Outside, the spring sunshine warms the stately courtyard of a London hospital. Inside, it’s cool and dark. I’m lying in an air-conditioned room inside an MRI scanner which is using a strong magnetic field and radio waves to generate images of my brain.
The scanner sounds like a discordant orchestra as its magnetic waves penetrate deep inside my head, creating the images that will show doctors whether my brain is healing, or whether there is any fresh damage after the stem-cell transplant I had last winter, in the hope of halting the progression of my multiple sclerosis (MS).
It feels miraculous that the radiologist will be able to see and interpret what’s happening inside the tightly packed hills and valleys of my brain, even if not down to the level of the millions of neurons, dendrites and axons that chatter ceaselessly in chemical communion when the brain is working well.
Mine isn’t. Over the past quarter of a century, MS has nibbled away surreptitiously at my brain and central nervous system, finally potholing the once smooth superhighways of nerves that should carry the messages that spark movement and sensation throughout my body, and slowing the transmission to an agonisingly stuttering pace.
Yet what the doctors can’t see is what has really been happening inside me: inside my head, my heart and my soul. They can’t spot the seeds of doubt that have been sown as to the whereabouts of God in all this, or the questions that have grown and flourished like weeds in those metaphorical potholes over the past years, even before my diagnosis of MS in 2015.
In the years that I covered war and conflict for the BBC, sometimes seeing small children or pregnant women bloodied or torn to pieces by bombs or bullets, I’d often wonder how a merciful God could allow such carnage and human suffering.
Now, like many others with a chronic illness, I’ve had more time to contemplate those mysteries as my flesh grows weaker and I am able to work less and wonder more. Does illness weaken or even obliterate everyone’s faith, or can it strengthen it too, and perhaps even allow it to grow in new ways?
Over the past weeks, I’ve been able to explore those questions with others living with chronic illness for a radio programme called Heart and Soul on the BBC World Service. Those we spoke to for the episode “Faith and Healing” face many similar challenges as they continue to live, love and work despite illnesses that can dramatically change lives and futures in an instant.
One of our interviewees, Andrew McDonald, is a fellow Catholic. He was a senior civil servant in charge of Ipsa, the regulator for MPs’ expenses, pay and pensions. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2007, and then, in 2010, with incurable prostate cancer. He’s now the chairman of Scope, the disability charity, and also campaigns for the NHS to communicate more effectively with patients.
Within a week of the first diagnosis, he went from feeling fit and well “to thinking my world had fallen apart”. Yet, he says, what was completely overwhelming with both of his illnesses was that he began to experience the love of family and friends in a quite new way.
But did these two terrible diagnoses affect his faith? “I’ve always found faith difficult. It’s been a struggle against unbelief,” Andrew admits with a smile. “That may be one reason why Graham Greene is my favourite author. But in terms of the impact of the illnesses, they haven’t had any negative impact on my faith or weakened it. This might be because I have never believed in a God who is a global puppeteer, fixing the details of one’s daily life. My ability to cope with what have been two devastating impacts has been enhanced by having a faith. I can’t imagine having come through the last ten and a bit years without a Christian framework to try and make some sense of it. Nor has it made me angry. I don’t often quote Donald Rumsfeld, but ‘stuff happens’. So why shouldn’t it happen to me?”
In many ways, Andrew believes, his life has been richer than it was before. He says he has acquired a much greater openness and a much greater sense of obligation to help others who are going through similar experiences.
I wondered how other religions manage to reconcile illness, belief and doubt. During Passover, I was invited to a family Seder with my friend Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, the senior rabbi of Reform Judaism. She has lived with chronic fatigue syndrome for many years. It worsened during a week in which she had to respond as a rabbi to five deaths, two of them of friends. Yet, Rabbi Laura tells me, her faith has not been shaken by having to deal with her illness, even though it has led to many difficult periods as a rabbi, a wife and a mother dealing with exhaustion.
“From the point of view of having a belief in a divine, a cause, a good, I do,” she says. “What has happened – in a deep, emotional, tearful, cataclysmic, good way – to make me feel more belief in some form of good and creation, is that people have come into my life when I’ve been sick or when I’ve experienced times of stress. And what has happened in our friendships, in our relationships, have been divine moments and that really has strengthened it.”
I’m not grateful to be ill. But I am grateful to have been given the chance to explore these questions more fully, and to meditate on the profound mysteries of faith, and how and whether we can reconcile illness, suffering and death with the idea of a loving and compassionate God.
I don’t know where my new and rather more uncertain path in life will take me. But there is one blessing, along with a renewed appreciation of the love of family and friends. There is now more time to contemplate the numinous, whether in poetry or in prayer, and to ponder that long human history of faith – and doubt – in something that transcends ourselves.
Caroline Wyatt is a BBC journalist and presenter
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