A New Look at Spirituality
Why Me, God?
These were the sort of feelings and questions that whirled through Candace Henley’s head 11 years ago, when she was diagnosed with stage IIB colorectal cancer. Unbearable pain had brought the 35-year-old single mother of five to an emergency room near her home in Chicago. The last thing on her mind was colorectal cancer. But before she could fully grasp what was happening, she was admitted to the hospital and, the next day, surgeons removed 95 percent of her colon.
As she went into surgery, Henley says, she recalled a verse from Genesis 50:20: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (New International Version
). In the years that ensued, she says she would rely on this verse time and again as “everything fell apart. I lost my house and my car. We were homeless and I was still fighting cancer. … I would cry every day and ask God why am I being punished. And there was no answer.”
Henley says she recalls being asked to speak to a chaplain following her surgery, but she turned down the offer. “I didn’t want to speak to anyone,” she says. “I couldn’t talk without crying. I was emotional. I was a wreck. I was depressed. People would tell me this was my path, and I was like, ‘Seriously, can’t God use me in any other way but this?’ ”
Henley’s spiritual crisis was directly tied to her religion. But a person doesn’t have to be religious to have a spiritual experience, says Jason Mann, who, after 30 years as a practicing oncologist, decided to become a chaplain.
“When I go to see a patient,” says Mann, who lives in Portland, Ore., “I will say, ‘What do you believe in?’ It could be family, it could be artwork, it could be beauty. All of those are manifestations of that person’s spirituality.” A spiritual experience can occur when a person is practicing religion, Mann says, but it can happen outside of religion, too. “A spiritual experience can happen at any time when you are moved.”
Reflecting on this difference, Piderman says of her work as a chaplain: “We provide religious care, prayer, anointing and other rituals. But our work is dealing with meaning, worry, anxiety and anger—within the context of spirituality. Our role is to help people connect to what has been meaningful in the past, what has given them hope in the past, and what can help them feel hopeful today.”
Piderman recalls a cancer patient she saw some years ago. “The first time I saw her,” says Piderman, “she told me she was not religious. When I went to see her a second time, she was in bed and said she felt wrinkled. I straightened her bedclothes and asked if that was better. She said, ‘No.’ Then I asked if she wanted a drink. She said, ‘Yes.’ Again, I asked if she felt better. And she said, ‘No—the wrinkles are on the inside.’ ”
Then, Piderman continues, “she spoke to me about a spiritual struggle related to guilt. And after that, this nonreligious person asked me to sing Amazing Grace. She told me that gave her peace.” Shortly thereafter, says Piderman, the woman died.
For other patients, religion can be at the heart of their spiritual crisis. Pamela Randall, the chaplain of Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University in Atlanta, has spent time with many such patients. One woman, she says, “was a teacher. She had been very independent and she was also a woman of faith. She talked to me a lot about how much she loved her job and her church and how she was feeling separate from God” because her cancer diagnosis kept her from doing the work she loved. Over the next two and a half years, Randall says, as she and the patient continued to meet and talk, she saw her “[begin] to get that connection back.” During that time she was living with cancer, she also “suffered many losses, and we would talk about that and how to hold on to God” during such difficult times.