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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Only these four words of welcome: The role of prayer

It was one of those beautiful winter days after Hanukkah….I sat waiting in the outer office. Finally, I was ushered in. There were no smiles, no polite exchanges, nothing that softened the numbing reality I was about to face. Only these four words of welcome: "Your wife has cancer."

That day in the surgeon's office and the journey of the spirit that followed were the greatest challenges of my personal faith in God – and that of my family – that we ever experienced. It is part of this challenge that I share here. I offer a brief glimpse into our own struggle, hoping that it might help you with yours.

Three items proved most helpful and effective. One: we discovered that all human beings, even rabbis and their families, struggle, have doubts, and have lapses of faith. Two: like others, our faith was in desperate need of repair. It was my wife's courage and conviction in the face of her illness that allowed us to pray unabashedly to God. Through prayer and the process of spiritual renewal, our faith was literally restored to us. Three: we learned that we all need a rabbi, someone to lead us through our crises of faith, a madrich ruchani (spiritual mentor) to support us in our journeys. The rabbis of the Talmud wrote, "One cannot fully understand Torah unless one has stumbled in it." Sheryl’s cancer caused us all to stumble, but we did not fall.

We don’t know where the cancer came from, but during her illness, Sheryl taught our family that faith means not to passively accept what life deals you – whatever it is. Rather, we must seize life and struggle with it, using the force of disease against itself, not against the self – which we are prone to do. Physicians do not set the parameters for our struggle. We set the terms, always striving to remain in control, trying not to allow the disease to get the upper hand. This posture is bolstered by faith in ourselves, reflective of faith in God and the covenant we share with the Divine. Faith is the force in the world that makes for healing.

Frequently, we think of prayer in terms of the "how-to" of the liturgical process: what to say, how and when to say it, and which ritual accompaniments are required. Our family learned that we could not nurture our individual relationships with Almighty God without essential prayer. In the face of cancer, perhaps even because of it, we learned to allow the words articulated by those who came before us to truly sing through our own souls – while adding our own – and then our prayer became the powerful force in the universe that we always hoped and prayed it would be.

A spiritual teacher helps us to learn how to reach out to others, inward to self, and upward to God in order to gain inner strength, tranquility of spirit, and healing of body and soul. Like so many others, our family had taken its spiritual journey for granted. Through our encounter with Sheryl’s illness, we were reminded about it

I thank God each day that we are alive to celebrate. For us, that indeed is the miracle that we recall not only during the eight days of Hanukkah, but every day throughout the year. May you join us in the celebration, finding strength in the journey and faith along the way.

Advice: Pray with your loved ones for strength.

Read another story about faith.

Thanks to Rabbi Kerry Olitzky for the source, “Facing Cancer as a Family.”

1 comment:

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