Today I’m going to reflect with you on the theology of illness. It’s not an abstract podcast; rather, it’s real. It’s existential. I did an interview with a young woman, Sarah Najjar, on November 16, 2013. It’s on my podcast in the archives—called “Living with Cancer.” Wonderful interview, and I’ll include parts of that interview in this podcast. Recently, Sarah died. So as I make this podcast, my heart is heavy. I’m feeling reflective and just deeply sorrowful to realize that she’s dead. Death is not wonderful. It’s not good; it’s not romantic. So we’ll reflect together on that. Here is a splice of the podcast that I did of Sarah a year ago. We’ll listen to her vitality, her love for life then.
Dr. Albert Rossi: Sarah, tell us a bit about your current life.
Ms. Sarah Najjar: Well, as you said, my husband and I are blessed to have been married 11 years now. We have two young children, seven and five years old. And we, three years ago, had the opportunity to experience cancer in our lives. I was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer. We did what we thought was best. It was very overwhelming. We were very—I won’t say naive—but we were very overwhelmed and didn’t know what to do. We were guided by our doctors to keep it very simple, so I had a simple lumpectomy surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Then at my two-year anniversary of tests, they found some abnormal cells. So in February of this year I chose to have a double mastectomy. They did not find any cancer when they did that, which we were very happy about.
Then after my surgery I began having some hip pain, and it just progressively got worse and worse. It turns out that my breast cancer had metastasized into bone cancer, and it had metastasized to my spine, to my bones, and most currently they have just found some in my liver. So since June of this year we have been on quite a journey. It’s been about four months. We have just been thankful and grateful for everything that has happened with it, including our church, our friends, our family, our priests. We are just grateful to God. It’s been a blessing. I always tell my husband I’m his cross to bear, and he takes it with stride, and he does a lot more work than [I do] as my caregiver, as our children’s caregiver. We just take it one day at a time, and we just pray that everything turns out okay.
The reason I chose the title “The Theology of Illness” is because it’s the title of a book by Jean-Claude Larchet—L-a-r-c-h-e-t—that I would highly recommend to everyone. It’s a book that will become the basis of a book study for a women’s group here at St. Vladimir’s. I’ll lead them soon, and we’ll talk about these issues. One quote that I would use now from St. Cyril of Jerusalem is:
There is such power in faith that the believer is not saved alone, but rather some have been saved through the faith of others.
And I really think that’s true for this podcast. That is to say, Sarah and her faith then, on the first podcast, and I will splice in now, has all the strength, wondrous strength, just to help save us. St. Macarius says:
He who wants to be an imitator of Christ so that he, too, may be called a son of God, born of the Spirit, must, most of all, bear courageously and patiently the afflictions he or she encounters, whether these be bodily illnesses, slander, vilification by men, or attacks from unclean spirits.
We see this quote of St. Macarius lived exquisitely in the person of Sarah Najjar in her attitude toward sickness. I’ll continue to let us listen to that interview of November, roughly a year ago, not quite a year ago, so that we can have our faith strengthened by her who had a sickness that was continuing to decline.
Dr. Rossi: Say a word or two, if you would, how faith weaves into this.
Mrs. Najjar: Wow. Well, I’ve been in the same church my whole life.
Dr. Rossi: Let’s mention it.
Mrs. Najjar: Okay. I belong to St. Michael’s Orthodox Church in Louisville, Kentucky. I had the same priest for many years, and ironically he’s going through metastatic cancer, and we were diagnosed around the same time. So our faith together, I feel like, has really just grown ten-fold, a hundred-fold. We have a priest there now when he retired who just watches over me. He is always there for me, and we pray together, we sing songs from St. Nectarios, my husband prays the Akathist for the Healer of Cancer, and we just… I have all my friends and family at church. My girlfriends—I have some very special friends at church, and during my last surgery—I had brain surgery, which turned out to be benign—but this last surgery my friends went to our chapel in Louisville and prayed the akathist for me while I was in surgery. To me, that’s just… the amount of prayers that are going around the world right now, the lists that I’m on, prayer lists, is just unbelievable.
