I am with you always.
There was a very real sense in which breast cancer was not something that was just happening to me. It was happening to everyone in my life. But there was also a very real sense in which it was only happening to me. No one else was going through exactly what I was going through. Our suffering is always uniquely ours.
I was the one who was facing surgery. I was the one who had to show up at all the appointments with doctors. I was the one who had to keep paying attention to this threat. I was the one who was experiencing this the most directly. No one else was fully in this with me.
This felt lonely at times.
I think that the most lonely thing of all was not being able to fully share the emotional and spiritual experiences I was going through with people close to me. What I was experiencing was never simple. It was always complex, multi-layered, textured. If I tried to explain one aspect of my experience to my friends, they would hear what I was saying, but it felt like a loss to me that I was not able to also put into words the five other things that were going on at the same time.
And when I started to share the spiritual gifts that graced my days—the sense of God’s tender presence, the moments of clarity when it felt I had stepped into heaven on earth—I couldn’t speak. Words failed me.
Besides, here were my friends worrying about me—and here I was—experiencing not only fear and distress but moments of joy and blessedness. I was afraid they would not be able to see what I longed to show them because of their concerns for me and because I had no way to even sketch the edges of these holy moments.
There were times, however, of holding hands with my husband across a table at a restaurant and sharing an experience or reflection from the day, when he would listen attentively and his eyes would brim with tears of deep knowing and understanding. Those moments were moments of oneness, of union, of quiet joy. He heard me with an open heart and understood. Such moments made me treasure him even more deeply. And such moments helped me feel less alone.
There were also times of sharing with women who were breast cancer survivors that involved a spirit-to-spirit connection. One woman in particular who is the wife of one of my husband’s colleagues, but whom I had only met once, emailed me briefly about her own experience. She had recently gone through surgery and chemotherapy for breast cancer. Part of what she put words to was the deep spiritual experience she had. I knew she knew. She gave voice to some of what seemed beyond words to me at the time.
Difficult life experiences have a way of creating a deeper sacred space within us, a greater opening in our spirits to receive the most remarkable truth of all: we are not alone. We have never been alone. God is always with us.
The bare fact of this truth was not new for me. I had experienced this as I walked through the healing of childhood sexual abuse years earlier. It was a painful and lonely journey. I had the support and love of others throughout this entire journey. I could not have done it without them, but they could not enter the darkest of places inside. They could not feel the full weight of my shame, my fear or my despair.
But there is One who could. God’s Spirit was with me. As Comforter. As Friend. As Healer. As the Presence of tender, intimate love.
When I was early in the journey of recovery from childhood abuse, the wounded child in me wanted nothing to do with the thought that God was with me when I was experiencing abuse. This thought created complete confusion for me. How was it possible, for God to have been there with me and to not have stopped what was happening? My child’s mind shuttered at this thought.
It took a long time for me to be ready to invite God to show me how God was with me in that darkness, but I was eventually able to do this. The first vision I had after inviting God to open my eyes was a vision of a room in which I was being abused as a child. The abuse was taking place. I had seen this event before many times. But this time the room was transformed. It was filled with light, God’s own light and the light of angels too many for my young mind to count. I was stunned, breathless.
Several weeks later I saw another vision. Again I was being hurt in a room in this same house. And, again, I had visited this scene several times. When I invited God to show me how God was present at that time, I saw Jesus kneeling on one knee next to where I was on the floor. But some little kid part of me was also wrapped in Jesus’ arms. Jesus’ jaw was tight with distress, his presence was strong and tender. A part of me was held. In the middle of the worst kind of suffering, I was held. I was loved.
Over several years, memory after memory of abuse came. And vision after vision of Jesus with me, loving me, holding me, came as well. The horror and the powerful, tender love. I thought that in those terrible times I had been forgotten, abandoned. But I was never alone.
Somehow God was not only with me but my pain and suffering were somehow God’s own pain and suffering. God suffers all things with us. God shares all sorrow and all joy with us. So when I poured my heart out to God about all that I was feeling and experiencing, I came to understand that God knew. In fact, God knew more than I knew about the depths of my suffering—long before I was able to acknowledge it.
Revisiting the pain of childhood abuse is a painful process, but the gains and gifts that came to me are beyond measure. I know now that deep in the heart of our suffering, in the darkest and most painful corners of memory, God is at work. Long before we are able to begin the healing journey, God has been at work preparing the way for us. God is with each of us. Absolutely. Always. And God fully knows with complete empathy and compassion what we are experiencing, even those experiences that are beyond words.
Some mornings when I am out walking I look up at the sky and it seems far away. On other days I realize that the sky kisses the earth. As I walk, I move through sky. I walk surrounded by sky. I breath in the sky. It lives inside of me.
Whether the sky seems close or far away, the truth is that it is always close.
And, so it is with God. God is the One in whom we “live and breathe and have our being” (Acts 17:28). God is with us. Always. God’s loving presence caresses us, surrounds us, fills us.
I am not alone. You are not alone. God is with us. And God knows. You can trust this absolutely.
When you don’t know what to do…know you are not alone.
Questions for reflection and discussion
1 What experiences have you had of feeling alone during difficult times?
2. What has helped you feel less alone?
3. What experiences have you had of God’s presence with you?