Writing as a Spiritual Path Through Cancer
Writing often has been seen as a form of healing as people explore and express challenges in life. But as cancer survivor and author Sharon A. Bray explains, writing can also be a spiritual practice, providing strength and comfort in even the most difficult and painful times.
Like so many Americans, I’ve become a lapsed church-goer over the years, discovering a different kind of meditation and prayer to sustain my daily life: my writing practice, a ritual that begins in the early morning, before the outside world intervenes to pull me into its noisy demands.
I open a notebook I’ve written in for years, the leather cover engraved with Celtic knots, and I turn to a fresh blank page, one inviting me into quiet exploration of daily life. I pick up my pen and begin. My first words are often no more than a posed question: “What did you notice?” But it is enough.
Writing has become my prayer, a door that opens to the landscape of my soul. It is also my practice, helping others to express and explore their lives through writing—particularly those affected by cancer. It is humbling work, and for the many years I’ve been doing it, I also realize how deeply spiritual it is for me, and—in witnessing others’ lives—for others.
As Thomas Merton said, “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”
Faith and spirituality can improve the quality of life among many cancer patients and is frequently written about in books, articles, and blogs. Whatever your religious or spiritual beliefs may be, faith and spirituality can provide strength and comfort in a difficult and painful chapter of life.
A diagnosis of cancer is nothing anyone chooses. It can feel like a death sentence, and it may challenge your faith. But cancer also offers a chance to deepen self-understanding and compassion, an opportunity to define what is essential and important in life, a reminder to pay attention to and appreciate the ordinary gifts of each day.
Cancer forces us to pay attention, to really pay attention, to what matters in our lives. So many times, when I ask members in my writing groups what sustains them during the long months of surgery, treatment, and recovery, I will hear the words, “My faith grew, and I prayed a lot.”
While faith and spirituality are related, they’re not synonymous. Yet, whatever your beliefs may be, your faith or your spiritual life can provide an important source of strength and comfort. Stephen Levine, best known for his work in death and dying, and quoted from a 1989 interview with The Sun, said, “As part of our wholeness, we need our woundedness. It seems written into spirituality that there’s a dark side to which we must expose ourselves.”
Cancer plunges us into that dark night of the soul. And while it may challenge our faith, it also offers the chance to explore what is truly essential—and soul nurturing—in our lives. Meditation and prayer are a way to explore one’s faith or spirituality. Writing also offers a way into the deepest realms of our being.
When we write from our lives, we must have the courage to take a deep dive into our inner lives. “Tell the truth,” Maxine Hong Kingston tells her war veterans as they meet to write their stories of battle. Writing, whether of cancer, war, or other momentous events in our lives, cracks us open. We embark on a deeply spiritual journey. It’s why so many established writers will tell you, “writing is a courageous act.”
Has your faith been challenged in the experience of cancer or other suffering? What has sustained you in times of illness, hardship, or struggle? Perhaps you have embarked on a spiritual journey you never imagined could be possible as a result of cancer. Where have you found your solace, your strength?