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The Things People Do And Say!

Today our vicar led the intercessions at Morning Prayer. As you might expect, they resonated with the congregation and we felt our prayers soar collectively heavenward. Normally, as in most churches, the congregation take it in turns to lead intercessionary prayer: some are more gifted in this area than others, to put it as kindly as I can.

Why is it that some people have the gift of finding exactly the right thing to say, while others seem unable to open their mouths without inserting their feet?
This question has been uppermost in my mind in the last few months as I was diagnosed with breast cancer in January and I have just finished a course of radiotherapy.* This has given me ample time and opportunity to note the reactions of my friends and neighbours, as well as the medical staff.

Things not to do

The medical team have been both patient and kind at all times. Two anomalies, however, stand out. At my first counselling session after diagnosis, I was handed a plastic ring-binder full of information. Very thoughtful, but it was covered all over in white daisies, which took my breath away as I associated it immediately with the expression ‘you’ll be pushing up daisies’, meaning you will be toast, dead, six feet under.
During the radiography, they sensed my need to crack weak jokes, which they gleefully joined in. Ghastly muzak was playing in the background, which I complained was worse than the treatment.    I was quickly offered classical music instead, which I gratefully accepted. The piece on offer? Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ quartet!

Things not to say

Two people who I know bear me no ill will said equally breath-taking things to me on learning of my diagnosis. One immediately told me about the symptoms, treatment and ultimate death from breast cancer of his cousin, who died last year. And the lovely lady in the church choir, on hearing I was having radiotherapy, said ‘Oh yes, people look really poorly after that. They look as if they have had the life completely sucked out of them!’

A little introspection

And what am I guilty of in all this? In last week’s episode of ‘Desperate Housewives’, Susan enlists sympathy for her  dialysis to escape a traffic fine, but fails to get to the top of the restaurant queue because, as the couple behind her point out, ‘everyone has something!’ I can certainly see the temptation…

Unmerited kindness

On the other hand, my misfortune has evoked extraordinary kindness from my neighbours. Many people offered to drive me to hospital an hour away for the radiotherapy (including one friend in her late eighties and one in her nineties!). Others come unbidden, bearing welcome casseroles.
One painted my favourite flowers on a get-well card. And my closest friend, whom I call my pelican, is always there.

Being prayed for

I now have the privilege of knowing it is a truly wonderful experience to be prayed for, to be on the receiving end of intercessionary prayer from our house group, congregation and my online friends at The Ship of Fools.
I believe several studies have been done which show that being prayed for makes no appreciable difference to the outcome of the disease. But that is not what I am talking about. From my reaction to the news of the cancer to the low point after radiotherapy, I have felt buoyed up, floating on an ocean of agape, or Christian love. Much of the time I have felt elated, and have had to restrain my normally conservative Anglican self from bursting into ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’.
So if you ever wonder whether your prayers are heard, please believe me when I say that I am lucky enough to know that they are.
1.* In case you are wondering, the prognosis is very good and I am already feeling better!
2.The illustration is ‘The Sea’ by Bernard Atkinson, courtesy The Twelve Baskets. 
3. The carving is from Corpus Christi College, Oxford, whose symbol it is.

11 comments on this post:

UKViewer said...


This is an ongoing story of prayer not for specifics but out of love and concern for someone you care for.

When I lead intercessions, we have names given to us for prayer and we read them out, but we also provide space and a pause for people to either name or pray out loud for those they might have concerns for, or, privately held in prayer for whatever reason.

I am a great believer that prayer is answered, not in the way we might think, but in other ways, perhaps with unforseen outcomes.

An example is that I continue to pray for the respose of the souls of my long dead parents, but always include all the saints as we are sharing in the prayer of the generations before us.

I visualise an unending stream of prayer being offered by millions, every minute of the day, flowing in a continuous stream upwards for Jesus to take and make pleasing to God.

I actually love it in a cold church when our breath is on the air and I visualise those prayers, physically joining the flow.

Perhaps I am a little over the top with this, but I am also comfortable with it. Prayer is our traffic and communication with God, its necessary, its part of the relationship and is answered.

15 May 2011 18:14
Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you for this, UKViewer. I agree with you that prayer is answered, but perhaps not always in the way that we expect. I love your image about our frosty breath physically joining the flow – do you by any chance feel a poem coming on?

15 May 2011 19:58
UKViewer said...

I'm not sure of how creative I am. I have never written poetry, although I love it. I'm a great fan of the war poets, Wilfred Owen, Sasoon and Woodbine Willie, Rupert Brooke etc.

John Mcrae is a particular favourite. 'In Flanders Fields' seems to me to be the epitome of war poems.