That’s what strengthens my faith: to know that so many people are praying to God for me and want me to be here and are actually experiencing this with me, and they’re actually getting something out of it. I feel like I am witnessing right now, because even though I am the one who is sick, so many people are doing so many things to help me and my family—babysitting, dinners, raising money—all kinds of different things to help us out, and it’s just been unbelievable. To me, that’s faith. All of my life, praying to God, believing in God, and that Jesus is right there with me and holding me—that I’ve always had, but then to see it in action through other people has just been unbelievable to me and my family. I just can’t even describe how overwhelming it can be, but how much it deepens my faith that there are so many people out there who are so faithful that they would do things like this for us. So many good people out there. [...]
Mrs. Najjar: I would just say in response to what you were just saying, whenever I do feel down or get down, my husband just says, “God is doing this because he loves us. It’s all out of his love for us.” Then I just—that’s right. I just remember: that is exactly right. That’s the way we feel.
Dr. Rossi: That’s so confounding. It is so utterly confounding. “God is doing this out of love for us.” Scratch my head, go figure—it doesn’t seem like love. Certainly on the surface it doesn’t seem like love. Why should you and your husband, why should two lovely, healthy children, ages five and seven, go through the mental agony that they’re going through right now, knowing that their mother is so sick and has been in the hospital so many times? We don’t know. We just don’t know. And we don’t pretend to understand suffering. We don’t use cheap words. We don’t explain it away. It is what it is.
But we do believe, as you have said so eloquently, that God is love and he does love us, and everything he sends to us he sends us out of love. And then we do the next right thing.
In the book, The Theology of Illness, St. Cyprian is quoted:
What makes us different from those who don’t know God is that they grumble and complain about their misfortune, whereas for us tribulation, far from turning us from true courage and authentic faith, fortifies us through suffering.
St. Cyprian, the Fathers, and throughout this book, talk about our attitude toward our pain.
One time, Fr. Tom Hopko told the anecdote about a man he visited, a sick man, who was sick for more than 30 years, but painfully sick, and Fr. Tom was talking to him about Christ. The man was bitter and said, “Yes, Fr. Tom, but Jesus only suffered six hours, or three years at most. Mine has been more than 30 years. How much longer must I suffer?” And Fr. Tom answered with a word I’ll never forget, from my point of view the perfect answer. Fr. Tom’s answer was in one word: Now. The one word, now. In one word he was exhorting the sick man—as he has exhorted me many times—to live in the present moment.
When we live in the present moment, right now, our mind, cleared of all people and extra attitude and projects, it’s quite a different story than when I try to keep in my mind all of the pain that I’m experiencing. So it really is a question of learning to live in the present moment. We do that by meditating, formally, seated some minutes, during the day, perhaps in the morning. We learn it by being aware of our breath and the name Jesus through the day. We learn to come back to the present moment again and again and again. Of course, we get distracted and of course we come back. When we get distracted and come back, we get compassionate with ourselves and gentle as God is with us. So I am not my pain; I’m not. I have pain. I may have a disease. I may have a psychological pain of great magnitude from whatever cause—abuse or rejection or whatever—but my attitude toward it is what distinguishes me from… what makes me a Christian, what helps me deepen my faith. So I have a choice over my attitude. I really do. Sometimes I really don’t think so, because I become overwhelmed and unconscious, and, it seems, consumed by my mind toward my pain. It’s a very interesting but very, very important distinction.
As we listen to Sarah, we begin to see her attitude toward this intense both physical and mental suffering. We can try to imagine what the psychological suffering would be of a woman—beautiful woman, 42 years old—who is the process of dying and going to leave two little children. I would say that that’s great psychological pain. So let’s listen to more of Sarah.
Mrs. Najjar: Well, my daughter is five years old, and every night when we say our prayers she prays that Mommy has no more surgeries. I did have four surgeries this year in a matter of four months, and I think she’s tired of the hospital rooms, so she prays that Mommy has no more surgeries. And my son prays that Mommy doesn’t die. So I’m trying to do everything I can not to let that happen. I personally look forward to, God willing, entering the kingdom, but I know that my children would love to have me here. I know that my son—at one time we had explained to him that even when I’m not here, I will be here with them, and my son said, “But wouldn’t it be better if you were here with us for real?” Like he’d rather have me here on earth than with him from heaven, and I understand. I think that they understand death, they understand heaven, they understand that it’s going to be a wonderful place for me to be, without sickness, but they want me here, so that’s what they pray for every night. It’s very touching to me that they want me here, but they’re just innocents.
Yes, the children are innocents, and Sarah is now mothering them better and differently from heaven.