Following King Charles’ cancer diagnosis, Claire Gilbert writes an open letter about the lessons she learned while battling the illness, and the strength she drew from the teachings of the ancient mystic, Julian of Norwich
To His Majesty King Charles
The immortal words of Julian of Norwich were stitched onto the anointing screen at your Coronation: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”.
There is nothing trite in Julian’s teaching. She wrote in the 14th century amid war, persecution, oppression, revolt and, above all, the pestilence; the plague that destroyed communities across Europe. She herself suffered illness to the point of death as well as, in all likelihood, losing close family members to the plague. No stranger to pain and fear, then. So if Julian writes that “all shall be well”, she is giving expression to a realisation made only after suffering or, more accurately, by means of it.
I was lucky enough to be diagnosed with myeloma, a cancer of the blood, before it had begun to damage my body. I felt no symptoms, but the treatment, a gruelling two-and-a-half years of it, was really hard. I was never able to control the side effects, only endure them while they lasted. Julian of Norwich became my companion and friend throughout the treatment. She taught me how to face pain. She showed me how to find a way to make the cancer a source of joy instead of bitterness.
Imagine the cancer being Christ. Now the cancer can be received as one bearing healing gifts
The method was to become porous to it. Not to push it away, fight it, deny it, condemn or accuse it. Not to condemn or accuse myself for misdemeanours that might mean I deserved it, as Julian’s contemporaries might have viewed the plague that tortured them. And not to condemn or accuse God for visiting it upon me. To become porous to my cancer, and to the horrible treatment I had to undergo, I had to actively and deliberately open my heart to it and love it.
I practiced a meditation in which I imagined my blood flowing through my body, bringing death now as well as life, and loving it, inviting Christ into the blood flow, even imagining the cancer as Christ - a thought which might shock some but worked for me, because it changed the way I felt about the cancer. Imagine the cancer being Christ. Imagine it! Now the cancer can be received as one bearing healing gifts. As one which transforms me, which will bring to birth in me hitherto unimagined possibilities. As one which will bring me closer to God.
I cultivated a porous attitude as I prepared to go to the cancer centre each week. I dressed with care, wearing bright, agreeable colours, made up my face, arranged my hair, put on earrings and a necklace. I walked with my shoulders back, my heart open and a smile on my face towards the centre, towards the tunnel of hard things that was my treatment - and the following 48 hours of nausea, vomiting and muscle spasms. The attitude transformed my experience.
To become porous to my cancer, and to the horrible treatment I had to undergo, I had to deliberately open my heart to it
I wrote in a letter to friends at the time (later published in Miles to go Before I Sleep): “I put one foot in front of the other, and enter the tunnel of hard things. And as I enter, but only when I enter, I see again all the wonderful things in there too: first, the tunnel is bathed in love, in fact it is made of love. Second, it is populated by people showing profound, often unconscious, bravery. People walking towards their healing poison with their heads held high, not faltering.
“Their supporters by their sides, embodying equal measures of courage and pep. The groups clustering round patients cheering everyone up with their jollity, greeting each other as if this were a market place or a town square. Ebullient, strong, laughing, dignified. B, a wrinkled lady of considerable age sits next to me. She is naughty and alive, and deep in her eyes I see a calmness that, as I write about it now, brings tears to my own. They are tears of discipleship.”
“Love was his meaning”, Julian writes. To be porous to the pain that is visited upon us is to receive it in love, as love. It does not do away with the pain. No quick cures. Only a deep transformation of self for which I will be grateful for to the end of my days, whenever that may be.
I pray you may also receive your cancer and its treatment with love, and be transformed.