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    Disciplines for Freedom

    A doctor learning how to die of cancer finds guides in Simone Weil, Iris Murdoch, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Pedro Arrupe.

    By Bill Gardner

    July 5, 2024
    • Michael S Hunter

      Thank you, Bill. My heart felt lighter after reading your words. I've been struggling in my own life to love God because I've lost faith in my faith tradition, partly due to my own weakness and partly due to unresolved and perhaps unresolvable questions about its founding and the actions and beliefs of some of its founding leaders. Losing my faith has made me feel more acutely my longing for God and my fear of Him. I'm some ways, my faith made a safe box to contain Him that made Him feel fully knowable. Stepping out of that box has left me feeling vulnerable and small, only certain of His presence and the reality of His love, but of nothing else. I don't know why I feel compelled to share this with you, perhaps it's because you are being so open about your own journey; I only know that I am grateful to you for sharing your hard won wisdom and hope and want you to know that your words helped heal my soul today. God bless you and keep you!

    • Mary Taylor

      Well, Bill. This is a luscious gift of honesty and wisdom, yours and others. Perhaps because it invokes some of my dearest wisdom parents, but also because I have not looked away from death for quite some time. Sometimes my own, mostly others. Accompanying folks living their last months has been a special gift from God to me. Much like grace, it came unbidden, unearned, and seemingly accidental (but not really with a long view). Thanks for the whole of this. I have saved it, and will share some excerpts with friends of mine on the journey. What a blessing that you can write this, that you can live this. There are so many who do not and cannot. Blessing, indeed. Thank you.


    If you set out to seek freedom, then learn above all things to govern your soul and your senses, for fear that your passions and longings may lead you away from the path you should follow…. Only through discipline may a person learn to be free.

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Stations on the Road to Freedom”

    When it became clear that the radiation treatment for my throat cancer had failed, I began to lose hope. Hope collapsed in February of 2021 when a doctor told me that there were no curative treatments left and that I had “months, not years” to live. I have outlived that prognosis and another like it; still, my physicians see no prospect of a cure. My question is, “How should I live my remaining days?”

    The overall directions are clear:

    A lawyer asked him, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matt. 22:35–39)

    I thought I knew how to serve my neighbors, but as to loving God with all my heart, I hardly knew where to begin.

    My mother raised me in liberal Protestant churches, but my Christian beliefs, such as they were, barely survived adolescence. My friends scorned religion. I never disavowed faith, but I shut up about it.

    God had other plans. One warm night during the summer before my senior year of high school, I was walking down a road and singing. Suddenly, I fell onto the grass and into the stars. I have no idea how long the experience lasted, but it ended when someone found me on the ground and asked if I was OK. I replied, “Yes!” This was my first direct experience of God. I purchased a cross on a chain and wore it under my shirt.

    painting of Jesus and a cross

    Jen Norton, Jesus Accepts His Cross, 2019, Acrylic on wood. All images used by permission.

    Youth ministers inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. had catechized me in justice; I give thanks for this formation. I was arrested with a group of Quakers while demonstrating against the Vietnam War. War followed war. I read the French philosopher Simone Weil, who knew we were enslaved by unremitting, murderous force. Weil also gave me an independent witness to the presence of God.

    In 1937, I had two marvellous days at Assisi. There, alone in the little twelfth-century Romanesque chapel of Santa Maria degli Angeli, an incomparable marvel of purity where Saint Francis often used to pray, something stronger than I was compelled me for the first time in my life to go down on my knees. (Waiting for God)

    Living with cancer requires discipline. Paul directs us to “rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, persevere in prayer” (Rom. 12:12). Before my diagnosis, I rarely prayed, except during church services. Now, facing death, I wanted to know God.

    Pedro Arrupe would be my next guide. In 1938, Arrupe was a young Jesuit missionary in Yokohama, Japan, teaching school and celebrating Mass. After Pearl Harbor, Japanese police imprisoned him alone in a six-foot-square cell. Once, they interrogated him for thirty-two hours. Imagine being alone in a tiny box with no certainty of release, knowing each day might bring torture or execution. Yet when Arrupe was released, he evinced neither bitterness nor fear and returned to his Japanese parishioners. How did he get through this trial? Other Jesuits reported that Arrupe prayed for two to three hours daily throughout his demanding life. Perhaps he left solitary confinement with his sanity intact because he was never alone.

