Everyday, we get the big news mostly via the internet nowadays. If they are not for mere entertainment to saturate our senses, or simply catch our reading attention, they are phenomenal as the quakes in Haiti or Chile, or the gory skirmishes between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria costing hundreds of lives already. On the planetary scale, the quake in Chile for example was said to have shortened our daytime by millionths of a second, and that what caused the disappearance of dinosaurs billions of years ago was the total, hellish darkness that covered the Earth brought by a fallen 15-kilometer asteroid. Right in the Asian neighborhood, there’s the saber-rattling North Korea, threatening South Korea and the United States of its nuclear muscle and challenging global nuke disarmament policies. The news could get overwhelming.
But lest i forget that underneath those macro-stories, there are untold, silent stories of suffering at homes or in hospitals. I am talking about those who are ill, the bedridden, people in pain due to chronic diseases like cancer or diabetes, people who as we speak just emptied the last content of their purse while struggling to read their doctor’s prescriptions. People, patiently or impatiently, lining up to get their reimbursement from PhilHealth. People thinking of supplementing the little amount they have for medicines via an SSS or GSIS loan. People now almost sleepless for thinking of their mounting hospital bills to pay. People who traverse between the nurses’ station and the hospital chapel with heavy hearts and feet – crestfallen, more pensive than usual, easily swayed into silence by the lingering voice of a counsel, or toll of the chapel bells. People who, in the most distressful times of their lives are learning to pay attention to the paradox of suffering, mostly a silencing one, and the wings of prayer that hide behind it. And they soar often beyond their awareness, more so beyond the distracted awareness of the occupied among us who bet on career or entertainment or political success as the final arbiters of our lives. On the wings of prayer, they silently soar, getting to know the Face of the Wounded One their spirits have been yearning to reach out to. Paradoxically, in the face of un-asked suffering.
Let me share to you one peculiar encounter i had with a cancer patient and his family back when i worked as a lay hospital chaplain. This story is recorded in the manuscript i compiled and gave the title A Dialogue With Being: Prayers and Reflections from the Bedside and Beyond. Years had passed since then and it makes me ask whether the patient has been cancer-free by now or otherwise.
By his name, i intuit that his region of origin must be Southeast Asia. The last time i saw him, he was in intense pain and he could not utter a single English word, perhaps, not even a medical word. He was a doctor. It was too painful for him to speak. They didn’t need to see a chaplain; they even wondered about the word “chaplain”. I did not stay when they told me it was not a good time to drop by. Neither did i bother explaining what a chaplain does. I wanted them to know that a chaplain can also take “no” as an answer.
The other day, i dropped by and saw his face lightening up. A different woman caregiver was with him this time. They had the same question about what a chaplain is and i gave a fuzzy equation: chaplain=priest=minister; they understood minister. Then the patient asked in staggered English what church do i work for. I said Catholic. At first they claimed they were Protestants, then Presbyterians. My reply interests the woman saying that Catholics impressed her. She recalled how the huge cathedrals in France, Italy, and Spain stupefied her and her husband the patient. They were impressive with them. I realized it was time for another fuzzy equation: Catholics=Cathedrals. How fuzzy things really connect us to one another: cathedrals connect us with each other. Wow!
It must have been the womb-like interior of those cathedrals that helped her access to her motherhood.
“We have a 3-week old baby,” she said. “But it’s so sad I cannot have time for him, my mother takes care of him now,” she continued. “Im confused why after seven years of waiting, God gave us this baby. Maybe if he wasborn 3 years ago, things are easy. I don’t really know what’s God’s plan for us … but someday I’ll understand God’s intention,” she said this with an air of exhaustion.
“How is this baby for you?’ I asked.
“He makes him smile. Maybe God gave us this baby for him to fight back his cancer … it motivates him i think,” she replied skeptically.
“Are you happy with the baby?” I asked again.
“I’m tired … 2 days after my delivery, I was back to the hospital. I have to take care of him, too. I was just very tired … but now after 3 weeks I feel better. But I’m concern about our baby. I have no time for him.”
While we conversed around their baby and the baby’s hard-to-pronounce name, the patient gently closed his eyes. It seems the word “baby” was a mantra to him. He was falling asleep this time. For this family caught in the “38th Parallel” of fighting and surrendering, of celebration and constraint, of maternal instinct and spousal benevolence, sleep and stillness could also be their best defense and offense.
The 38th Parallel was the original boundary between the Soviet and American occupation zones in Korea established after the surrender of Japan in 1945. In 1948, the dividing line became the boundary between the newly independent countries of communist-ruled North Korea and democratic South Korea.