I look back on my twenty-five years as a priest as very happy years. I would never change them. I've had wonderful experiences. I went to Peru for five months as a missionary and then went to the mountains at Lake Titicaca. I went to Curacao and Machu Picchu.
I am now stationed at a large, Hispanic parish in San Francisco. My story of cancer started about three and a half years ago when I was diagnosed with a melanoma on my back. I had an operation and it was removed. The doctors said they'd gotten everything and there probably wouldn't be any more problems. But three years later it came back, which was extremely shocking. I've always believed that when you get rid of something, it's gone.
The first sign of the recurrence was that my left side became paralyzed. I thought I'd had a stroke. I could hardly walk and couldn't use my hand. I held off seeing a doctor because my twenty-fifth anniversary in the priesthood was coming up, which was an important event. I couldn't make it. My condition just kept getting worse and worse. My speech was getting slurred. I went to see my regular doctor who did a test and said, No, you didn't have a stroke. You probably have something far more serious.
I had a brain scan, and the doctor scheduled surgery to remove a tumor from my brain. The surgeon gave me some time. He said there was no rush and that I should have my party, and he gave me some very powerful steroid pills to reduce the brain swelling.
I walked out of the hospital and down the street to a Catholic church that had a statue of St. Jude, a patron saint of the apostles. I went in to pray to him. I planned on being very impassive about this whole thing. I said, I'm not praying for health. Whatever God wants is no problem.
The day before I went in for my operation, I had my twenty-five years ordained party. It was a huge mass, with tons of people, choirs and dancers. At the end of mass, I asked for people's prayers. I went into the hospital full of confidence.
The tumor was large, the size of a silver dollar. The neurosurgeon was quite confident that the tumor was encapsulated (confined to one area, not spreading throughout the body), so for the second time I thought, Well, that's it. I'm finished. I don't have to worry. I can go back to work and forget it.
But later, I had another problem. The surgeon explained that it could be either a recurrence or a residual bit of tumor they just didn't get out. I had a small amount of radiation and, so far, everything has been fine.
In the midst of all this, between seeing doctors and feeling very confused, I read a very helpful book, Choices in Healing by Michael Lerner. His basic premise is that you have to call up your own healing powers, which seems obvious, but it was totally new to me because I had never been sick. Soon after, I met with Mr. Lerner, who recommended a book by Lawrence LeShan, Cancer As A Turning Point. This happened to be the right book, at the right place, at the right time. There were a couple of stories in there that were just dynamite. Reading it was a turning point for me.
Lerner said the question isn't, What's wrong with you? Instead the more appropriate questions are: What would be truly healing for you in your life at this point? Short term and long term what would, be right for you? What is it in your life that you like? Who are you? How can you help yourself to do more of what you find truly fulfilling? And how can we help you to keep doing that.
The will to live, I believe, has to do with finding the place in your heart where you are, where you live, and realizing that you have not yet accomplished all you wanted. It is awakened by looking through a new set of eyes at what you have been doing and getting a new perspective on your life. For me, it involved not denying the past but realizing I had to deepen what I'd done and start to get back on track with my goals.
After the radiation, I went back to the church near the hospital and prayed again. This time I said, I want to live. I have a couple of projects and I want to do them.
This time I didn't say, Whatever God wants is no problem. It's not that I do not believe in God's will anymore. I still do very much, and it's very important. Whatever God wants, obviously, is the bottom line. But to me, the heart of life is not us discovering the will of God. It's God asking us, so that our will can become aligned with the will of God.
I said to God, If you ask me what I want, I have a plan and here's my will. If it's Yours too, okay. If it isn't, okay. But here's me.
I laid it out very clearly what I wanted in my heart. And I felt a jump. I felt that I was heard. It was a moment of recognition. I felt it was going to be up to me. If this is what I want, it is going to be up to me to get it. This isn't a dress rehearsal. We're not here to just sort of see what other people need. We're here to do things, and if God has given some insights, then we need to realize them. Otherwise when we die He can say, You didn't do what I wanted you to do.
I prayed, first of all, to be able to complete a collection of stories I started writing fifteen years ago. I've written short stories all my life - just quick, unpolished things - but I had never put them together. I even used to write down conversations at somebody's house, or a phrase or a word. I have one enormous file called Exactly that is filled with stuff that I heard and that made me think, That's exactly right. I would write down what ever it was and put it into the Exactly file. A lot of my stories came out of that file.
While I was recovering from the brain surgery, I finally got the stories all typed up, bought a word processor and did some correcting. I was very happy writing them.