    Prayer becomes urgent when you don’t have an endless number of days. Arrupe pointed me to a discipline of individual prayer. Soon after I started cancer treatment, I read Saint Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises. I began doing the Jesuit “Examination of Conscience” prayer and the traditional monastic lectio divina reading and prayer. Meditation on scripture gave new meaning to the Eucharist. Going through a daily prayer list oriented me to the needs of others. Contemplation proved more difficult. But I had made a start.


    Daring to do what is right … valiantly grasping occasions, not cravenly doubting – freedom comes only through deeds, not through thoughts taking wing. Faint not nor fear, but go out to the storm and the action, trusting in God whose commandment you faithfully follow; freedom, exultant, will welcome your spirit with joy.

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Stations on the Road to Freedom”

    Bonhoeffer wanted action because “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17). He joined the German resistance movement against Hitler. The Nazis imprisoned him for two years and then killed him on April 9, 1945, one month before the end of the European war. He preached a sermon to his fellow inmates the morning of his execution.

    Arrupe trained as a doctor before becoming a Jesuit. After Yokohama, he worked in the Jesuit house in Hiroshima. An American atomic bomb destroyed the city on August 6, 1945. A hill shielded the Jesuit house from the direct effects of the blast. Arrupe organized a team after the shockwave swept by and went into the city to find survivors. He ran toward the fire, among the first first responders.

    Thank God, I am unlikely to receive such a heavy cross. I seem to be called to serve among fellow cancer victims. But you do not choose your cross; God offers it to you.

    Before cancer, I led a research group that asked why health care systems perform so poorly in delivering mental health care to children and their families. I lived a focused, disciplined life, and worked for the common good. Then a tumor pierced the tissue lining my throat.

    painting of Simon helping Jesus carry his cross

    Jen Norton, Simon Helps Jesus, 2019, Acrylic on wood. 

    I was deeply fortunate to have superb doctors and family and friends who rallied to me. Still, cancer and its treatments exhausted me. As I became sicker, I could not lead my group. What was life worth if I could not work? How do I serve my neighbor when I spend hours connected to pumps infusing me with chemicals?

    And I found it hard to be the object of others’ care. I was like the cancer patient whom Henri Nouwen visited, who told him, “Henri, here I am lying in bed, and I don’t even know how to think about being sick…. My life is valuable because I’ve been able to do many things for many people. And suddenly, here I am, passive, and I can’t do anything anymore” (A Spirituality of Waiting).

    Becoming a patient meant being someone to whom things happened, a dependent, a care recipient instead of a giver. As a researcher, I specified detailed multiyear plans for our studies, identifying the good we hoped to do, guided by scientific methods. I wrote papers on our findings for a global audience. Now, I spend time in small, quiet rooms, getting through the next procedure, seeing only the moment, with an audience of my wife or a nurse.

    Jesus looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them, for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she, out of her poverty, has put in all she had to live on.” (Luke 21:1–4)

    In God’s eyes, the value of our action needn’t match the magnitude of the consequences. And it’s absurd for a Christian to care about being dependent. My existence has always been entirely dependent on God’s will; why should dependence on other people matter?

    However, recognitions like that don’t automatically change anyone. To live and serve in cancer world, I had to find my two coins and put them in the treasury. I resolved that wherever I was, and every moment, I would find what I could do to serve. I could serve other patients, my friends and family, and the clinicians caring for me.

    My fellow patients are my cancer world neighbors. Some – skeletally thin, their complexions the color of freshly poured concrete – are rolled to treatments on beds. How can I help them? If nothing else, I can open a door. Or greet the family member trailing behind the bed.

    And I can serve my family and friends. Some of my visitors suffer deeply from their own woes or their grief over mine. I can give them space to tell me about their needs. As cancer writers endlessly complain, friends can be insensitive. But why should I care? I have more significant problems. Part of the work of preparing for my death is helping others prepare for my death. We need to have these conversations while we still can.

    How can I care for the clinicians caring for me? First, I can master my fear and denial, report symptoms accurately, and adhere to medication instructions. I can report what I have done, not what I aspired to do. This makes my doctors’ work easier. It signals my trust in them, my commitment to our joint effort, and my belief that they can heal me, whatever healing means in this context.

