Into Extra Time: Living through the final stages of cancer and jottings along the way
by Michael Paul Gallagher SJ (Darton, Longman & Todd/Messenger Publications, £9.99/€12.99)
When the well-known Jesuit writer, lecturer and theologian, Fr Michael Paul Gallagher, was told in January of last year that he had cancer he began to write this book expressing his thoughts and feelings on the subject. The result is this truly inspirational and profoundly moving book. He died on November 6, 2015, but this book will be an important legacy.
I had the good fortune to meet Fr Gallagher on a number of occasions. Having reviewed one of his books, Letters on Prayer, over 20 years ago, I visited him in the Jesuit house in Leeson Street in Dublin. I was struck by his wisdom, compassion and that remarkably warm, resonant voice.
A couple of years later when I visited Rome, where he was then living, he invited me to the famous Gesu Church and took me on a guided tour of the place. It was an educational experience. He was kindness personified. After any meeting with him one always left feeling inspired and encouraged. He was a man who was genuinely interested in dialogue and in people.
He was a great listener and he was always interested to hear what non-believers had to say. In a wonderful book, entitled Clashing Symbols, he writes about various forms of atheism.
He draws our attention to the words of a Spanish theologian who said that the very question of God remains something completely irrelevant for the majority of people. God is missing, but is not missed.
Fr Gallagher tells us that what we are witnessing is no longer what de Lubac over a generation ago called “the drama of atheistic humanism”, but rather an undramatic limbo of non-being. He quotes a wonderful line from John Henry Newman: “You must wait for the eye of the soul to be formed in you. Religious truth is reached, not by reasoning, but by an inward perception. This is, in reality, the wisdom of the heart.”
Into Extra Time is divided into sections. The first deals with themes that believers suffering terminal illness may come to face: darkness, loneliness, revelation, imagination and transcendence. The second section concerns his own cancer diary, evoking what he calls “waves of fog and shafts of light”.
Reading it one can sense his many disappointments and fears but also his extraordinary courage and deep trust in God. He writes in the Preface: “As time has gone on, I often wondered why I was publishing such a personal narrative. It started as a diary for myself, trying to explore my experience of illness.
“Then I began to think it could be of help to others. But I also fear it could inflate my own fairly ordinary adventure, and I ask forgiveness from those who may find it too self-centred or pious. It tries to tell the story of a believer going through stages of cancer. If it offers some spiritual light to others in such times of struggle, that justifies it for me.”
Reading this extraordinary book one can identify with all the uncertainty, confusion and fear that his illness must have brought. He constantly expresses his affection and deep appreciation of his friends who gave him moral support and encouragement.
Friendship clearly meant so much to him. He has nothing but praise for his oncologist and the nurses and helpers who took care of him. I found myself truly moved and edified by his faith in a loving God with whom Fr Gallagher clearly had a very deep personal relationship.
He writes: “I know myself accompanied, gently. I feel humanly alone and have decided to tell the full story to very few… Never has faith seemed so real. This is not out of fear (as some atheists might suggest) but out of a discovery of the quiet reality of God with me in all this.”
He is finally informed that his cancer is terminal and he has about three to six months to live. He writes: “I interrupted breakfast and went to the chapel. Today happens to be the anniversary of my entry to the Jesuits. I repeated my promises with quiet joy, asking the Lord to stay close at this time. As I write this the radio is playing lively Vivaldi and outside the sun is brilliant on the changing autumn leaves of gold and red. I am only worried about the impact of the news on others. However, two hours later I dipped into nervousness and even trembling. I think it is more physical than psychological. Today’s news has its effect, but not destroying the inner serenity.”
This inspirational, heart-warming book also contains some of Fr Gallagher’s poetry and one poem in particular, ‘Monique in Caen’, is simply superb.
He was a dedicated priest, an excellent writer and a truly wonderful human being.
The beauty of creation along Ireland’s shores is revealed in this image of Malahide in north Dublin, from Ireland’s Coast, photographed by Carsten Krieger (O’Brien Press, €24.00), a stunning evocation in full colour and monochrome of the varied and ever varying aspects of the mysterious realm where the land meets the sea.