Inter-Mission: Moving from fear to hope during Advent

This story appears in the Inter-Mission feature series. View the full series.

At the halfway mark of my chemotherapy treatment course I find myself in the middle of Advent. I have a lot of time on my hands during this December which is so busy for most people. My mind is going but my body is not. I think about the Advent theme of waiting. My body is waiting . . . for the next chemo, for the treatment to do what it is supposed to do, for the after-effects to be gone. My mind is waiting . . . for test results, for clarity about what this inter-mission means in the larger context of my life. My spirit is waiting . . . for a return of energy, for enlightenment, for a resurgence of hope.

I think about two different ways that I wait. The first is to wait in fear. It is easy to go to the dark side while waiting in these December Advent days. Short on light and long on cold, the early morning hours are most prone to anxious waiting. Will I be able to have the next treatment on time? What if this cold turns into pneumonia because my immune system is suppressed? I have so many things I need to do but the most I can manage is eating and sleeping! Fear bordering on panic.

The second option is to wait in hope. The Advent readings from Isaiah break through with promise, expectation and restoration. "Lo, the days are coming! The rough ways will be smoothed! Death will be destroyed forever and all tears will be wiped away!" In my days of dehydration when I go to the infusion center for extra IV fluids, I hear the words "The afflicted and the needy seek water in vain; their tongues are parched with thirst. I, the LORD, will answer them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them. I will open up rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the broad valleys." (Isaiah 41:17-18) I will wait in hope!

My most faithful companion during this time of waiting is Our Lady of Guadalupe. I think it is no coincidence that her feast day falls on December 12, midway through Advent. This year, however, she found me even before the season started. Within the week before Advent I received no less than three "visitations" from La Guadalupana.

Among the many cards that came to offer cheer, comfort and promises of prayers was a particular note from Becky, a friend of my family in Indiana. She explained that she had heard me speak at an alumni event for my high school a few years ago and recently learned of the recurrence of my cancer and that I was undergoing treatment again. Becky shared that she had suffered the loss of her daughter in January of 2014 and as a part of the grieving process she had made a pilgrimage to the basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. "We gave our Maria to Our Lady," she said, "and I pray to her always. Now you are included in those prayers." She enclosed a prayer card of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

A few days later Jacquie, a friend and Associate member of our congregation, sent me a card. Jacquie has also experienced cancer and we have shared the challenges of living beyond it, including the dreaded "scanxiety" that arises before each follow-up exam. In her card was the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe that she bought for me at the basilica when she and her husband visited the shrine last fall.

The very next day, as if I needed an extra push, my friend Fr. Bill, who is on sabbatical, texted me a photo from his temporary office in Philadelphia. "Hey, look what I just found hidden under some books on a shelf!" he wrote, holding up two posters of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

That was enough to send me running for my favorite translation of her appearances to Juan Diego in 1531. The ears of my heart needed to hear her message as my own:

Listen, put it into your heart, my youngest-and-dearest son, that the thing that frightened you, the thing that afflicted you is nothing. Do not let it disturb you. Do not fear this sickness nor any other sickness, nor any sharp and hurtful thing. Am I not here, I, who am your mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not the source of your joy? Are you not in the hollow of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms? Do you need something more? (Translation from University of California, San Diego, 118-119)

Do I need something more to help me move from fear to hope in my Advent waiting? Mary as she revealed herself in Guadalupe understands the fear in my waiting. The image on Juan Diego's tilma is a pregnant Mary. What I am realizing at this point in my Advent of cancer treatment is that waiting in fear is natural. Mary's "Let it be done to me according to your word!" must have been followed by some fearful moments after the angel left her. Mary surely waited with some fear and trepidation for Joseph's response to her pregnancy. And what mother does not fear for her life and the life of her child as she waits while laboring to give birth?

But as she did with Juan Diego, Mary summons out my hope with her tender words, her total confidence that I, too, can surrender my fear and allow the Mighty One to do great things in me. My grace-full visitor draws me forward this Advent. She stays with me, as the beautiful Mother, while I wait in joyful hope for the Christ to come and set me free.

[Janet Gildea, SC, has been a contributor to Global Sisters Report, writing on immigration and other topics from the U.S.-Mexico border. Janet began chemotherapy for recurrent ovarian cancer on October 6, 2015, an experience that she will be sharing in GSR over the next several months. Readers are also welcome to visit her blog, "Each Day Counts" at Access her Inter-Mission columns on GSR here.]

Advent wreath with Guadalupana prayer cards. (Janet Gildea)
Advent wreath with Guadalupana prayer cards. (Janet Gildea)