Cancer and Mary’s comforting presence

Allowing others to present our needs to God

The Presentation of the Lord at the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption in Covington, Ky. Photo: Lisa Julia Photography/Bayard, Inc.
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As a cancer patient and survivor, I often choose to walk in the footsteps of Mary through the framework of the mysteries of the Rosary. These mysteries help us focus on Mary’s life. Mary was a strong and courageous woman; she lived in darkness at times when she was unsure of where her journey was taking her. She grew in her relationships — small steps at a time. She lived in the present and tried to respond to the moment at hand, trusting that saying “yes” in small, everyday ways would deepen her faith and assuage the doubts that lurked within. 

The reflections in my book Facing Cancer with Mary: Reflections, Prayers and Spiritual Practices (Twenty-Third Publications, 2018), are centered on my cancer journey. Through connecting my story and my reflections on Mary’s journey, I hope the Spirit touches your heart and assists you in embracing your journey with poignant moments of laughter, tears, and hope. In the excerpt below I focus on the fourth joyful mystery of the Rosary. 

Presentation of Jesus in the Temple

Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple and presented him to God. Simeon and Anna, elderly people who were filled with the Holy Spirit, were sent to meet Jesus. 

Simeon cradled Jesus in his arms and prayed, “Lord, now let your servant go in peace. Your word has been fulfilled. My own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people. A light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel” (see Luke 2:29-32).  

Stained glass depicting the Presentation of the Lord. Photo: Adam Jan Figel/Shutterstock

Jesus was shown to the world, and the world received its mission to reflect God’s presence and love. This feast is summed up in three words: encounter, gratitude, and mission.

The Feast of the Presentation has also been known as Candlemas Day. Candles create a warm, reflective, prayerful atmosphere. As a child, I loved going into church and lighting a votive candle as I prayed for different intentions. I believed the candle was similar to a sentinel, standing guard and continuing to present my request to God once I left. 

Of course, Advent wreath candles were also a favorite —  they kept a count of the weeks before Christmas. I loved the Easter Vigil. We started in complete darkness and then the fire was blessed and each of us received a light from the Christ Candle. We were being “sent out” to light the world with God’s love.

After my diagnosis of stage 3 colon cancer, I struggled to pray. I did not have the energy to focus on presenting my needs to God. My body needed all of its energy to begin the physical, mental, and emotional healing process. It was necessary for me to take a medical leave from Blackburn College, where I taught in the education department. 

One of my first experiences of being prayed for was when the president of Blackburn stopped to visit me in the intensive care unit. He brought with him a small stuffed beaver (Blackburn’s mascot is Barney Beaver) whose paws were folded. John told me that Barney, as well as the entire Blackburn community, was praying for my healing. Barney was always within eyesight while I was in the hospital and now graces one of my bookshelves.

Many of my family, friends, and religious community began to pray with and for me throughout my healing process. Old, withered hands folded in prayer asked God to give me the strength needed to heal completely. Young, learning-to-pray hands asked God to heal me so I could play games with them. Folded, middle-aged hands begged God to cure me, as I was too young to die. How humbling it was to be on multiple prayer lists and to receive many get-well cards letting me know I was tucked away in everyone’s prayers.

Many of my family, friends, and religious community began to pray with and for me.

Periodically, my own hands folded in prayer as I asked God to bless all of those who took care of me — those who emotionally supported me, those who prayed for me, and those who visited me. Simultaneously, I also believed that those who had gone before me also presented me to God for healing. I was adamant in my belief that my dad, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and some very close friends who had died from cancer also begged God for my complete recovery. But most of my encounters with God at this time were through others. As I chatted with other cancer patients, I found that many of them had the same experience. Praying was difficult, if not impossible, because it was hard to concentrate.

Like Simeon, I was filled with gratitude. I was grateful for my physicians, who were very knowledgeable and filled with compassion. As I continued to heal, I invited them with their families to our motherhouse for Sunday brunch so that not only I but my religious sisters could express our heartfelt gratitude to these two wonderful men. 

What a joyous occasion it was to share a meal with them and their families as we said “thanks.” I was grateful that I was alive and continuing to heal with no complications. I was grateful for the strength that I was finding deep within; yes, there were a few down days but overall, there was a quiet strength.

I began to see a new mission being revealed before me. At first, I wasn’t aware of what it was — it emerged as I walked the cancer journey. Family and friends offered to go with me to treatments. I usually told them “Thanks, but I’m OK going alone.” A variety of people took turns dropping me off for treatment and picking me up three hours later.

I began to see a new mission being revealed before me.

Part of the reason I liked going alone is that it gave me back a bit of my independence, and I also used some of the time for prayer. During treatments, a wonderful woman came around and offered warm blankets. Wrapped in a warm, comforting blanket, I visualized myself wrapped in God’s arms. 

I knew that, no matter the outcome, I deepened my relationship with God in those moments. As I looked around the infusion room, I presented each person I saw to God and asked for his/her healing. I was told that my friendly smile and positive attitude touched many hearts and that other cancer patients looked forward to my presence. Treatment time offered space for praying, reading, visiting, napping, and trusting a little bit more.

Another part of my “new mission” was my deepening ability to listen. In our full-time care facility, as nurses and aides came in to care for me, they often shared joys and hardships; we laughed and looked for ways to ease the challenges. I also brought “new life” to our full-care nursing facility. Many of the retired sisters saw my determination to heal and enjoyed my happy, teasing personality. 

I began to understand the aging process in a whole new way, and I made some deep and lasting friendships with some of our retired sisters in the 10 weeks I lived there. Since I returned to our motherhouse, I have gone to the full-care facility to visit with nurses, aides, and the retired sisters. I’m always welcomed with big grins and hugs. They still cheer me on as I remain on the “maintenance schedule” for cancer checkups.

Together, Mary and Joseph presented Jesus in the temple. He was wrapped in a warm blanket as he was dedicated to God. Simeon and Anna spent years praying in the temple, which developed a contemplative spirit within each of them. As they observed Mary and Joseph presenting Jesus, they recognized him as the Messiah because Simeon and Anna observed not with physical eyes but with contemplative eyes. We, too, can recognize God’s presence in our “mission” if we look at situations with our “heart eyes” and not with our “judgmental eyes.” How important it is to trust each other’s call to minister to God’s people in a variety of ways.

“Presentation of Jesus Christ at the Temple” by Andrea Mantegna, circa 1454. Photo: Public Domain

Prayer

Good and gracious God, I quietly come before you. I am filled with gratitude and awe for the many people who are praying for me. I believe in the power of prayer and I know you will hear these prayers. 

Healing comes in many forms. I accept the healing you choose to send. Perhaps my healing will give me a longer time on earth; perhaps my healing will come in the form of mended relationships; perhaps my healing will come in my ability to forgive someone; perhaps my healing will come through hospice, which leads to eternal healing. 

I know you love me and know what is best for me at this time. Continue to deepen my trust and allow me to be open to all of the types of healing.


Journal experience

If you have not yet done so, ask your faith community, family, and friends to pray for your recovery. Describe how it feels to know that you are being prayed for around the clock each and every day.


EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is excerpted from Facing Cancer with Mary: Reflections, Prayers and Spiritual Practices by Sr. Catherine Stewart, OP, (Twenty-Third Publications, 2018). Used with permission.  

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