her true home is could be so hospitable at her time of departure.

The second one was Sr. Paulina, whom I have written about before. The assigned nurse at the infirmary, she’s used to taking the sick (usually older) sisters to the hospital for consults and procedures. When one time, my mom came a-visiting at the convent and found her resting, she said jokingly, “What is the nurse doing in bed?!” To which the nun replied very casually with a smile, “Oh, I have cancer.” She then proceeded to proclaim God’s goodness, sharing that the cancer was an answered prayer–this particular malignancy ran strong in her family, and thinking of her brothers and sisters with children, families of their own, she prayed that if anyone should get it in their family, that it be her.

Do you know anyone else who rejoiced upon learning that they had cancer?

As their bodies were failing them, they looked forward to what was eternal with such courage, such hope, such faith. By definition they cannot be called cancer survivors, and yet I feel it right to say that they were the victors, that they beat cancer.

Because it certainly didn’t beat them.

Is this not what evangelization is all about? Sharing Jesus, sharing hope for the Heaven that God desires for all of us. This is what my mission, my service in Church and in community, is all about–making souls eager and ready for Life Eternal.

Do not let your hearts be troubled. You trust in God, trust also in Me. In My Father’s house there are many places to live in; otherwise I would have told you. I am going now to prepare a place for you, and after I have gone and prepared you a place, I shall return to take you to Myself, so that you may be with Me where I am. –John 14:1-3

As I start this new chapter in my life and in training, I pray that I’ll be equipped to be the best Oncologist that I can be, that God will allow me to be. To cure sometimes, heal often, comfort always–to be God’s instrument of love and of peace, especially to those whom the Father is calling back Home.

Why we need the Assumption

During his homily at mass today, the feast of Mary’s Assumption into Heaven, the priest mentioned the historical tidbit that the dogma of the Assumption was defined by Pope Pius XII in November 1, 1950. I was surprised to be reminded how recent that was (within my parents’ lifetime), and it got me thinking, why then? Why now? Why at all?

[By] the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.  [Pope Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus #44, 1950]

Understanding that dogmas aren’t just plucked out of thin air, I somehow knew that this has been a held belief, a part of Tradition, that was merely defined when it was (meaning it existed even before 1950). When I think about it, it’s really not that hard to believe that Mary’s Assumption happened. After Jesus died, Mary must have been cared for by John and the rest of the apostles (while John 19:26-27 has since been taken as basis for Mary being Mother to us all, I surmise that the apostle John took it as a practical concern on Jesus’ part) . As the mother of Jesus, it makes sense that the apostles did everything in their power to help her, support her, protect her. And had she died, or more correctly, had her body remained here on earth, wouldn’t her final resting place, or at least the story of her final moments here on earth, have been remembered, recorded, passed on as part of Tradition? And yet what we have is this story, and a body missing from a tomb. If the early Church Fathers believed it, having lived so much closer to Jesus’ and Mary’s time, I don’t see why I can’t, even in this day and age.

And before I tread any deeper into waters way above my head, let me go back to my earlier thought. The dogma of the Assumption, and the Immaculate Conception for that matter, seemed like inferred bookends to the main story. Here was Mary, Mother of Jesus, model of surrender, handmaid of the Lord. She was, technically, the only one who was with Jesus from the very beginning to the very end (and, well, beyond). Going back, we had to believe that her story before the Annunciation was consistently immaculate (no other term would suffice), leading up to her moment of complete surrender. As the Immaculate Conception secures the beginning of Mary’s story, so the Assumption assures us of how she continued to be who she was–faithful, holy, immaculate to the end.

That her story did not end with the death of her Son. That she continued to journey, to persevere, to serve God.

And for that, she was welcomed into Heaven. Body and Soul.

At a time when I’ve been feeling a bit weary, going through the motions of my day to day, I needed the image of the Assumption to jolt me out of this spell.

