Cancer made me feel completely misunderstood and out of place, but it also made me more self-aware. It gave me a new perspective on the world, helping me appreciate simple dialogues with loved ones and strangers. Above all, it was transformative and empowering, giving the knowledge that only an experience like this could impart: to know what it means to be empathetic. This is my story of Tisha B’Av.
The first word for cancer to appear in medical literature, back in the time of Hippocrates around 400 BCE, was karkinos, from the Greek word for crab; it’s a linguistic coincidence, but to me it seems connected to the similar-sounding word kinos, the elegies for Tisha B’Av. Since that hour on my bed at camp three summers ago, I have searched for the notebook where I wrote my own kinos and filled pages with my own pain, but I haven’t found it. Maybe like the old Jewish custom to bury the books of kinos deep in the ground, in the hopes of not needing to use them the following year (with the rebuilding of the Temple), I buried them somewhere deep in my room. What I feared then as my life’s end, like the Temples’ destruction, turned out to require of me the courage to begin again.
by Krista Tippett, host
Recently I spoke to a class of college students — by way of Skype — in southern Minnesota. We talked about how religion is portrayed through news media. As often in my experience, this was a critical discussion about the narrow and often inflammatory way religion comes up, and usually in the context of politics.
I asked them if they felt at all represented in media portrayals, or how they might. One young man in the back of the classroom said, “I don’t think there is any real expression of what it means to be religious now. It’s different.”
He’s right. I think about this all the time. There has been a dramatic break with ways of being spiritual and religious that held, in the West, for many generations.
Before I created this radio show, I spent two years interviewing people across the Christian Church — from Armenian Orthodox to Nazarene Holiness — who had in some way been involved in the ecumenical movement that surged after World War II and through the 1960s. Sitting with them, probing their memories, I relived the absolute shock and thrill of first encounters between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. This felt unprecedented, impossible, and utterly liberating. It’s not just that faith looked new; the whole world looked full of possibility and kinship that had not been there before.
Rigid, rule-bound ways of being religious — of being identified not merely by the same denomination but perhaps the very same church or synagogue your parents and grandparents attended before you — have transformed in a handful of generations.
Strong religious identities survive and thrive. But more than ever before, even in their most conservative iterations, they are chosen. And alongside them is a world of flux and questioning — a new phenomenon of people who have been raised with more questions than answers, more choices than givens. They are not abandoning religion, though, or revealing it as something primitive that modernity has outgrown (as intellectuals since the Enlightenment have predicted they would). They are rediscovering and reinventing it.
I did not realize, before I spoke with Christian Wiman, how provocatively and profoundly he has become a poetic witness and voice for this change. He grew up in a West Texas world soaked in a particular charismatic Christianity. When he left that world behind, its religious core ceased to make sense.
For many people who were never religious or who leave the religion of their childhoods behind, it’s the experience of having children of their own that brings an urgency to the question of what they believe. For Christian Wiman, it was the experience of love — of falling deeply in love with the woman who would become his wife. Because he is a poet, perhaps, he became wonderfully articulate about the power of love to make life more vivid, to make us reach for the best in ourselves, to feel we have touched transcendence and to want to rise to that experience. And then, hard on the heels of that, he was diagnosed with a mysterious blood cancer that could kill him in 30 days or 30 years.
Christian Wiman believes that a whole new religious language is being created. It will include traditional religious insights and language, but will also reach beyond them — or better approximate the animating essence of them. He even imagines “that God calls some people to unbelief in order that faith can take new forms.”
From outside faith and within it, Christian Wiman has pondered this question: “How does one remember God, reach for God, realize God in the midst of one’s life if one is constantly being overwhelmed by that life?” You don’t need to be diagnosed with cancer these days to share in that question.
This conversation, "Remembering God," about what he has learned about faith, and how he is living his questions, is rich with humility, challenge, and an infectious courage.Comments
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
This afternoon we received the following email from Ben Depp, a photographer whose sister Martha, an artist and art teacher, was diagnosed with an advanced form of ovarian cancer:
"I put together a six-minute film on her art, life, and cancer. I think this is a good fit for your blog because of her spiritual journey through her cancer process, and it’s very interesting because of how she illustrated the process with painting and drawing. Her blog has touched thousands including many with terminal cancer.”
