Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Not Without Pain, But Without Stain

A few minutes ago I was scrolling through my FB feed and saw a quote posted by a friend that stopped me in my tracks. It was credited to my beloved C.S. Lewis (whose name all by itself is guaranteed to make me pause and read). Here is what it said:

"God, who foresaw your tribulation, has specially armed you to go through it, not without pain, but without stain."


I was so blown away by this quote and the way it spoke into my life experiences this year that I immediately went to Google to discover if Lewis had actually said it, and if so, where. I know that sounds cynical, but I've run into wrongly attributed quotes on social media once too often to fully trust them, especially if it's printed as a meme (what I call a "sight-bite") and doesn't list a source. In this case, it also seemed to be missing a comma or two (it was; I've corrected it above) which didn't seem Lewis-like, but could obviously be a copy error.

Happily, this one does seem to be something Jack said. Thanks to this blog post by a scholarly looking blogger who seems to have actually read the quote in a book, I now know that Lewis wrote this in a letter to someone named Mrs. Lockley, and that it's in the collection Letters of C.S. Lewis on page 394.

I'm not surprised that Lewis wrote this in a letter. He often seemed at his warmest and wisest when he was giving counsel to a friend or to an admirer who had written him to share about their life and to ask him questions. This bit of counsel packs a wallop. It makes me wonder what precisely Mrs. Lockley was going through, given that Lewis hoped to strengthen her with the strong tonic of these words.

They comfort and strengthen me. I've been thinking lately about the fact that the cancer diagnosis that took me by such surprise did not take God by surprise. I was meditating just the other day on my favorite Jessica Powers poem, "The Cedar Tree" in which she writes:

In the beginning, in the unbeginning
of endlessness and of eternity,
God saw this tree.
He saw these cedar branches bending low
under the full exhaustion of the snow.
And since he set no wind of day to rising,
this burden of beauty and this burden of cold,
whether the wood breaks or the branches hold
must be of His devising.

And at the end of the poem, the final powerful lines:

I clasp this thought: from all eternity
God who is good looked down upon this tree
white in the weighted air,
and of another cedar reckoned well.
He knew how much each tree, each twig could bear.
He counted every snowflake as it fell.


(I've come close to putting the whole poem here, but have resisted the urge because of copyright. You can see the entire thing at the link I gave above. But there's enough here to chew on for quite a while.)

The poem is now dancing in my head with Lewis' more prosaic but still musically lilting advice that "God, who foresaw your tribulation, has specially armed you to go through it, not without pain, but without stain."

The pain is not always withheld. This can feel like an unfathomable mystery, especially when we have long held onto God and know him deeply for his goodness and loving-kindness. But in allowing the pain, in knowing it will come, even perhaps so heavy that it bends us with "a burden of cold," God does not leave us abandoned. He arms us to go through the tribulation and suffering, to go through the pain, but to do so without stain. What I read there is that suffering need not diminish our souls.  They may remain healthy, hearty, and whole even in the midst of the worst and heaviest times of tribulation. Times that may surprise us, but don't surprise God, because he knows what "each twig could bear" and even counts "every snowflake" as it falls (like he numbers the hairs on our heads!) sometimes in a wild or heavy blizzard of falling.

Did you notice that the "burden of cold" is simultaneously a "burden of beauty"? More mystery. More truth.

On Monday, I went to the cancer center for treatment but also for scans. I was supposed to have CT scans of my chest, abdomen, and pelvic area, as well as a full body bone scan. They ended up holding off on the bone scan, because the CT scans provided evidence, real evidence that I am experiencing some healing. There is still no sign of cancer in the bladder (the site of origin). There has been no spread to other organs (they've been particularly worried about the lungs). And in the secondary site of the cancer, the bone near my hip, the change since I've begun immunotherapy has been pretty dramatic. One of my wonderful oncologists, the one who bounded joyfully into the room to announce the good news, told me what a "big, ugly mess" that site was three months ago, with the largeness of the cancer and the erosion of the bone.

And in this Monday's scan? That area of the cancer had shrunk by 20-30 percent, and there is evidence of healing around the area, including new bone growth. New bone growth! I felt like Ezekiel was standing in the room with us -- along with Jesus, of course! As I wrote to friends later that day, I am being re-knit!

As we celebrated this good news with both of my amazing doctors and later with nurses and other caregivers, one of my doctors reminded me of the day back in the early spring when I had faced the decision they gave me to go ahead or not go ahead with a fourth round of chemotherapy. I was so exhausted that they felt they needed to give me that option. As my doctor said, the chemo treatments they gave me are some of the hardest, most intense that you can give. (I told her that she didn't need to convince me, I remember!) She added that in looking back on that day, she was so very glad that I had decided to go forward.

And so am I. I can hardly remember the thought or prayer processes that went through my mind and heart that day. I remember my head was bowed (partly with tiredness) as I thought through the possibility of not going on for a fourth round of the exhaustion and nausea. I had been hospitalized twice already during chemo treatments, and unbeknownst to me would be hospitalized yet again after making the decision to go on, and I'd already had at least one of my two blood transfusions. I had never in my life felt more bowed down with heaviness and weariness as I did that day.

I don't know if I remembered the Powers poem, but it's been a part of my heart for many years, so maybe somewhere it was whispering to me the truth that God knew my burden of cold, knew what each twig could bear, and was indeed counting every flake that fell. At any rate, I said yes to going forward, both to the remaining chemo and to the mostly as yet untried (for my kind of cancer) immunotherapy, and right now I am so grateful that I did. Thanks be to God, so far the branches under that full exhaustion of snow are holding.

"God, who foresaw your tribulation, has specially armed you to go through it, not without pain, but without stain."

That's a new line for my heart to hold onto, one I have a feeling I will need to remember again and again as I continue to go forward on this healing journey.


Erin said...

Reading this with a heart full of gratitude. May the healing continue! <3

Beth said...

Thank you, Erin! I feel so grateful too! <3