WHEN SERIOUS ILLNESS CHALLENGES OUR FAITH
Nessan Ronan, Professor of Accounting at the National University of Lesotho
He also talks about the possible effect a serious illness can have on a person’s faith in God and the practice of religion in general.
We are all aware that Southern Africa is confronted with major problems associated with the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
Most of the attention is focused on the effect it has on the socio-economic well being of the community.
This is understandable as we can see the problems developing with increased household poverty and orphans
who are a burden to the families and the community.
But there is another dimension to the problem which is rarely written about.
This is the possible effect a serious illness can have on a person’s faith in God and the practice of religion generally.
Serious illness challenges us and it can either break us or we can grow stronger and become better persons because of it.
A lot depends on the attitude we adopt to our illness and the quality of our religious faith.
EXPERIENCE OF A SERIOUS ILLNESS
his article is written from the author’s experience of a serious illness — cancer — and what its effect has been on my Christian faith.
I would suspect that one serious illness is similar to another in its emotional impact.
It can be said that serious illness threatens your total existence and may result in you dying before your time.
It thus forces you to take stock of your life, your accomplishments, your successes and failures.
It is thus an occasion for serious reflection on the meaning of life itself and a reappraisal of what is important in a person’s life.
In 2003 I was diagnosed with cancer. At the time I was an academic at the Copperbelt University in Kitwe, Zambia.
I went home for my annual holidays to Ireland in August and when I went for a routine medical check-up cancer was diagnosed.
Now, I think it is a safe bet to say that everyone fears cancer just as they fear AIDS.
My diagnosis was no different. It hit me like a bolt of lightning. I was not prepared for it.
It was an unwelcome intruder into a life, which up to that time was successful, orderly and predictable.
I had always enjoyed my work as an academic and loved to teach.
It was such a shock to be told that I had cancer, that I collapsed in the hospital clinic.
For a few weeks after being diagnosed and before medical treatment was to begin I endured a fairly turmoil life.
All the usual questions came flooding into my mind. Why did this happen to me? Where is God when you need him?
Am I going to survive this illness? What is going to happen to all my wonderful plans?
As the cancer had affected the vocal chords, there was an additional worry if I would be able to lecture again.
I believe that there is a grieving process that people go through when they are given a diagnosis of a serious illness.
My own main thought was that perhaps I will die and will not complete all those objectives I had set for myself.
It did not seem to matter that the prognosis was good and that the medical people assured me that I would survive.
WHICH WAY TO TAKE?
I decided that either I could allow the negative thoughts of the illness to dominate me or
I could determine to adopt a positive attitude. I choose the latter. An important part of my strategy was prayer.
In addition to daily prayer I read a considerable amount of Christian literature.
This included the lives of some of the saints. One of my favourites was the journey of a soul by St Theresa of Lisieux.
One of the great consolations of St Theresa was that she was resigned to her destiny and showed an
extraordinary faith in Jesus.
St Bernadette of Lourdes and the three seers of Fatima also provided much needed motivation.
After about two weeks following the diagnosis I had to go into hospital for a bioposy which
would reveal with certainty the type and extent of the cancer.
My doctor had told me that his initial examination had left him in no doubt that I had a cancerous growth in my throat.
The purpose of the biopsy was to be able to determine its full extent in order to be able to propose the correct course of treatment.
When I came out of hospital after the operation I decided to visit Fatima. Fatima
is a small town about two hours drive from Lisbon in Portugal.
It was there in 1917 that Our Lady appeared to three Catholic children.
Since that time it is a very popular place of pilgrimage.
I was accompanied by my wife Kathleen and eldest son Patrick.
We stayed there two days and during that time we attended several masses near the tree where Our Lady appeared.
We all felt a great sense of peace there and were in no doubt that it is a special place of God’s presence.
Kathleen was praying for a miracle.
This would be that when I went back home I would hear that the diagnosis was a mistake and I was clear of cancer.
Well it did not happen like that. I still had to go for the cancer treatment but a miracle did happen for me.
I got a great sense of confidence that I would be fine, that the treatment would work and that I would return to work.
I had to wait about six weeks for the treatment to begin.
So while waiting I returned to Zambia to finish my work for the students examinations.
I believe that I surprised my Jesuit and SMA (Society for Missionaries of Africa) friends.
They were probably expecting that I would be very depressed.
Instead I felt confident that everything would be fine. I credit this new found confidence to the fact that I
energised myself spiritually and came to believe that I would be able to accept whatever the outcome was to be.
TOOK A NEW ROAD
I also began to consider what was important in my life. There was a shifting from the material to the spiritual.
I have taken a new road, one that I know has more significance and meaning for me.
Cancer has taught me a number of important lessons. For one, many of the things we worry about are really insignificant.
Secondly, a sound spiritual life is of great support when you are confronted with the imminent possibility of death.
Also, we can draw inspiration from the lives of the saints. Many of them faced up to
suffering and early death with great confidence in their saviour. Their actions can inspire us as well.
At the same time when you have your health you possess a great gift.
Now that I have recovered from my illness and am back at work teaching again,
I thank God everyday for the gift of health and to be able to teach again.
At one stage during the radiotherapy treatment I lost my voice. I was unable to speak for about a month.
There were times when I wondered if my voice would come back. And if it did not come back,
I wondered how I would manage.
But it did and it made all the difference.
No longer do I take good health and being able to talk and do the common tasks for granted.
Needless to say when we are well we tend to forget about these gifts.
But I suggest we do not wait until we have a serious illness to count our blessings.
It should be part of our daily prayers. I think I can say that a serious illness has the potential to
either bring you closer to God or make you angry and resolve never to pray again.
There is a good story in the second book of Kings.
This is the story of Naaman who having been a great General in the army, contracted leprosy.
He immersed himself in the Jordan as instructed by Elisha.
When he came out of the waters he was cured of leprosy and at that he no longer doubted God’s mercy.
We in our own way are given opportunities to discover God. A life threatening illness is a challenge to us.
How we face up to it will determine whether we grow spirituality or die to God. Everyday many people are confronted
with great pain and suffering. Most of the time all we can do is to pray that they will be given the gift of faith to
believe in God and courage to face their destiny, in the knowledge that the suffering itself can bring them into God’s presence.
To all those with a life threatening medical diagnosis, I can say with confidence that to take the spiritual road in
confronting your problems will make all the difference in your life.
Professor Nessan Ronan National University of Lesotho Lesotho