    Second, I can be courteous and grateful. If you spend a lot of time in clinics, you’ll notice entitled and rude patients. Courtesy is hard to practice when you are in pain and no one helps. Delays in care, miscommunications, and scheduling errors are system problems; my doctor or nurse didn’t cause them. My courtesy and patience will help my doctors save their energy to care for me and others. My sincere gratitude will reinforce their caring behavior and motivation. We want doctors and nurses who care, who see who we are and what we feel. Many are overworked, and everyone providing end-of-life care experiences loss. They rarely encounter patients who express concern for them.

    If every moment supplies an opportunity to serve, why am I so often blind to that? When Dante lost his way in a dark wood, the shade of Virgil found him and guided him through hell. In my own dark night, British novelist and moral philosopher Iris Murdoch came to guide me. I encountered her in her writings about Simone Weil, whom Murdoch identifies as the inspiration for her thoughts about attention.

    Murdoch writes that attention connects us to reality. That reality includes objective moral truths. Our vision is false unless we discern these truths. Our mission, then, is to improve our capacities to perceive our situations and their ethical dimensions: the web of social obligations that link us, the context provided by personal relationship histories, the diversity in how others perceive these circumstances, the injustice of many social structures, and above all, the depth of suffering around us. The complexity cannot be reduced to a rule or principle. Murdoch hopes that seeing reality correctly in all its particularity will motivate us to act correctly. To that end, we must cultivate moral vision.

    How do we see better? Weil writes, “We confer upon objects and upon persons around us all that we have of the fullness of reality when to this intellectual attention we add that attention of still higher degree which is acceptance, consent, love” (Intimations of Christianity). Murdoch writes that we should apprehend the world with a “just and loving gaze.” “Just” because we attend to others with equanimity, “loving” because attention is love. “Love is the perception of individuals. Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality” (Existentialists and Mystics).


    A change has come indeed. Your hands, so strong and active, are bound; in helplessness now you see your action is ended…. Only for one blissful moment could you draw near to touch freedom; then, that it might be perfected in glory, you gave it to God.

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Stations on the Road to Freedom”

    How do we achieve Iris Murdoch’s “extremely difficult” apprehension of the reality of others? Murdoch argued that we should practice “unselfing.” She had no program for how to do that – there’s no recipe – but she pointed to art. One of the great novelists of her time, Murdoch believed that through art we could sometimes pierce into the reality of others.

    However, citizens of cancer world do not need to be artists to be unselfed. Being a witness to the suffering of others can pull you out of yourself.

    Cancer is a horror. Tumors are pseudo-organs that compete with the rest of the body for resources; they are parasites, eating the body from within. Cancer and its treatments waste the body; during radiation I lost 20 percent of my body weight, and I had been a lean triathlete. My tumor pressed on the facial nerve near the base of my tongue, and it caused agony. Cancer patients die by suicide at twice the population rate; for people with tumors like mine, the rate is four-fold.

    painting of Jesus falling under his cross

    Jen Norton, Jesus Falls a Second Time, 2019, Acrylic on wood.

    Suffering can undermine one’s moral vision and one’s responsiveness to others. Pain distorts how one sees. For example, I misread a friend’s fatigue as indifference to my situation. Pain gives me tunnel vision; I have less ability to see the entire context, and I oversimplify. Weil called this sort of deep suffering affliction: “Affliction is the uprooting of life, a more or less protracted equivalent to death, rendered irresistibly present in the soul by impairment or the immediate apprehension of physical agony” (Waiting for God).

    Yet suffering can sometimes be redemptive. As Luther said, “God can be found only in suffering and the cross” (Heidelberg Disputation). Christ experiences everyone’s affliction; his light unveils everyone’s pain. In her affliction, Weil encountered Christ in an abbey church in northern France:

    The one whose soul remains oriented toward God while being pierced by the nail finds himself nailed to the very center of the universe. It is the true center – not in the middle – it is outside space and time; it is God. (Waiting for God)


    Come now, thou greatest of feasts on the journey to freedom eternal; death, cast aside … the walls of our souls that are blinded, so that at last we may see that which here remains hidden. Freedom, how long we have sought thee in discipline, action, and suffering; dying, we now may behold thee revealed in the Lord.

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Stations on the Road to Freedom”

    Pedro Arrupe went on to lead the Jesuit order during its participation in the movements for social justice in Latin America. His writing and activism were critical to incorporating the church’s “preferential option for the poor” into the principles of Catholic Social Teaching; he was the first to use that phrase. Then he suffered a paralyzing stroke. Unable to speak, he had an aide deliver his last address to his brothers.

