May 3, 2013

Be Our Guest / Fr. Noah Casey

Thoughts After Midnight: Reflections of a cancer patient

Thoughts after Midnight. … This might be a chapter in a book, or maybe a book in itself.

But these thoughts have emerged over a period of three months since I was diagnosed with rectal cancer on Jan. 18. There began a series of treatments of chemotherapy and radiation. Surgery is expected in June.

A curious thing happens when one is taking serious medications and going through treatments like radiation. One aspect that develops is a reorganization of time.

Nights and days change places, and the Liturgy of the Hours becomes more of an anchor than ever before.

When I worked as a chaplain in the summer of 1979 in Ben Taub Hospital, the general hospital for Houston, Texas, I had a similar experience occasionally working in the emergency trauma center. The only window I recall was in the glass doors at the entrance.

However, they were so filled with grime and dirt that there was never much daylight. I recall thinking then that pain doesn’t care.

Pain comes during the day and/or night, in the darkness or the light. It sneaks into the human experience at any time it pleases. The emergency room at the hospital was a microcosm of hurting humanity.

The staff persons were extraordinary. Dedicated and professional, they worked tirelessly. Even we chaplains would get caught up in the frenzy of activity, and lose all sense of chronological time.

Frequently, I recall thinking at the rare quiet moment, “I wonder what time it is?”

My cousin, Father Pat Beidelman, teases me that I am forbidden to do or say certain things any time after midnight while on pain medication.

For example, I am not allowed to watch C-SPAN, where one might find congressional activity as it were. If that doesn’t depress you, nothing will.

I’m also forbidden to watch any interview show having to do with politics, except perhaps for Charlie Rose, but then I’m not sure I’ve confessed that yet! (The unique qualities about Charlie Rose are that when asking a guest a question, Charlie actually allows the guest to answer. Secondly, no one is shouting at another. Very refreshing.)

I’m only allowed to read or watch lighthearted things, like reruns of “The Golden Girls.” They make me laugh. Laughter during pain is important.

I’m also forbidden to fire off e-mails in response to perceived stupidity. Like the night when I was experiencing discomfort, and unhappily read an article in a newspaper from another state that seemed to criticize Pope Francis’ lack of skill in speaking English.

That really got up my Irish, and I fired off an e-mail to that paper simply noting that the Holy Father speaks the most important language—the language of the heart—and judging by the response he receives daily, many if not all seem to understand perfectly!

The next day, writing e-mails was placed on the “Not To Do After Midnight While On Pain Killers” list. Alas.

I’m getting down to crossword puzzles, lighthearted novels and “The Golden Girls,” and the occasional soccer match which is always on sometime during the night watch.

And then there’s prayer. Prayer is not only allowed but encouraged. Prayer is what makes pain more than just a dreaded experience.

With prayer, pain becomes an intersection of discomfort and hope, a narrowly focused reality and a broader vision. Pain, as tempting as it may be at times, is not the end, but an intersection where human beings and God meet, exchange, abide in silence and love.

Prayer isn’t intended to be a quick fix for pain, but rather pain’s partner. Prayer reminds the person experiencing pain that there is more to come.

Maybe it will be more pain. Perhaps it will be comfort. Always there will be God, whose Son became pain’s partner, and revealed to us the paschal mystery that, like a Roman piazza at “Pronzo” time, continues to offer in the midst of chaos, the prospect of food and a little siesta.

It reminds me of one of my favorite Scripture passages from Isaiah: “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quiet and trust shall be your strength” (Is 30:15).

(Father Noah Casey is rector of SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis. Further updates are available on under the title “Fr. Noah Casey.” He recently authored a book titled From Death to Life: Walking With Christ Through the Easter Season.)

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