Thus, while the illusory teachings of materialism and the corruption of morals … threaten to extinguish the light of virtue and to ruin the lives of men by exciting discord among them, in this magnificent way all may see clearly to what a lofty goal our bodies and souls are destined. Finally it is our hope that belief in Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven will make our belief in our own resurrection stronger and render it more effective. [Pope Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus #42, 1950]

I needed to be reminded that my story is not yet over, that it did not end with falling in love with Christ as a teenager, or finding my career as a doctor, or meeting my husband and starting a family, or even with co-founding a Catholic charismatic community. After all that has already happened in my life, I must realize that God still chooses to reveal Himself to me in many ways, in all ways. That no matter what lies ahead of me, I must continue to journey, to persevere, to serve God.

Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy…after this our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of your womb, Jesus.

That I will continue to see His Glory revealed, until that final, indescribable moment in Heaven.

There is so much more than this. And in case I’m tempted to forget that, God gave me Mary, assumed into Heaven.

Heaven is the Presence

Every night, right after bedtime prayer, my kids and I read a story from their copy of “The Little Children’s Bible Storybook” by Anne de Graaf and Jose Perez Montero. As a Catholic mother, I’ve been given quite a few Children’s bibles (at least one at every Baptism), but this is the first one (okay, second really, The Lion First Bible was pretty good, too) that consistently got them asking me to read a Bible story to them before going to bed. What set this one apart from other children’s bibles was how little questions and instructions (given by a caterpillar, a goldfish, or a mouse, depending on the story and illustration) were interspersed here and there, reinforcing key lessons or details of the story, making it engagingly interactive. For example, on a page narrating the call of the first disciples, a seagull perched on a fisherman’s boat asks the reader, “Can you count how many apostles there were?”

What’s the sign that tells us God always keeps His promises? “The RAINBOOOOOOW!”

 

The last story of the book, “God Promises a New World,” combines images of Heaven from the Gospels and the book of Revelation. On a page describing John’s vision of God’s Kingdom, a lamb happily kicking a soccer ball asks the little reader to “name three things you think heaven will be like.”

And in one of my proudest moments as a mother, my 5-year-old contemplates for a moment before slowly replying, “There will be trees…there will be Jesus…and there will be Mama Mary.”

For a people who believes in the hereafter, it seems we don’t think of Heaven as much as we should. Instead, we concern ourselves with what this world can give us, what this world thinks of us, and for some, even how and when this world will end. With eternity being so much longer and lasting than anyone’s lifetime, it hardly seems like we’ve got our priorities straight.

But for the precious few who believe in Heaven enough to think about it, what do you think Heaven will be like?

A place where there will be no more pain and suffering, no more disease, no more violence and injustice, no more a lot of things. An eternity of perpetual happiness, resting in the arms of angels, singing hymns, strumming harp and lyre. It will be everything God revealed to John, with all of creation giving glory, honor and thanks to “the One sitting on the throne, who lives for ever and ever (Revelation 4:9).”

But living in a world filled with pain and suffering and uncertainty, I can’t help but look forward to the part about leaving the ugliness of this world behind. Finally rid of this, no more of that. Freedom!

Is this the reward of Heaven? Being free from the struggles, pain and suffering that hound our every moment here on earth, finally free of the darkness we cannot escape?

Contemplating on this, I found myself remembering the times I suffered for the sake of others–feeling helpless whenever my husband or children are sick, my heart breaking at the sight of a friend in despair after having lost a loved one, not knowing what to say to a friend who’s been handed yet another major disappointment. I cannot stop myself from feeling and sharing in their pain any less than they can separate their anguish from the event or condition.

If one part is hurt, all the parts share its pain. And if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy. -1 Corinthians 12:26

I go back to the question on Heaven’s absence of suffering. Can Church Triumphant really isolate themselves from the pain of Church Militant (or Church Suffering, for that matter)? While I do not think their joy would be anything less than complete, I’m beginning to see a different Heaven–not one that liberates us from suffering once and for all, but one that still exists as part of the Body, and therefore, shares in the suffering of humanity.

