Just over five years ago, aged 58, I suddenly, after a lifetime of being in pretty good health, mysteriously and suddenly collapsed; I was rushed to hospital where after a week's tests I discovered there was a small, dark 'shadow' in my small intestines. They didn't know what it was, but they did know it shouldn't be there, so they advised an operation. The morning after a five hour and extremely dangerous operation - as it proved to be - I woke to find the surgeon informing me that he had removed two malignant sarcomas (a very rare form of cancer effectively), one the size of a grapefruit, the other the size of an avocado; the latter pressed against an artery and threatened to split it. Which would have meant instant death. So much for ‘small’.
Unfortunately, the operation wasn't successful and two weeks later I had another five-hour operation and by this time some 30% of my small intestines had been removed: that's about 6-7 feet of internal tubing. Then they waited, for my system to kick in and work, which it didn't. So I went on to Nil by Mouth for nearly 5 weeks. For those who don't know Nil by Mouth it means that I couldn't eat or drink anything; all nutrition came, belatedly, via an IV Drip. Personally, I found the hunger easy to deal with, but the thirst - the unending desire to drink water, the dryness of the throat - is a torture almost beyond bearing. And I say belatedly because they took a while to realise that I needed the drip, and so I was wasting away. I read in America that 40% of cancer patients die of malnutrition, and I lost about 4.5 stone in that period, and looked like somebody from Auschwitz or Belsen. Indeed, I looked like somebody who was soon to die.
I should say at this point that my parents were atheists, and I was myself, but I had become a Christian in my mid-twenties, and a Quaker when I was about 50. And by the time I was taken ill had no previous experience of strange or mystical experiences.
Thus it was that during my 3 month stay in the Royal Bournemouth Hospital, lying in the hospital bed, early one evening, practising meditative breathing in order to control the pain, psychological and physical, and resisting - which I did consistently - the urge to activate the morphine drip that I was supplied and that they were eager that I used - I had a healing experience which changed my life.
I was staring at the blank ceiling above my bed. Without warning, effortlessly, I suddenly found that my consciousness was leaving my body and heading up and out into deep space. It was not alarming; I was curious. Ahead of me in the deep black I saw a light. Aware my body was far behind me on Earth, I willed my consciousness to head towards the light. As I approached I saw what looked like a huge, white, translucent index finger wrapping white - what appeared to be - candy floss round in a spiral, shell-like pattern. Intrigued, I willed myself closer. The finger casually flexed itself and just flicked the candy floss which spun off into space; as it did so, equally casually, the finger seemed to trail lightly behind.
Then I realised with total astonishment that this wasn't candy floss but an enormous white star that the finger had created and set off into its orbit in the cosmos. I realised that God - the mere finger of God - was about what it was always about: creation, and a star had been born. And as this sunk into my consciousness I became critically aware of the disparity between myself - helpless in pain, consigned to death on a hospital bed - and the Lord of all Glory, serene above the clouds, in deep space, creating a star. My whole consciousness was swept by an anguish that shook me to the roots of my being, and I cannot claim that I willed it, but almost involuntarily, as if I had been taken over by the Power who enabled me to do the only proper thing: my consciousness cried out in deep despair, 'God help me'. It was the simplest and profoundest of prayers.
And there in deep space as I made the cry, the finger instantly, broke from its casual sauntering, and like a gun turned and aimed itself at me. Before I could think what did it mean, the finger rushed straight at me - faster than light itself - and I simultaneously recoiled backwards and in one consummate movement I was abruptly back in my body as the finger went straight into me: straight into the point where the operation had opened up my intestines. It was like some pulverising shock, and I felt as if my whole body bolted upwards in the bed some six inches or more - though probably only less than an inch - and then thudded backwards, relapsing as it were, on the bed.
There I was: my whole being suddenly and immediately was immersed, was saturated, in joy, sheer joy. The physical and psychological pain had all vanished, all gone. I felt the presence of God - which even to recall now fills me with awe and fear and trembling, like nothing else - and I wept. Not tears of pain; I wept tears of joy. And I became aware that I could die now; and thoughts of my wife and children came to my mind, and I saw the pain of leaving them, especially their pain in not having me. But selfish as it sounds, it didn't matter - dying was better, to be with God. Because, anyway, this power, just as it had looked after me, would look after them; in His hand, everything was possible. So I wept more, and more, and became aware too of the deepest thing of all: the one word for me that described this God who held me now. The 'purity' of God. I struggle to convey my sense of it. How unworthy I felt in myself, and yet God held me: the disparity between my unworthiness and His purity; my weakness and His strength; between my mortality and His unquenchable life.
I wept yet I was in perfect peace, and in a perfect place where I never wanted to leave. My body curled up into a foetal position, and like some baby being rocked, slowly, slowly, I drifted into sleep. How long had the experience been? I do not know - maybe 30 mins - but it may have been 2 minutes or 2 hours.
But here's the thing: in all my 3 months in hospital I never got one night's sleep. The maximum was 2 hours before one was awoken by something or other. Yet on this night, for some reason, I slept till the new nurse shift at 6.00 the following morning. A perfect and profound night's sleep of at least 6 if not 7 hours. I woke feeling as if I had had pleasant dreams, which I could not remember, and feeling so refreshed. But more than that I woke knowing one other thing: that I wasn't going to die from this cancer now, that I was going to leave the hospital, and that I was going to re-create my life.
Curiously, too, my youngest son came to visit me from his university sometime after, and he told me. Dad, he said, I had a dream. In the dream I was crying and crying. Suddenly a man - a woman? - a being of light stood before me and said, 'Why are you crying?'
And I said, 'Because my father is dying'.
And he said, 'Stop crying, your father is not going to die. He has not finished his mission yet'. The being disappeared and my son instantly woke with the scene fresh in his mind.
So I have come to believe that what happened to me - the healing that has allowed me to re-enter life - that has re-claimed me for a mission - is not unique to me or even to do with my being special in some way. No, as I contemplate that finger, and those words, I realise that every single human being is precious to God, and everyone has a mission - that their words and actions count. When we abandon these beliefs we are no better than atheists, and just as hopeless. True healing is from God - the Spirit - the Light - the Christ and I feel blessed to have directly experienced it. For this is the strange reality it has led me to: I am glad that I had the cancer - still have the cancer - I am glad that my pain and suffering enabled me to have the opportunity to experience the mercy, the compassion, and the healing of the Lord. And as a result I feel unafraid of death in a way that would have been impossible before this illness overtook me.