My Facebook feed this morning shows me a video of the Archbishop of Canterbury talking to Jeremy Vine about where God is when people suffer. I don’t claim to have anywhere near his wisdom, and it has taken eighteen months for me to have anything to say about God and my experience of cancer, but here are my thoughts.

I didn’t ask ‘why me?’, or if I did that question quickly turned into ‘why not me?’ Why shouldn’t I have cancer when it happens to so many of us? Why shouldn’t I have cancer when so many people are facing deep suffering and anguish? The news at the time was all about refugees making arduous journeys through hostile countries towards no guarantee of safety. I thought of a Syrian mother cradling her children in an overcrowded boat in the dark of the night, surrounded by cold dangerous water and I knew that I had the easier burden to carry. Someone asked me to contribute to a blog series on God and suffering but I honestly didn’t feel I was suffering, and I didn’t know what I could say about God. I was so very grateful for the people who prayed for me, because I had no words to pray for myself.

Mavis Staples kept me company. I played her One True Vine album over and over and particularly the first song, Holy Ghost. ‘Some holy ghost keeps me hanging on; I feel the hands but I don’t see anyone.’ I hoped God was there, but God was silent and God was outside of my line of vision.

In Palestine for the half marathon just before Easter this year, long after my treatment was over, we visited the Garden of Gethsemane. Next to centuries-old olive trees there is a beautiful spacious church with alabaster windows, dark and unfussy. This garden is likely the place where Jesus went just before he was crucified, where he asked his friends to keep watch with him as he walked a little further away and prayed on his own. They fell asleep while he faced his darkest hour. I sat in the quiet and cool of the church, savouring a few moments of peace in a busy day of sight-seeing.  A thought came into my head and brought tears to my eyes: ‘I kept watch with you’.

A couple of weeks ago I went to Wales on a silent retreat for the weekend. My original plan was to think about the future, but when I realised that the dates coincided with the anniversary of my surgery I thought I would probably end up reflecting on this last year. Even though I have just written a book about it, I sensed there was more thinking to be done. On the Saturday morning I sat in the chapel and thought about that phrase ‘I kept watch with you.’ After a while I started writing:

When you saw your body had changed and you ignored it for a while
When you found a lump in your breast and your mind worked overtime
When your GP said it was nothing to worry about and you relaxed a little
I kept watch with you

The words poured out on the page, tracing the events of the last eighteen months.

As the chemotherapy bit harder each time
As your nails turned black and crumbled, showing just how deep the poison was going
When your joints were so painful you couldn’t sleep
When your walk slowed to a shuffle
I kept watch with you

As you ran to each of your treatments and rewrote the story
As you followed your instinct to get there on your own terms
As you set yourself a goal and rose to the challenge
I kept watch with you

On and on, I wrote, pages and pages in my journal with a constant refrain

When you got home from hospital and were hit by deep grief for your strong body
When you sobbed and sobbed and felt you had lost everything
As Jonny held you and told you it would be all right
I kept watch with you

All the way through treatment and out the other side.

As you struggled to get back into work and you never knew it would be this hard
When you felt lost and afraid
When you were overwhelmed with grief
When you felt you should be coping better
I kept watch with you

 As you practiced self-compassion
As you gradually ran further
As you slowly got yourself back
I kept watch with you

And I also thought this. Keeping watch is no small thing. It was not an endnote or an afterthought. It was a constant and disciplined attention. God did not rescue me because I didn’t need rescuing. But God did keep watch. Some people hear God in difficult times; some people are comforted by God; some people draw closer to God through suffering. I didn’t experience any of that, but God kept watch and that is enough for me.

13 thoughts on “Keeping watch

  1. What a way to begin my day. And a deep need to be reminded myself that God is always there.

    So grateful our paths have crossed in this life and hope they do again,

  2. Its good to know that you regognised the kind of relationship that you now have with your spiritual farther. He knows that you are an independent women . Just walking with you and being a silent presence and keeping an eye on you was all you needed him to do. So know you know that he has always been with you and always will be .
    I’m sure I speak for all those that love you and was on your cancer journey, is that we kept watch with him over you too. You will never be allowed ne. You see that now xx

  3. Beautifully inspirational. It is one thing yo speak from a place of victory… it is quite another to hear the voice from within the yet unended battle! What a triumph of Grace you are. Thank yo guys or penning these words. God bless you.

  4. I love this lady’s words about how God kept watch over her.
    I believe god does keep watch over us – even in our darkest hours.
    I know and feel his presence when I feel low sometimes and I pray for answers to problems I may have.
    All I know is, that I cannot live without him.

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