12 November 2015

14 November 1995, or Jesus, the stroke victim

Saturday the 14th, for me, is one of those dates that represent life-changing events.  (Nothing too dramatic here!)  Twenty years ago, I had brain surgery to remove a malignant tumor.  That followed the absence seizure two days earlier which led to the diagnosis.  (Twenty years ago today.)

This anniversary is especially meaningful, since I recently used the story of my experience of cancer as part of a coaching process.  And it was quite an experience.

After surgery, I was put on anti-seizure medication—which I still take.  For a few weeks, I had a special treat: taking a steroid to prevent swelling of the brain.  As we know, steroids have interesting side-effects.  One of them is stimulation of the appetite.  Before the surgery, I had always been skinny (and even scrawny)!  I was at 160 pounds.  Afterwards, packing away a voluminous amount of calories, I bulked up to 200 pounds, which for a 6’4” man, is about normal.  (Here are the “before” and “after” photos I posted a few years ago.  That's Banu
sitting next to me.)

But the emotional effects were even more interesting.  I’m a pretty even-tempered person, but steroidal influence can be a bit noteworthy.  I’ll just mention one incident.

At our seminary, the top three floors of the main building had apartments and dorm rooms.  Banu and I lived on the top floor.  She and a couple of our friends were downstairs in the lobby, putting up Christmas decorations.  I was in the apartment, watching an episode of Star Trek (I don’t remember which series!).  The phone rang, and I was requested to come down and hang up an ornament.

While descending the staircase, a feeling of anger began to swell over me.  How dare they interrupt my watching Star Trek!  I found that they had a ladder poised under the spot which was destined for the decoration.  “Why did they call for me?” I thought.  “Any of them could have just as easily used the ladder!”  They knew I was upset; I was giving them the silent treatment.

It wasn’t long before I knew I was out of line.  I went back and apologized for my steroid-induced behavior.  One of our friends blew it off.  She said, “Now you know how PMS feels.”  If it took getting my head cut open to only minutely identify with the woes of women, so be it!

Actually, my whole experience of cancer has helped me to better empathize with those who have mental and physical problems, those who are compulsive and forgetful.  I won’t overstate the case, since I have some problems of my own!

I want to finish this post with an icon that is familiar to many.  It is Christ Pantocrator, an icon at St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai.  It dates back to the sixth century.  Often noted are the two sides of the face, representing the divine and human natures of Christ.  Some also say that they represent the masculine and feminine natures of the Christ.  (Noting that the man Jesus also exhibited “masculine” and “feminine” qualities in his personality.)

Bringing this to the main reason for this blog post, I have noticed something about the right side of the face (from the viewer’s standpoint).  Considering its long history, there’s no way I’m the only one to see this.  That side of the face seems to have an illness or infirmed condition.  I see it as the result of a stroke.  One of my names for this icon is “Jesus, the Stroke Victim”!  To me, that suggests a genuine identification with the sick.  We can see that in the gospels.  Jesus dares to touch those who are ritually unclean—even physically unclean. 

My puny empathy with the ill is but a faint shadow of that displayed by Jesus Christ.  How ironic—or appropriate—that the Pantocrator (Greek for “Almighty”) is demonstrated by one who reflects and embodies sickness and weakness.

04 November 2015


A couple of weeks ago, I commented on how St. Gregory the Great’s Book of Pastoral Rule begins.  (Something about the care of souls being “the art of arts.”)  That silver-tongued fellow does something just as artistic at the end of his opus:

“Alas, I am like a poor painter who tries to paint the ideal man.  [Again], I am trying to point others to the shore of perfection, as I am tossed back and forth by the waves of sin.  But in the shipwreck of this life, I beg you to sustain me with the plank of your prayers, so that your merit-filled hands might lift me up, since my own weight causes me to sink.”

He refers to his own failings “in the shipwreck of this life.”  As I read that, a song that has received plenty of airplay on alt-rock stations came to mind.  Florence and the Machines’ “Ship to Wreck” deals with self-destructive tendencies—something that our friend Gregory might also ponder.  “Did I drink too much?  Am I losing touch?  Did I build this ship to wreck?”  (Who knows how much of that stuff Gregory would identify with?) 

In recent months, I’ve been working through issues that might be considered “shipwrecks.”  Sometimes what appear to be dreamboats reveal themselves as shipwrecks!  It’s fascinating how much stuff can be jettisoned when your ship is taking on water.