The other part of my prayer was to say, Here's what I really want for the parish: to tighten it and give it a vision.
My parish is in the middle of the Mission District and is a very, very busy place. We have a congregation of over two thousand people and the number of religious services is extremely high. Apart from the masses, we have six to seven hundred baptisms a year and a huge number of weddings. We have ninety people a night sleep in a shelter, several youth groups, a clinic with doctors and dentists, a theater group, a religious school with over five hundred children, and an after-school program for about four hundred children not going to Catholic schools. It's a massive project in terms of administering a million-dollar-a-year budget. None of us was trained for such a task, so, needless to say, there are a lot of pressures.
I now have to pursue my vision and let the chips fall where they may. I try to make as many changes as I can to alleviate some of the pressure. I don't have time to please everybody, which is what I think I tried to do before.
There are some things I've always wanted to do with the parish in terms of hiring different people, giving it a new direction, and bringing the social and religious, the social and spiritual, together. I think I have now deepened the direction of both.
I wanted to bring in more Spanish culture through music, plays, and socio-dramas using liturgy for teaching moments with theater. We started celebrating the feast days in the same way our parishioners celebrated them at home, so they wouldn't feel lost or like strangers. It gave them more of an ownership of the parish. We painted a big mural-which won awards-on a church wall, so that when people walked by they could stand up straighter with pride rather than feeling beaten down. Since the cancer and since my moment of recognition, I think I have deepened my understanding of these projects.
I had another experience, another moment of recognition, in the middle of this whole thing.
I always lived very fearfully. I guess that goes back at least as far as the seminary. There were so many rules and so much fear. That was just part of my life. Life and death were so frightening. When I first got this thing, this cancer, I was so frightened. I remember going into a restaurant and physically feeling my heels digging into the carpet under the table in fear.
Then, just before another operation, something happened. I can't explain it, but my fear just lifted, and I thought, Whatever is to be.The fear left me. There wasn't anything to be worried about or frightened about.
Someone once said, Worry is interest paid on money you'll never see. I understand that now. This is life, this is death, and I'm very much part of it. Whatever is to be.
All my life I've handled problems by working harder and more. In that sense, my life hasn't changed much because of my illness, but everything has been greatly clarified. I think I'm coping with things the same way I always have, but some insights have become a little sharper, and I've cut out a lot of the nonsense of life.
When I got sick again and it was suggested I get my affairs in order, I thought of not going back to the parish. But I decided it was no use sitting around, worrying about what might happen. I decided to find a path that has a heart, and that path for me is back in church, working with people, and directing my parish.
I have learned so much about God and about prayer and my spiritual life. I've had much more time to pray.
I now feel like I'm beginning to be able to competently guide people. Sometimes I wonder what I said before, because I don't think I knew anything then. Whatever I knew was probably very superficial. Maybe it was out of a book, and maybe it was right. I hope to God it was. But now, I'm very conscious that guidance has to come, somehow, from within. If it doesn't come from the heart, it doesn't work. Now I really know what I'm saying, and I mean it.
I always considered myself a very hopeful, optimistic person. But there was a time when I used the word exasperated a lot. That word came to my lips quite often when the tumor was growing. When I thought of what was happening to me, I used to sigh. I never felt so exasperated. That's when I fell apart.
But now, I've been re-reading a lot of books I've enjoyed over the years and have felt physically and mentally better. I read Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear again, and they kind of pick me up, give me some new ideas, and help me get back up and on the trail again. I've been seeing people I haven't seen in a long, long time. I've been enjoying each day. Each day really is a miracle. People say that, and you hear it, but it's not until you experience it for yourself that you know it's true.
Looking back, I'm so happy that I had the opportunity to look at myself, to stop and see what I wanted to do in terms of this little part of me, this little inner part. I feel like I'm in a good place in my life, and I feel this is a great time to say I have a vision about what I want to do with the parish. And I'm going to do it.
Before I knew how serious my illness was, I was planning to take a trip after my twenty-five year anniversary, perhaps back to Peru or Ireland, or maybe to Italy, whose beautiful churches I have never seen.
But what I realize is that, since my party and my operation, I had a much more wonderful year with far more extraordinary experiences than any vacation could bring.
Now when I think of having missed going to Peru or Ireland, I just laugh. I would have gone, come back, people would have asked how was it. I would have said wonderful and it would have been over. Two months later I would have forgotten I had gone.
Now I say, I've had one of the best years of my life. And I really mean it.