Cricket Cooper: The midweek healing service

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It was one thing to lead the Wednesday healing service, quite another to do so while undergoing treatment for cancer, when her own illness was on full display, an Episcopal priest writes in this excerpt from her new book.

Editor’s note: In her new book, “Chemo Pilgrim: An 18-Week Journey of Healing and Holiness,” the Rev. Cricket Cooper shares her experience undergoing treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. In this excerpt, she writes about leading the weekly healing service on August 20, 2012, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in Burlington, Vermont, while receiving chemotherapy through a portable infusion pump.

Chemo Pilgrim

Wednesday of that week, I was scheduled to celebrate the Healing Service at the cathedral. The folks who came to this service were beautifully broken and open-hearted, and I had seen through the year how they supported one another, and offered themselves to one another as well as to visitors and total strangers. They were risk-takers for love, and being with them was deeply healing and inspirational.

And yet, I found myself in a tailspin trying to figure out what to do with the Satchel. It seemed to me a little tacky (the great Episcopal sin) to simply sling the messenger bag [of chemotherapy drugs] on over my alb, stole, body mic, and chasuble, as if I’d vested for worship and then was planning on a little shopping afterward. I had choices about wearing it underneath one layer, or all of my layers, but even swathed in large expanses of white cotton and gloriously embroidered silk, the pack pooched out in a freaky, Quasimodo-like way. While my good folks waited in their seats for the service to start, I was hiding in the vesting room, nervously adjusting the wig, and trying to hang the bag on my body so I didn’t yank the IV cord from my chest and didn’t have a bizarre bulge appearing from under my robes.

It’s funny how we judge ourselves. Nobody was going to care whether my robes hung symmetrically or not. Why was I whipping myself up into such a tizzy? In my heart I know it is always so hard to expose myself, my own softness. It was one thing for me to pray for healing in the midst of these folks, to lay my hands on them and pray from my heart for light, and grace, and love. It had taken me to a place of frightening intimacy and vulnerability to admit that I had cancer and needed their prayers, and then take my own turn sitting in the central chair at these services, while they laid their hands on me and prayed with wisdom and tenderness. Now my illness was on full display, and the only person who was incapable of looking at my woundedness was me.

In a note to Max, my therapist, the next day, this is how I described it:

I was celebrating the Healing Service at the cathedral on Wednesday, and feeling mighty self-conscious about having that whirring chemo pack strapped on over my flowing robes and stole and chasuble … so before I started the service, I came out and said, “As most of you know, I’m in the middle of chemotherapy, and this week they’ve changed my routine a bit, so I have to wear this pack all week. I hope it won’t be too distracting --”

As if rehearsed, a guy in the front row pulled up his t-shirt and said, “Hey, I have an implanted insulin pump!” Across the aisle, another guy pulled up the leg of his shorts and said, “I’ve got a bladder bag strapped to my leg!” A woman behind him yanked down her top to show us her heart valve scar. It happened so fast, and they were all beaming like first-graders at show-and-tell.

There was a beat of silence, and we all dissolved into roars of laughter. It does seem that the things we are most afraid of, which seem like they separate us from others, are precisely the things that bring us closer together. We just laughed and laughed at all of our appendages and wounds. By the end we had tears rolling down our cheeks at being such fragile, funny animals.

Please, call me by my true names.

What is hardest is sitting with our fear, before we break. After the breaking, we have space for blessing and goodness to fill us, and heal us.

Copyright 2017 by Cricket Cooper. Reprinted with permission of Church Publishing Inc.