    More than ever, I find myself in the hands of God. This is what I have wanted all my life from my youth. But now there is a difference; the initiative is entirely with God. It is indeed a profound spiritual experience to know and feel myself so totally in God’s hands. (Address to the Jesuit General Congregation, 1983)

    I could not understand this. How do you trust God and believe in God’s providence when you have lost your ability to speak?

    Murdoch wanted us to “unself,” and Weil sought the self’s “decreation.” But neither woman found a path to the living water. Murdoch spoke of wanting “a new Christianity which has discarded the fiction of God.” (Oh, really?) Weil had encounters with Jesus but refused baptism, choosing solidarity with most of humankind who do not belong to the church. She died at the age of thirty-four from tuberculosis, exacerbated by malnourishment, because she refused to eat more than she thought would be available to the poorest and most oppressed of her French compatriots. Her action shows integrity; nevertheless, how much more might Weil have been able to serve others had she permitted herself the community of the church? Neither woman offered me any consolation for suffering or positive motivation to pursue their austere paths. I needed another way.

    My path began with the first Beatitude of the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). Poverty of spirit affirms radical dependency, my utter dependence on God. This is more than everyday humility. We begin by repenting and never stop.  As Luther put it: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance” (First Wittenberg Thesis).

    We must revalue everything, questioning every standard: Is it ours or God’s? Poverty of spirit breaks us open; it helps if cancer has already begun the job.

    What next? The Sermon makes many challenging ethical demands, and we will make little progress without God’s grace. Recall my original problem: I could not find God’s presence. How do I receive God’s grace if God is not present for me?

    Since my diagnosis, however, I have had four years of intensive prayer discipline. It has helped. Prayer can’t compel, entice, or persuade God to appear. That’s magical thinking. Prayer is a conversation, or it should be. But if so, where has God been? Answer: God has always been in the conversation, speaking through scripture, images, others’ lives, and the voice in our hearts. If we get nothing from prayer, that’s because we don’t see or hear. If we can see or hear, we get everything.

    painting of the sealed tomb of Jesus

    Jen Norton, Jesus is Placed in the Tomb, 2019, Acrylic on wood.

    The sixth Beatitude told me how to seek God’s presence: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matt. 5:8). How can you achieve purity of heart? Søren Kierkegaard says we get there by willing one thing. To will one thing, we need a special kind of repentance that roots out all doublemindedness. Concentrating the will on one thing requires continual reflection, repentance, and revaluing to eliminate any secondary motivation.

    My failure to do that brings me back to the cold austerity of Weil and Murdoch. Is there no consolation? There is: in the face of cancer, I can achieve the freedom of the bird in the air, the bird owning nothing but the light and the wind.

    Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? (Matt. 6:25–26)

    Kierkegaard says we must take the bird as our teacher. He’s not joking. “Only by keeping silent does one encounter the moment…. Out there with the lily and the bird, you perceive that you are before God” (The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air).

    I’m in a nearly empty church, with plentiful light and silence, recovering from a small but painful argument with someone I love. I kneel before God.

    It was less the fight that troubled me than my failure of presence that enabled it. Would I have said those hurtful things if I had attended to my partner with a just and loving gaze? I was inattentive, and sin caught me by surprise; sin is looking away from the truth and failing to love. Jean-Pierre de Caussade, SJ, taught that we should always be on guard, poised at the choice to serve God or an idol. In that moment, there is a flame, either a duty to act or an experience – including suffering – given by God. This is the route to joy in prolonged chemotherapy infusions; you discern that you are surrounded by those, some visible, who care for you.

    In the church, a space opens. It’s as if a weight that I had never known was there had just fallen from my shoulders. I can stop worrying about cancer. My heart settles into love. It is like resting by a vast, quiet, deep river, where a morning breeze blows across me and an ember of spirit glows. The yoke is easy, and the burden is light.

    Bonhoeffer started with discipline, ended with death, and gained his freedom. Freedom is the ability to do what is right to do. You are entirely free if you can accept the loss of everything without bitterness or resentment. Perhaps Bonhoeffer’s long imprisonment gave him poverty of spirit, and his refusal to compromise gave him purity of heart. Perhaps he learned to give himself to God in the moment, finding the freedom of the bird of the air. Perhaps death will allow me to pass through in contemplative prayer, a final moment into which I can step, or maybe just let myself go. It’s a romantic thought. But why wait? We can attend to God in this moment, now.

    Contributed By BillGardner Bill Gardner

    Bill Gardner is a child psychologist living in Ottawa, Ontario.

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