Finding God on the Oncology Floor
Editor's note - This is an excerpt from a new book by Christine Eberle, Finding God in Ordinary Time. The author has kindly granted SDI permission to publish it here.
In my year as a young hospital chaplain, I met many patients, but there was one in particular whose faith still inspires me.
I’d been paged to the oncology floor late on a Sunday afternoon.
The nurse said one of her patients was Catholic, and would like to receive Communion. Inwardly, I groaned; it was not a Catholic hospital, so the in-house chaplains didn’t have access to the sacrament, and the Communion ministers from the local parish had come and gone hours ago. I didn’t know why this woman had been overlooked, but now it was my job to go disappoint her.
And yet she was not disappointed. Rosemarie greeted me warmly and shrugged off my apology. It was okay; could we just visit, instead? I realized I’d been stereotyping her during my long walk through the corridors. In my imagination, she was the sort of Catholic who would be mystified at how a twenty-five-year-old woman could possibly be the chaplain (as, frankly, I was still a bit mystified myself).
She told me her medical story in brief, and it was as sad a tale as one would expect to hear on that floor. A mother of young children, she had been losing her battle with an aggressive cancer and now was pursuing a radical experimental treatment.
Then she told me her faith story. A tepid cradle Catholic, Rosemarie had been invited by a neighbor to her parish’s charismatic prayer group when she got sick. She went, at first, because she was willing to try anything; it was the spiritual equivalent of her clinical trial. Yet over time, her experience of direct encounter with God in prayer was profoundly life-changing. It grounded her in something deeper and more eternal than whatever was happening on the oncology ward.
“The cancer will do what the cancer will do,” Rosemarie announced. “But what has happened in my relationship with God, I would not trade for anything.”
This may be the greatest profession of faith I’ve ever heard outside the Bible.
In his Spiritual Exercises, Saint Ignatius wrote that we should not prefer health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or a short one. It sounds crazy, I know; how could regular people in the world be that detached from their own fate? But Ignatius insisted that everything “has the potential of calling forth in us a deeper response to our life in God.” I have studied that passage, prayed with it, and taught it, but Rosemarie was living it, despite—or perhaps because of—circumstances that would make most people despair of God’s goodness.
My encounter with Rosemarie taught me to hold my own future more lightly. While health, wealth, success, and longevity still sound preferable to the alternatives, her perspective has stayed with me, giving flesh to the bones of Ignatius’ beloved prayer: “Give me only your love and your grace; that’s enough for me.”
When have you been able to hold your future lightly? What circumstances challenge your ability to do that? Try praying the prayer of Saint Ignatius. What happens?
Her 25-year career as a college campus minister has given Christine Eberle countless opportunities to ask her favorite question (Where is God in all this?) and to listen for answers in surprising places. Christine is a public speaker, retreat leader, and church cantor. She currently serves as the Director of Campus Ministry at Gwynedd Mercy University near Philadelphia, PA. You can find out more about her work and her writing at christine-marie-eberle.com.