The Times (08/02/2014), 'Challenging Sickness', by Roderick Strange.
Born in a nursing home in 1945, I have never spent a night in hospital in my life. I am not wishing to tempt fate or offer a hostage to fortune. I am merely acknowledging the fact of the extraordinary good health I have enjoyed so far throughout my life. I recognize, therefore, that I have no qualifications to speak of ill-health from my own experience. As a priest, I have been a chaplain in hospitals and for almost twenty years, when I had different responsibilities, it was my good fortune to spend a week with sick pilgrims in Lourdes. But that is very different from the personal experience of significant ill-health.
This coming Tuesday is the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. Visitors to the shrine, detached observers, can often be critical of what they find there, but those who go to help, working amongst those who are unwell and trying to assist them, find very often that they return again and again. They discover for themselves the old truth that, when you seek to be of use to those who are sick or have disabilities, you receive far more than you give. That is not meant glibly. It is one thing to go and help for a week each year, quite another to be a constant carer of someone who needs care constantly. That very distinction raises the question about how we face sickness. Sickness is challenging, but it needs to be challenged as well.
One aid to exploring that question has been offered recently in The Pink Ribbon Path, a small book, put together by Mary Ussher. Mary was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009. From that time she kept a journal that traced the stages along the way: ‘the fear when out of the blue there was a diagnosis of breast cancer; the hope that medical treatment would be effective; the new and different fears that followed treatment; then, the slow evolution of spiritual flourishing, come what may.’ Through these stages and through these emotions, she adds, ‘I found myself growing “downwards”, towards my inner, true self.’ It may not be so for everyone, but here is her experience, recorded with power and immediacy.
The book is composed of personal reflections and transcribed prayers or words that she found inspiring. Within the whirl of new information about scans, bloods, and markers, infusions and side effects, including the dread of hair loss, she discovered something that she noted was too easily overlooked, ‘the force within us with its wonderful message: we can be ill, yet whole’. ‘During this time,’ she observes, ‘the Pink Ribbon Path slowly emerged, a spiritual path enabling rediscovery of inner strength and thus of undivided wholeness.’ And she adds that she hopes the book ‘will speak equally to those women whose breast cancer has returned’.
A strong Christian faith undergirds this book, but it need not be only for the committed believer. Those for whom religion means little or nothing, may yet find a way to approach these reflections and benefit from them, if they can see wisdom in John Updike’s words, also included, that ‘it is truth long known that some secrets are hidden from health’.
Nor indeed need it be only for women with breast cancer, or only for women. My friend, Philippe Taupin, died last September after battling cancer with determined courage for many years. He used to observe with dark laconic humour, ‘Everyone has cancer. It’s just that some of us know about it.’
And cancers, of course, are not only physical. They can affect the mind and the spirit. There are ways of thinking, bereft of generosity and compassion, that rot the mind and ways of living, narcissistic and self-absorbed, that squeeze the spirit dry. These conditions are a sickness that wounds us and they need treatment too. Breaking free of habits that damage and distort can be frightening. It seems safer to stay in denial.
But this pink ribbon path can help us face our fears, come what may, and embrace the treatment we need, whatever kind of cancer afflicts us. As Mary Ussher declares, it ‘is the path of the heart where the cry of the heart is heard’, leading us to that true self-knowledge where wholeness is to be found.
Monsignor Roderick Strange is the Rector of the Pontifical Beda College, Rome.
The Good Book Stall Review:
This is an incredible small book that can only be a blessing for those women who face the journey of dealing with breast cancer and its treatment. This book does not deal with the medical condition at all. It contains extracts from the author's own prayer book and journal along with inspiring and thoughtful prayers, contemplations and inspirations from many different sources that may help the reader focus for a moment on whole person healing. What is also lovely about this book is the active meditations it contains, some from Laurence Freeman OSB, and even better these are available in audio format from the Columba website - essential perhaps for those days when treatment takes a real toll. A worthy book for those facing a time of great turmoil and a journey that they can see through to the other side.
Melanie Carroll (04/11/13)
The Irish Catholic Review, 'Prayers for the Path':
This supportive book of prayers and medications was created from Mary Ussher’s own experience of treatment, from diagnosis onward. This is a path that many others have and will walk with her. It is truly a via dolorosa. The aim of this book, however, “seeks to help women find peace. It is a path for life, inviting a woman to feel rooted in God who is love”. Mary Ussher has in this pain put her own pain to a good cause. It is supported by an audio download available from the publisher’s site. But though aimed primarily at a specific readership, with its scriptural extracts and its developed ideas on the process and purpose of Christian meditation, many others will also find it of immense interest and personal benefit. This makes her book perhaps a book for all readers, whatever their state of health. All the author’s royalties are being donated to the World Community for Christian mediation.
Peter Costello (31/10/13)
Scans of Reviews
Galway Independent, 'Following Her Path', Click here.
Connacht Tribune, 'An Inspirational Gift for Someone Going Through Cancer Treatment', click here.
Faith and Freedom (Spring/Summer, 2014, Vol. 67. No.1), 'Mind Over Margins', review by Sue Norton: click here.
The Furrow (April 2014, Vol. 65, No.4), review by Helen Burke, click here.
Amazon.com Review, 'Multum in Parvo':
This book is a pocket-sized dynamo. It has to be, because its task is in inverse proportion to its size. Mary Ussher takes you gently and powerfully by the hand down each stage of the Pink Ribbon Path - the 'path of the heart', as she refers to it (which should give some indication that this is a book of the spirit and the soul). In this work, it really is heart speaking to heart and, that being so, it is as suitable for men as for women.
The range of materials quoted from is considerable - from the psalms, Karl Rahner, Thich Nhat Hanh, Fr John Sullivan...to the author's own reflections and prayers. And therein lies much of the power of this book, because the author's own pilgrim journey is conveyed with raw honesty, because these are personal experiences, every word hewn in passage down that Pink Ribbon Path.
Illness can isolate, can seem to reduce you to the afflicted body part. This book stands as a powerful antidote to that thinking. In its wholeness it makes the reader whole, binding him/her into the community of spirit and soul it effortlessly brings into life. The light shines in through the crack created by illness, illuminating the path, lifting you up and carrying you over and beyond the most difficult parts.
The Pink Ribbon Path contains not just powerful readings; it also has an audio dimension, particularly wonderful for solitary moments of reflection or when reading, for whatever reason, is difficult or needs to be supplemented. There are the texts of meditations by Laurence Freeman OSB, and also Loving Mind-Body Awareness texts read wonderfully respectively by Laurence Freeman himself and by Sue Norton - the audio version can be accessed for free on the Columba Press website, columba.ie.To quote from the author: 'I know Lord/if I live/this moment/and the next/and the next/with you/I can cope'.
Amazon.com Review, 'This book is a Gem'
This book is amazing. It is of value to both men and women whatever their state of health. It can be read and re read and each time it inspires deeper meaning. I have never read anything like it ever. Read it, cherish it and buy it for your friends.
Malachi J. McKenna (18/12/13)