Bead by Bead by Suzanne Henley – A Review

A couple of months ago I received a package in the mail from an unfamiliar address in Midtown Memphis.  I opened the package to discover a set of prayer beads made by Suzanne Henley.  I met Suzanne once via my wife’s writers group in Memphis.  An enclosed card titled Prayer Beads in Thanksgiving for Robert describe the beads from Ethiopia, the Afgan Silk Road, Brazil, China, the Dead Sea, and more.  I was blown away by both the beauty and the significance of the creation.  Now, I carry the beads in my backpack and they go everywhere with me.  They are a regular part of my centering prayer and other contemplative exercises.

Suzanne has now published a book Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New (Paraclete Press, 2018).  The book is composed of three parts: an historical discussion of prayer beads followed by a set of prayer activities, and a final section where readers are “encouraged to draw their own set of prayer beads and, with discernment and prayer, label each bead. They then can keep and literally hold their life in their hands in prayer, gratitude, and awe.”

The book is all of that and much more.

In the introductory comments Suzanne notes “I have no idea whether prayer produces any external results. I have come to believe, though, if nothing else, it is where I most squarely meet myself.”  As an artisan who creates prayer beads, the Prologue to the volume lays out the intent and perspective in her creation.  The beads Suzanne uses in her creations include “handmade Buddhist, Hindu, and Islamic prayer beads as well as rare Hebron beads of Dead Sea salt . . . replicas of third-century Ethiopian Coptic crosses and Stars of David, hand-carved Chinese jade pendants, or river rocks collected from my fishing sites.”  The anthropologist in me delights in her noting that when handling the beads “I am the latest in a long line to add the imprint of my hands’ oils to the human and earth-marked patina of all those who have come before me. I feel the weight of their histories in my palm.”

The abundant illustrations in the volume attest to the 800 individualized sets of prayer beads she has created, some commissioned for the likes of The Dalai Lama, Pope Francis, along with the holy, secular, and terminally ill across the globe.  (Suzanne’s gift to me was prompted by my recent cancer diagnosis.)  She observes that while formal worship in churches is on the decline, the increased popularity of prayer beads means people are “simply carrying their altars with them in their pockets” as they go through life.

After the introductory material there is a solid 20-page section of prayer bead history beginning with their several thousand year-old Hindu origins in Vietnam and continuing to the present day.  The comprehensive summary highlights prayer bead development, particularly for the Abrahamic faiths.  Suzanne highlights the 4th Century Desert Fathers who used pebbles to count the number of times they said a prayer, through to the familiar Roman Catholic Rosary and Islamic prayer beads that hold the 99 names of Allah, to the more recent evolution of  Protestant or Episcopal prayer beads.  The history section has many historical notes of interests, such as that the earliest recorded Roman Catholic rosary belonged to Lady Godiva of horse-riding fame.

My Prayer Beads Gift Created by Suzanne Henley

The next section considers the range of prayer types both with and without beads, drawing on the works of modern contemplatives such as Thomas Keating, Thomas Merton, and Richard Rohr and the more ancient traditions such as the Celts.  Suzanne also discusses prayer bead use with chants, hymns and in silence.  Drawing on her personal practice, she broadens the tactile experience of prayer beads to include handling fruit in the grocery store.

The book could have ended at this point and been a worthwhile read.  However, Suzanne’s final sections of the volume are of immense value for the novice and experienced user of prayer beads.  With a good bit of autobiographical material she tells her story including recovery from extreme depression and a heart attack to a chance encounter exploring how the Holy Spirit is like a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.  These life changing experiences resonated with me as a recovering alcoholic.

As “homework” she invites the reader to construct a prayer bead activity based on their life experiences.  Suzanne provides ample guidance in the form of writing exercises and meditations to achieve this goal.   I found this invitation to be the punch line of the book.  The earlier sections on the history, tradition, and contemporary contemplative use of beads were interesting, informative, and certainly directing in terms of practice.  As well, reading Suzanne’s story provided grist for further considering personal use.  However, the homework allows the reader to completely contextualize and apply prayer bead practice to their experience.

The 20 color illustrations of prayer beads created by Suzanne are a welcome addition to the volume.  At under 100 pages of text, the volume is readily accessible to all.  The 9 chapters can readily be adapted to a group study where participants create their own set of prayer beads.  I look forward to working through the exercises included in Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New  to enhance my use of Ms. Henley’s gift to me.

A Valentine Gift

Today, Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day, I had my regularly scheduled oncology visit and all the news was good as follows:

  • my CAT scan this past Monday revealed no appreciable, if any, spread of the cancer in my bones.
  • The scan showed a minor increase in a lymph node.  Under normal circumstances, the increase would not be a cause of concern.  However, given that the primary source of my cancer remains unknown, exploratory surgery will be ordered.  Dr. Sonnier, my oncologist noted that the procedure is done via laparoscopy and might require one or two days in the hospital.  Noteworthy is that this will be the first time in my life since being born that I will spend the night in a hospital.
  • Dr. Sonnier remains pleased with my continued health, physical activity, and that the alkaline phosphatase level in my blood dropped from over 1300 in August to 160 today which is just a bit higher than normal.  I asked if we could be sitting here one year from now, with me basically in the same physical condition, still looking for a cancer source, and he responded in the affirmative.
  • I got my monthly x-geva shot at the Infusion Center and had great conversations with my RN friends there including about Erin’s recent trip to Chile, growing okra, what the January hard freeze killed in our yards, and other important things.