Perhaps Heaven, after all, is not about the Absence, but the Presence–of God’s love and grace so intimately and irrevocably sustaining us, that should we suffer for the sake of our brethren, we will never give in to despair; we will never run out of hope. After living a life of exile on earth, Heaven is coming home to where we will have everything we’ll ever need–a place where there will be trees, there will be Jesus, and there will be Mama Mary.

Why I Choose to Belong

Our family went on a beach trip over the weekend. Having driven to this destination before, Peter and I were confident that we could find our way easily without needing any directions or a map. We were two intelligent people who could certainly find a beach they had been to before, right?

Well, not all intelligent people are good at finding the beach.

All I remember from the last time we went there was that we followed the general direction of all the other beach resorts. They were bound to be all together anyway, so it should be safe to just follow the arrows leading to the other beaches. So at the first fork on the road we encountered, Peter asked me which direction to take, and I said, “Just follow the signs pointing to the beach!” and confidently pointed left.

It’s easy! Just follow the sign…er, give me a sec.

It’s funny how provincial towns and farming landscapes kind of all look the same in that part of Luzon (okay, in the end, it wasn’t so funny). We were about 40 or so minutes into that last turn, with me commenting stuff like, “I remember this part,” when the drive was taking longer than expected. I started suggesting that we stop and ask for directions, just to be sure, but Peter wouldn’t slow down–until we reached an archway that wasn’t familiar at all. Finally we stopped to ask, and found out that we took a wrong turn about an hour ago.

Retracing our steps, and finally reaching the point of our wrong turn, we found that we had already been 10-15 minutes away from our destination when we read that sign pointing to the wrong beach. Me and my signs, Peter said to me.

Well, at least I didn’t have issues on asking for directions. Hmph.

I know a handful of people who don’t like asking for directions as well. They are those who are able to share about a relationship with Jesus, but have not set foot in a church for as long as I’ve known them. They give different reasons, none of them new nor revolutionary: an encounter with unholy clergy, finding church boring and pointless (or maybe just inconvenient), judging churchgoers as hypocrites, the whole “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual” argument.

I follow God…that is, God according to me.

And these people I know aren’t all of the rebellious type. One is part of a popular Music Ministry known for their liturgical music, and another even taught religion at a Catholic school at one point. They never ceased calling themselves Christian, and do not deny the presence of God in the Church, nor the holiness of some modern-day saints they’ve encountered. The Church is a wellspring of hope and joy, to be sure–just not for them. They believe in Jesus, but not in what they so distastefully consider as “organized religion.”

Even famous author Anne Rice, who so inspired me with her memoir “Called Out of Darkness” where she recounts her journey from Catholicism to atheism then back to the arms of the Church, sadly, has found obstacles too great to face, saying very publicly, “In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian.”

These Christians without a church claim to focus only on Christ and following His teachings, while failing to see that Christ intended for us to grow in community, in His Church. If Jesus wanted us to seek and follow Him on our own, then He would have established each of His apostles as Rock, with each of them developing his own faith and belief system. Yes, they all follow Christ, but follow Him on their own terms, their own limits, their own understanding and interpretation of His message. They will follow only the Christ that fits their purpose or their level of comfortability, almost as if to say theirs is the only reliable perception of Christ and His Word.

Much like Peter and I on our way to finding that elusive beach resort: the signs are all up and available, but what if we read the wrong signs, or interpret the right ones erroneously? And is it really so dreadful to stop and ask for directions?

I have a personal relationship with Jesus–I am “spiritual,” yes, but I am also religious, choosing to belong to a community of believers who struggle with me, follow Christ with me, believe with me. I choose to belong to His Church because when I get to Heaven, I want to be able to see some familiar faces.

Do not absent yourself from your own assemblies, as some do, but encourage each other; the more so as you see the Day drawing near. –Hebrews 10:25

And I’m not ashamed to ask for directions to make sure I get there.