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The Teaching Creche

PAX News God Reveals, You Decide

Facing Cancer, Finding Christ , A Lenten Gift III

Posted by Anthony Coticelli on

Third in a series

I was seated alone in a Japanese restaurant. The waiter brought out my main course. I had ordered sushi, or so I thought. He placed a flat white dinner plate in front of me. My meal was an oval-shaped, slightly red, translucent aspic concoction. I looked at it. I noticed there were several black specks inside the aspic. I thought they might be ground pepper or another spice. They began to grow in length until they were the size of a bold hyphen. Then, they started worming their way toward the surface of the aspic. I cut the aspic in half to get a better look at them. One popped out of the aspic and fell onto the table. I swatted it. Another, now more like a centipede, made it to the table and darted away with the speed of a sci-fi parasite. Another emerged to the surface. It resembled a miniature Godzilla monster. I smiled. Godzilla is my favorite movie monster. It turned to me and hissed a vapor.

“Get out of here you little runt,” I laughed, “or I’ll give you the back of my hand and send you flying across the room.”
He turned and jumped to the table. I watched him disappear behind the desert menu, displayed on the far end of the table. A third and a forth worm slid out of the aspic and slithered in the same direction as the Godzilla. I got up. I wanted to find the waiter. I took one step, heard a hiss, then stopped. Behind the menu on the table sat three green, mature horned lizards, in profile, staring in no particular direction, each lying flopped atop part of the other. Standing over them was the Godzilla, now a larger dark green, darker that the lizards. He was pudgy. He stared at me. He had two slits for eyes and an insidious, devouring smirk.
I woke up. It was half past 6:a.m. or so. I made a mental note; you are allowed 1/3 cup of pistachio nuts a day. Maybe you should eat them before 10:00 p.m. Whatever. But that smirk. I fought all day to dismiss it from memory.
In praying the Hours this morning, I was moved by the sentence, “Give us time for an amendment of life.” Adversities like cancer can be an unmerited luxury. But Lent always presents that luxury; amend my life, pass from suffering to joy, self-deny so others may live. When is the right time to amend? Scripture cries out! “Now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation.”
Later in the prayer regimen I read, “I must do the works of Him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
The wormy aspic, the lizards, the smirk are neurological metaphors for my cancer. They are also demonic acts of terror, illustrative of what may or may not be going on in my body, spiritual snares of the devil. He wants me, all of us, to despair of our creature-ness, become overwhelmed by the shortcomings and pitfalls of our physical being. There are hidden things crawling inside us. They listen to me, he hisses. I got the message, on all levels. But there is another image that vied for my attention this morning, one that I must cling to while it is still day.
In tandem with the smirking demon, I dreamed a dream that has recurred since my diagnosis. I am among dozens of my former students. Sometimes, we are in a classroom. Other times, we are meeting more informally. When we gather, there is always light. Either we are outside on a warm spring day or inside a classroom washed a white fluorescence. The overarching thread that runs through this recurring dream, this choreographed images born from a burst of bundled synapses? I experience an incredible sense of joy and purpose, of belonging and fitness. These images are drawn from a life I lived thirty-five years ago, when I taught religion in Catholic High School.
Over the past few years, I have been able to convey this joy to some of my former students through social media, over the phone and face to face. I have told them, repeatedly, “Many of us, your teachers, we not that much older than you. You have no idea how much we were learning from you.” Even as I write these words, I swell up like a water balloon. I have to turn off the spigot before I burst. The years spent with those innumerable young people gave me the most compelling look at the dim image in the mirror, prefiguring what lies ahead for all of us who believe and trust in Christ and His Mercy. It is a nano-particle taste of the Joy He promised. It exists beyond the suffering and unaffected by the smirk.
After praying the Hours this morning, these images have been coursing through my mind like a silent river. I can only decant in summary, well, “Wow.”

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