I don’t know why, but I started watching Ben’s quietly touching video, half expecting an against all odds type of story. It wasn’t to be.
Martha died this past Thursday at the age of 33. May she rest in peace with that brand new body she was awaiting:
"Physically, healing hasn’t happened. I mean, obviously, I still have cancer, and I’m obviously going to die from it. And it’s all over my body. But I’m kind of happy about that because I get to go to heaven sooner and be healed and get a new body and be from pain and suffering, and tears. No more tears."
by Anna Lawrence Pietroni, guest contributor
A Christmas tree stands a month after Christmas last year. Ashley, who had recently overcame thyroid cancer, kisses her son Trey, who was undergoing treatment for tuberculosis.
(photo: Fred Erlenbusch/Flickr)
Advent Tea was invented by my mother 40 years ago. My brothers were young and knocking over furniture in their pre-Christmas fervor. Mom needed to find some way of marshaling their excitement, so she built a little ritual around the lighting of a candle on a Sunday — something to pull them back to here and now and to take their eyes off December 25th. She took a few simple ingredients: cream crackers (frugal, brittle squares of air and flour), a jar of home-pickled onions, and a slab of cheddar cheese. She lit a candle, and that was it: Advent Tea.
Now my young sons are knocking over furniture, and I welcome Advent Tea as a slower, settled time on Sunday afternoons. My boys’ religious education is a little patchy. When I asked them what Advent meant, they told me “it means crackers.” But Advent Tea does what all good rituals do: it’s a simple, repeated practice that has worn grooves into our years; it brings the weight and depth of shared experience to the moment.
Last December we were far from home, living in Boston, Massachusetts. Back in England, my parents were nursing my grandfather through the final stages of cancer. Advent was about a different kind of anticipation: not of birth, but of death. We knew Grandad did not have long to live. My parents were fully occupied with making his last weeks as comfortable as they could, and yet my dad found time to buy the makings of Advent Tea and ship them in a shoebox to the States. I felt the separation keenly — daily Skype calls are no substitute for being in the room. But Advent Tea connected me with them; I ate what they ate, we all lit a candle, and this invoked a little of their presence.
I’m back home now and don’t need the shared practice to draw my loved ones close. This year, the ritual of Advent Tea is serving us in an unexpected way. We face our first Christmas not only without Grandad, but without my father too. He was vital, active, in his mid-sixties and struck down this summer by a stealthy, aggressive cancer that shocked everyone with the speed of its progression. I got home five days before he died. Our family is depleted: we’ve lost two tender, generous men who blessed the lives of everyone they knew. It’s all too easy to dread Christmas, to seek out all the gaps and silences their absence has created and fill them up with weeping. I find myself angry when explaining Advent to my children; that it’s more than cheese and crackers. I discover that the ecclesiastical construct both baffles and irritates me: the baby’s already been born. Not only that, he’s lived; he’s died; we’ve had the Resurrection. We know the story. So why all this faked ‘waiting’?’ And don’t get me started on the Second Coming.
My rant leads me to look for definitions. (What does it mean, anyway?) Advent, meaning “coming,” leads me to parousia, the Greek word used in the New Testament in connection with the Second Coming. It means “presence.”
And this is what the ritual of Advent Tea fosters: a gentle coaxing to be fully present, to cultivate what John O’Donohue calls “soul texture.” It’s a well-rehearsed ritual, so we don’t need to think about what to set out on the table. The meal is simple. There is no cooking, no performance. We laugh. We eat. We light a candle. My sons fight about who gets to blow it out. As with my brothers, 40 years ago, Advent Tea helps us all to sit still. This year, more than ever, it coaxes me to be right here right now, with all the sadness and the gratitude and joy.
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by Anne Breckbill, associate web developer
On June 30, Krista interviewed Alan Rabinowitz for this week’s show "A Voice for the Animals" — discussing topics ranging from his severe stutter, Dawi (the last pure Mongoloid pygmy), large wild cats, genetic corridors, and his recent cancer diagnosis. We live-tweet (SOFtweets) all of our interviews now. Here is the Twitterscript of that interview: