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Finding Faith in Foundation

by Aileen BurkeSurvivor, MelanomaMarch 28, 2022View more posts from Aileen Burke

I was at a birthday party in Rochester, New York when a woman I had just connected with started asking Muggle Questions. Normally, Muggle Questions run the same gamut after I so much as reveal the finer details of my health history: how did you find the mole? (It was smack mid-line in the center of my chin). What was treatment like for you? How have you had to adjust your life post-treatment? The list goes on. I understand how scary it can be for people to ask those questions, so for those who are brave enough to try, I attempt to make whatever answer I give as compelling and human as possible. Amid a fit of giggles after one funny answer to her question, this woman gleefully and simply asked, “Was your faith significant to you? You know, in your coping?”

I had to ask myself. Was it? I had spent over a year at this point dissecting the difference between words like “faith” and “spirituality” in graduate school. As a social work student, you learn one of the most imperative questions you can ask an individual in an intake is about their faith. If someone ascribes to a faith tradition, there is a more significant chance of that person having access to a supportive community with some extra resources to share with whoever is in need.

But in my own challenges, I never stopped to consider what might have been the largest influence in my ability to cope. I knew that faith and spirituality had both played their part, but to what extent I was truly unsure at that moment.

It took me a second to wrap my head around the levity of the question that this woman posed, let alone develop any sort of salient answer. I was raised Irish Catholic, which means I was just raised plain old Roman Catholic but somehow feel more guilty for my behavior than everyone else does in civilization. I say sorry like it’s my full-time job. I knew faith had played some role in how I approached my experience with Cancer. My Great Aunt sent me prayer cards, and my grandmother would pray the rosary on scan days, and she still does.

After considering this, I told the woman questioning me, “Sure!”

My faith definitely played a role in the approach I took with my family after being diagnosed. I did not realize that my faith in myself and my choice to believe in something at all is what led me to that point in my life. Being diagnosed with Stage III Melanoma was a test for me and my immediate family, but it was a test that challenged me to see what I could handle as a result. Not knowing what my body was going to be capable of was a test. Not knowing if I was going to be able to keep going with school and work and acting and the things and people that brought me joy was all going to be a test. One that I couldn’t really study for before taking. Of course, thinking about it now, I should have been a lot more anxious about it all, but I did have faith that the people around me were going to do their best to make sure that we all made it out through to the other side: together.

Everyone had immediate faith in my providers; that they were going to be able to have trust in their own personal level of expertise and make choices that were right for me when I was truly the most vulnerable that I had ever been in my life. The providers, in turn, had faith that we were going to be consistent and attentive to what we had to do in order to hold up our end of the bargain. Faith is what gave me the strength to drive back and forth to see the providers from two states away, once a month, for over a year in undergrad.

And in the Bible, the doctrine of Catholicism, all great tests require an element of faith. In God, sure. But these individuals who had faith in their God had covert faith in themselves and what they chose to believe in and follow, to the point of what was sometimes an ultimate sacrifice. I’m thinking of Abraham sacrificing his kid on the top of a mountain. BRAVO TV can only dream of attaining that level of drama, but nevertheless.

The idea of religion and spirituality is something that I have wrestled with for a very long time in my life. How am I supposed to trust a person who took a vow of poverty, but also drinks wine out of a ruby-encrusted cup? People who tell me to forgive the murderer and the criminal, but hate my queer neighbors? There were so many feelings of conflict inside of me that I never really knew where to put them all. I had neglected to address any of them really, until I was diagnosed and the rug was ripped out from underneath me. I had to choose to put it back, as neatly as I possibly could, but I was not sure how. This was around the time that my best friend in Albany started their journey towards being confirmed in the Catholic faith tradition.

One of the most exciting moments of my time in Upstate New York was realizing that this friend trusted me enough to want me to be their Confirmation sponsor with them. We hadn’t shied away from having tough conversations about faith, politics, you know – all of the dinner conversations you are instructed to avoid from a young age. It was around this time that as a result, I started going to mass with them as weekly as I possibly could. The church we decided to attend was across the street from our favorite ice cream place, so we would attend at 7 p.m. on Sunday evenings, then go to Emack and Bolio’s and debrief with a milkshake.

Sitting in that church, with a priest who delivered homilies that were more like conversations, helped me realize that a great deal of what I consider to be my faith comes from being able to sit and reflect in silence. I have to permit myself to take time to consider these guidelines, these rules that have helped coach me to this point in my life and decide to test myself by electing to move forward with whatever it is I would like to accomplish or change. The voice that pushes me to test myself is God, or maybe God pushing what I have come to label my “wishful self,” into moving towards one direction or another.

The most significant test is that of trusting yourself. My faith and spirituality help me to design how my trust in myself manifests. There is no right or wrong way to come to approach that test on your own. Part of this has been leaning into both my faith and my spirituality, as these are two very different things. An individual can be both spiritual and faithful; both faith and spirituality are referred to as types of a journey since they both can and should evolve over time.

My faith has ebbed and flowed from when I was young. My perspective changed as a result of my experience with Melanoma. I’m sure, both fortunately and unfortunately, that my journey with my faith will be something that I am challenged with moving forward. Cancer, nonetheless, has cemented the faith that I have within myself; where I have been and where I am going in my life. I hope that I always continue to trust in myself and my decision making, even when my faith in other aspects of my life might be shaken.

This article was featured in the 2022 March Faith and Spirituality issue of Elephants and Tea Magazine! Click here to read our magazine issues.

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