Personal, universal urgency in Advent

This story appears in the Advent feature series. View the full series.

During Advent 2015, I was midway through chemotherapy for recurrent ovarian cancer and shared the journey in a Global Sisters Report series called "Inter-Mission." The liturgical season helped me move from fear to hope. It's Advent again, and I am experiencing treatment for another cancer recurrence, the second of this calendar year. Now strains of prophetic urgency move me.

Last spring I began to experience visual symptoms. Little glimmering zippers of light appeared in my visual fields. Living with the specter of cancer for nine years but reassured that ovarian cancer rarely metastasizes to the brain, I did my best to ignore my little lights, but thankfully my oncologist took them very seriously.

My summer plans changed quickly. Almost before I knew what was happening, I was scheduled for surgery to remove a single tumor from the back of my brain and subsequent, focused radiation treatment to clean up any residual in the area. I sailed through these procedures and had just begun the "new normal" of life and ministry when out of the blue a regular follow-up MRI in November showed three more brain lesions that jolted me back into treatment.

The end-time themes of the Scriptures for the last weeks of the liturgical year coincided with my personal experience of knowing "neither the day nor the hour." Early Advent sounds the same notes of being ready, staying alert, paying attention to signs of the breakthrough of God.

No peaceful waiting or gentle night yet. The vigil of these weeks is tinged with impatience. "Rend the heavens and come down, O God!" I cried with Isaiah on the first Sunday of Advent. I feel irritation of soul as I wrangle with insurance companies, sit in waiting rooms and wonder when phone calls will be returned from doctors' offices.

I am suddenly aware of the shortening of cancer-free intervals. What still needs to be done in my life? The immediate response to the news of recurrent cancer was that I don't have time for this disruption of my plans. How do I make plans? Dare I buy plane tickets? These frenzied thoughts crowd my mind like Black Friday shoppers outside a store at 5 a.m. The sight of a 2018 calendar causes consternation. To what can I commit?

The prophet Isaiah comes to my rescue again with the reminder of God's awesome deeds in my life, "awesome deeds we could not hope for." Almost 10 years of remission after a diagnosis of stage-four ovarian cancer is in the awesome category. I seek the grace to be clay in the hands of the Potter and to trust in the work of God's hands. The second reading of the day reinforced the urge to trust that I will not be "lacking in any spiritual gift" and God will keep me "firm to the end" for "God is faithful."

Because the cancer involves my brain now, I feel a different kind of urgency. How do I "stay awake"? How do I keep watch if my vision becomes dim or vanishes altogether? My impending treatment includes an amazing technology that allows 200 gamma rays to be precisely focused on tumors that have developed in the right side of my brain.

I am awake and alert for the procedure. There is no pain and no anesthesia while a computer delivers the treatment under the direction of my physicians. I am amazed at the availability of this therapy and grateful that I can access it.

And yet I wonder if I will be able to write, to speak, to see after the treatment. Even more, I wonder if this will eventually impact my ability to think, to process, to vision. Twenty-four hours before the procedure, I feel an urgency to write words that burn within me … just in case! I indulge in this worst-case-scenario thinking for a little while.

Then I decide that I must jump ahead in Advent, and I summon John the Baptist and Mary of the Magnificat to make the pathways straight, to level the mountains and raise the valleys, and to turn the established order on its head.

These voices give volume to my own inner prophet. They assure me that it's okay to be urgent in Advent. There is no time like the present for God to draw near, to break through in our lives, to speak truth to power and to find a dwelling place with the most marginalized. No patient people these! Me neither.

What conveys more urgency than the O Antiphons we sing as Advent draws to a close? O come, O Wisdom! O come, O Leader of the house of Israel! O come, O Root of Jesse's stem! O come, O Key of David! O come, O Radiant Dawn! O come King of all nations! O come, Emmanuel, God with us! O come! Do not delay!

I can hardly wait to get to Dec. 17 when the church all over the world takes up these ancient urgent antiphons. But our Advent is just underway. It is the briefest possible season this year since we celebrate the Fourth Sunday on Dec. 24. For this reason, perhaps, it is only proper that I feel a greater urgency in Advent this year. Come and do not delay! Be God-with-us again!

[Janet Gildea is a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati. A retired family physician, she is Liaison for Women Religious for the Diocese of El Paso and directs women in initial formation for the Sisters of Charity. She serves with her sisters at Proyecto Santo Niño, a day program for children with special needs in Anapra, Mexico. She lives in La Union, New Mexico, at the Sisters of Charity house of initial formation where she is director of affiliates.]