“I wish none of this had happened.”
I was watching The Lord of the Rings with my husband, when these words, spoken by a hobbit named Frodo, sent chills down my spine. They were the same words I had uttered so many times after my breast cancer diagnosis six years ago.
Now, with the last week of June approaching, a week of notable martyrs’ memorials — foremost among them Irenaeus (June 28), Peter and Paul (June 29) and the First Martyrs of Rome (June 30) — the words remind me of the millions of people crushed by suffering, whether from illness, war, poverty or the agonies of old age.
J.R.R. Tolkien, the author
of The Lord of the Rings, was a
devout Catholic. That’s why his work shimmers with Christian imagery. Bradley
J. Birzer, in J.R.R.
Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, suggests that Frodo’s
endurance in carrying the ring through Mordor and on
The cross stands for the terrible things in our lives that we’d like to wish away. That may be a marriage crumbling, a child dying or a disease striking.
Bad things routinely happen to good people. Accepting God’s will means smiling through your tears at the doctor’s office. It means crawling out of bed on the morning after your mother’s funeral and somehow getting through the day.
After my cancer diagnosis, my eyes were so full of tears that I truly understood the meaning of seeing life “darkly.” For a long time, I was obsessed with the cross I was hauling around. It seemed bigger than everybody else’s. And then, one day, I dried my tears, looked around and saw evidence of the cross everywhere. I saw it mirrored in the eyes of a young mother paralyzed after a car accident. I glimpsed its imprint on the aching back of an elderly friend and in the tears of a woman whose husband had jilted her.
It took me a long time to finally see the truth: No one, no matter how beautiful, rich or powerful, escapes suffering.
Can the cross be a gift? Somehow, that suggestion seems almost unspeakable in a world where we do everything we can to avoid suffering. Still, it seems that acceptance of the cross may work mysterious changes in our souls. Frodo, for example, loses his innocent, happy-go-lucky attitude — but, in the process, grows a bigger heart.
Do I wish the cancer had never come? Yes. But I also realize the cross has changed my life forever. The endless compassion of family and friends has revealed God’s hand in every corner of my life. And I’m learning, little by little, that whenever we surrender to God’s plan, there is one gift we can always expect: the grace to endure whatever cross may come next.
Finding Hope When You Have Breast Cancer (Ave Maria Press, 2003).