15 May 2011 20:06
Lay Anglicana said...

I suppose what I am saying is that you already have the germ of a poem with your marvellous image. Try just writing it on a pad and keeping it by your bed. Or armchair. And next time you are watching TV or whatever, take it out and try and doodle around with the idea. It doesn't have to rhyme or scan, though I think it is probably easier if you try and write something that does as it will give you something to work with. Do try…

15 May 2011 20:27
CarolineHodgson said...

Thanks for writing this, although it alarmed me a bit, because it seemed to confirm my worst fears – that a clumsy approach (an unfortunate choice of music or the wrong ring binder), can cause someone to be perceived as reacting well or badly. I’d like to make a case for us bulls, rushing headlong into the china shops of life-threatening illness.
At the moment I am very affected by a friend who's undergoing an extreme bone-marrow treatment. The first time I saw him without hair, I blurted out ‘Hello baldy!' What came over me? I have no idea. But I am more affected than he knows, and he's in isolation at the moment so I can't apologise, and in any case I'm sure it's bothering me more than him!
What comes out loud and clear from what you write, is that doing is always better than saying – offering a lift, etc. But someone in need will often be quickly surrounded by people who rush in to fill the gaps. When my mother was dying I found it a privileged position to be able to 'do' for her – and in truth I probably exploited it a bit. When I haven’t had direct access to the bedside, I’ve been among that awkward crowd of people shuffling our feet on the sidelines, vaguely making weak offers of help, stammering out words of consolation. But we’re all aware that, in the face of death or life-threatening illness, we might as well offer a thimbleful of water to someone with a raging thirst.
I know for myself how, when the chips are down, we tend to divide people – or at least their responses – into good and bad (even ugly). Two and a half years after my mother’s death, I still carry around a little list, hardened in my heart, of people who never mentioned it. I construe their response as cowardice rather than uncaring, but I tell myself they had a responsibility to say something, rather than leaving me to feel as though I were carrying around a great unmentionable. But I also know, at a deeper level, that I’m expressing my own sheer rage at the fact of death, and that it took my mother from me. When everything is heightened, everything becomes all the more fragile, and even bulls who choose to opt out are bound to end up smashing something.
What I would love to think is that, for all my bullishness, when my friend comes out of isolation I can be part of the ocean of agape which buoys him up. If I am to fulfil that, I have to feel I can continue despite my past clumsiness, and despite the possibility that I might say something equally idiotic in the future.

18 May 2011 08:19
Anne said...

I was diagnosed with breast cancer nearly five years ago and had radiotherapy. Just coming up to what (I hope) will be my last check-up and discharge from follow up.

Like you, I felt carried by a cushion of prayer and love. It was an amazing and life changing experience to know that I and the team treating me were supported by prayer from all over the world.

I don't care whether being prayed for makes any difference to the outcome. I think studies have shown that having a positive attitude does – and prayer certainly promotes that positive attitude.

I found the drugs make you tired – so just pace yourself over the next few years as you continue to recover. Another marvellous helpful lesson from being ill- no-one is indispensable – if you can't do it, someone else will, and they may grow as a result.

Thoughts & prayers.

18 May 2011 08:22
Lay Anglicana said...

Please, please, if I can speak on behalf of your temporarily bald friend, do not feel that what you said was clumsy! There was not room for me to say this in my post, but my reaction at the time to both the ring binder and the music (which I had to listen to every day for three weeks or suffer the muzak!) was to giggle. An opportunity to laugh at the rich irony of life is very welcome and a great distraction. Even the story of his cousin's death did not hurt, so much as leave me not knowing what to reply. What hurts, as you found, is the people who do and say nothing and at the moment I am focussing on forgetting my own little list, hardened in my heart. A woman whom I had thought a great friend unaccountably dropped out of sight until I bumped into her. Her remark ('we thought we would wait until you were better and then have the two of you over to dinner') I find hard to forgive! People do (atavistically) feel illness, pain and death are infectious, somehow.
If sympathy is 'feeling with' people, then you sound to me like just the sort of sympathetic friend anyone would love to have, and I envy 'Baldy'!

18 May 2011 08:30
Lay Anglicana said...

Good morning, Anne. Sorry, your comment sneaked in, unseen, while I was replying to Caroline!
Thank-you for your lovely message. Yes, I do feel tired – today is the magic 14th day after the last day of radiotherapy when you are supposed to feel at your worst. I was kind of hoping that meant that in 14 days time I would be back to normal, but now I re-read the briefing, I see that was my own optimism filling in the blanks! But the warmth and support that you also found really is like being tucked up under a warm duvet on a cold night, to try another metaphor. So glad that all your news has been good and congratulations on getting the first five years over and done with. Onward and upwards, while remembering none of us is indispensable!

18 May 2011 08:38
CarolineHodgson said...

Thanks for your heartening response – I'm glad to hear you giggled at the music and ring binder and I think I would also find the remark about having you over to dinner when you're better difficult to swallow!
Having said that I want to be part of the ocean of agape buoying up my friend when he comes out of isolation, I was thinking that our prayerful breath creates that ocean right where he is.

18 May 2011 08:44
Lay Anglicana said...

Caroline, 'Amen' to your last sentence!

18 May 2011 08:59
Joyce said...

I once arrived,horizontal,at A and E whereupon the ambulance lady somewhat tactlessly announced in my hearing,’She’s lost a lot of body heat,’ and promptly snatched away my blanket and walked off with it. Nobody appeared to be intending to bring another one.If I’d seen it on a TV sitcom I’d probably have laughed.It was a scary moment, however.
I agree that hospital is where you find out who your friends are. However,those who appear to be fading from sight may have their reasons.Sometimes they have troubles of their own which they wish to keep from you at your own difficult time.Illness and the aftermath of disasters can go on for ages and not everybody can stick around. Those you thought had forgotten you may well turn up after a year, or even two, just when the rest of the help has faded away.

03 November 2011 19:58

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