From a Fellow Traveler
As All Saints’ Day rolls by I imagine a few folks might have heard preaching about being both saint and sinner at the same time. If the preacher wants to get fancy, they might even bust out the simul justus et peccator phrase.
As I mentioned in a previous post, my wife has cancer. And this year the Simul, and its paradoxical logic, hits a little different.
When we started on this path a couple months ago the idea of living “two truths” kept hitting me over the head. The tension was usually triggered by key clichéd phrases that are staples of any cancer story.
“I am going to try and explain this as directly as possible: your wife has cancer.”
In that moment I felt the seemingly unbearable weight of two truths: my wife was lying in a room next to me in pretty much excellent health; and simultaneously, she was also dying.
Now, I know death is the debt that all pay, but even at 42 there was still this idea that death wasn’t something coming for us any time soon. We don’t feel that way anymore.
In the days that followed, this new Simul has continued to stick with me. I have shared another two months of life and laughter with my wife, family, and friends (with plenty of tears mixed in). But the new truth of life-threatening cancer is inescapable for us right now. And in the quiet moments, I relive that consult with the doctor in my mind; and the weight of his words sits heavy.
“Your cancer is Stage 1? That’s great news!”
We have been forced to experience this conversation many times over the last two months. We now know that her cancer is really Stage 2. But that simple fact, often said back to us as we explained the details, cuts like a knife.
The truth is that staging with cancers doesn’t really tell the whole story. Yes, it can be true that you can be Stage 1, BUT it can also be true at the same time that they want to remove your colon, rectum, anus, sew you up in a procedure known as a “Barbie Surgery,” and have your waste leave your body via a permanent ostomy.
This Simul is something you can’t possibly understand about staging and cancer treatment until you are down in the weeds. I think back to the years of conversations I have had with people about cancer and I wonder, which “truth” did I latch onto in the conversation?
I don’t want it to sound like I’m not grateful my wife’s staging is low; I prayed without ceasing for a low stage. But I was naive in my understanding of how brutal this disease can be. Your staging can be excellent and your life can still be forever changed. As I have begun to say, it’s a great staging in an absolutely bummer of a location.
“You are such a fighter!”
Positivity is without a doubt important in your approach to navigating cancer. That being said, what if this particular cancer doesn’t respond to treatment? Was I not fighting hard enough? Did I not prepare myself mentally for battle? On those days that will undoubtedly be hard, am I allowed to express that struggle and sit in that suffering?
It’s true that you need to want to fight and win this battle; but it’s less that you are fighting, and more that you are the battlefield. And on that battlefield, you are just praying that you aren’t cannon fodder in the process.
So yes, you are a fighter, but simultaneously you are also a casualty, even if you get to keep your life. You also have this new dividing line in your personal history, your own BC and AD: Before Cancer and After Diagnosis.
All of this made All Saints’ Day hit harder. Perhaps it’s because I don’t really feel like a Saint; as a promise, that truth often doesn’t feel near as real as the truth that I am a Sinner. As I have struggled over the last two months with the horrible thoughts that cancer brings, my sainthood certainly feels distant. The worst of those thoughts leave little room for any “Saint” side of the Simul: the nagging fear that it was somehow my fault, my status as “Sinner” that brought this affliction into our life; the guilt I sit with wondering what we could have done differently. More exercise? Less red meat? More antioxidants? Less wine?
Alive and Dying, Hopeful and Discouraged, Fighter and Casualty, Saint and Sinner. We are living all of these truths in a very real and tangible way each day.
And sometimes the tension in the Simul is just too much. So what is a believer to do?
Well, here is what I have been doing: I go to the Garden.
The one bible story I have gone back to more than any other over the last two months of living with my wife’s sudden cancer diagnosis is Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. This story has brought me much comfort precisely because of the two truths it represents.
Here is the King of Kings; and he is weeping. Likely scared and fearful. He knows the story of Life, but at the same time, the weight of Death is looming. He represents all the Hope in the world; but even he is Discouraged by the cup he must drink. He is a Fighter who is going to crush our ultimate enemy; but he will simultaneously be an injured Casualty in the process.
You might think Jesus praying in agony is an odd story to draw comfort from. It doesn’t hold the same peace or victory as Easter, or Pentecost, or even the Second Coming (speaking of All Saints’ Day). But right now, the promise of resurrection isn’t where I find comfort.
I find, the comfort comes in knowing that Jesus understands what it’s like to be crushed under the weight of Simul. I have a God who has experienced first-hand this life of Two Truths, who hears me and all those who are praying for my wife. I believe Jesus hears those prayers and, in a very real and personal way, can relate to the pain.
It’s a curious thought, but maybe the Lord of Heaven, seated on his eternal throne of light, hears your struggling prayers, born of paradox and pain, and thinks to himself: “I remember feeling like that…”