In a special preview of this weekend’s Moyers & Company, poet Christian Wiman reads an excerpt from an essay he wrote for the Winter/Spring issue of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin about living with cancer, finding faith and being sustained by family.
You wrote this essay in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin for the Winter/Spring of 2012. And you describe this pain and this experience. Would you read that?
Sure. "Six years have passed since I wrote the first words of these notes. I have been in and out of treatment, in and out of the hospital. I have had bones die, joints lock in my face and arms and legs, so that I could not eat, could not walk. Cancer packed my marrow to the point that it began to expand excruciatingly inside my bones. I filled my body with mouse antibodies, small molecules, chemotherapies eating into me like animate acids. I have passed through pain I could never have imagined, pain that seemed to incinerate all my thoughts of God and leave me sitting there in the ashes, alone.
"I have been islanded even from my wife, though her love was constant, as was mine. I have come back, for now, even hungrier for God, for Christ, for all the difficult bliss of this life I have been given. But there is great wariness, too, and fear and fury."
What sustained you through all that?
Oh, I think my family sustained me through it. And I think that faith does sustain me. We have those solitary experiences of the divine, but that's not religion, religion is everything after those moments of solitude. One thing that sustained me is not those solitary moments, which I found conducive to despair. What sustained me was the company of other people who believe. And I was able to talk to them and to take comfort from them. And Dietrich Bonheoffer says that Christ is always stronger in our brother's heart than in our own. Now you don't have to be a Christian for that, to understand what that means.
You've got to have other people. And you need other people to sustain yourself and to sustain your faith.