Today in New Orleans it is 79 degrees and partly sunny.  I cleaned up around the shop from all the Mardi Gras festivities, turned soil in our garden and planted an early spring crop of kale and collards.

Life is good and I am blessed.

Healing in Alcohol and Cancer

Healing – My favorite painting by my wife Emma Connolly

This past Sunday, Marissa Sue Teauseau, our Associate Pastor at Rayne Memorial United Methodist Church preached a message that profoundly affected my understanding of healing as a recovering alcoholic with a cancer diagnosis.  She spoke of her experience ministering to a terminally ill young man and family and his healing.  Marissa then linked that healing to the scripture reading for the day in Mark’s Gospel when Jesus healed Andrew’s mother-in-law, she got up and served him.   (I note that our Senior Pastor, Jay Hogewood, asked me to be the lector for the reading that day at church, the significance of which just dawned on me.)

Marissa’s message kept me on the edge of my seat for the entire sermon as she deftly wove a web of healing and service.  As I walked home from church and over the next few days, the seeds her words planted grew to give me a more complete understanding of healing over my last 30 years.

I never viewed my recovery as an alcoholic as a healing, but I see now that is very much the case.  Marissa also spoke of her limited experience with the “miraculous” end of healing.  That statement resonated with me too.  I have long asked the question “Why Me?” in my remaining sober for over 30 years when relapse is a common experience for addicts. In recovery, I live into the Twelfth Step service mandate to “carry the message to others” about the gift of sobriety.  Being of service is important to my existence.

Since my initial diagnosis this past August, I tried to define my existence with cancer.  I am not a cancer victim, as I refuse to be a victim of anything.  I am not certain a cancer survivor is an accurate term as my oncologist has never backed off from saying my stage 4 cancer is incurable.

I listen to taped affirmations around cancer on a pretty regular basis.  My favorite time is when walking to and from church on Sunday morning.  When I first began listening to the affirmations, I tended to gloss over the ones that spoke of white cells and medications attacking and destroying the cancer cells as I am not on chemo drugs or radiation therapy.  However, all tests show that the cancer is not expanding. I am in less pain today than two years ago and more physically active than one year ago.  More importantly, I am mentally, spiritually, and emotionally more alive than in many years.

Marissa’s sermon from this past week showed me how my cancer diagnosis is the opportunity to focus on healing and being of service.  There is much to do in our world today, and I am pleased that my understanding of healing allows me to take part.

And here is where Marissa’s words touched me with my current cancer diagnosis.  I have cited before affirmations from the  Health Journey Guided Imagery by Bellruth Naparstek.  Since Marissa’s sermon, an affirmation that has taken on new meaning, with some qualification on the self-reliance implication is:

More and More I can understand that I can heal myself and live or I can heal myself and die, my physical condition is not an indication of my wholeness.

In a couple of hours, I will have another CAT Scan to see the physical status of my cancer.  Tomorrow is Mardi Gras.  Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day, and the date for the next appointment with my oncologist.  I am pleased to know now that my healing today is not dependent on the CAT Scan results.

Cheap vs. Costly Grace in Recovery

In my last post I noted that in The Book of Joy, The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu discuss the Eight Pillars of Joy: perspective, humility, humor, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion and generosity. In our School for Contemplative Living group this week, we asked “which of these eight pillars resonates most with you.” In reviewing the book, the sections on the pillars of perspective, acceptance and gratitude contained the most underlines and column notes in my copy.  This focus is consistent with how I perceive life as a recovering alcoholic with a stage 4 cancer diagnosis.  I can explain very sincerely, intentionally, and with meaning why these pillars are integral to my daily existence.

But then . . . I felt a certain whack on the side of the head on the other four pillars.  I got caught up short when weighing the pillars of forgiveness, humility, compassion, and generosity by the same sincerity, intentionality and meaning scale.  The analogy that came to mind was that of cheap vs. costly grace as explained by the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  He wrote:

“Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is a baptism without the discipline of community . . . Costly grace is the hidden treasure in the field, for the sake of people go and sell with joy everything they have . . . Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which has to be asked for, the door at which one has to knock.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, pp. 44-45.

(Bonhoeffer wrote his treatise on ethics while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp for his role in a foiled attempt to assassinate Hitler.  He died shortly before Allied Forces liberated the camp.  Bonhoeffer has good street creds with me as someone who practiced what he preached.)

I found his cheap grace analogous to much of how I can live forgiveness.  For example the 9th Step of Alcoholics Anonymous offers that we “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”  Over the years I have made lists, personal visits and written amend letters.  I am careful not to include any “but” statements, only clean up my side of the street and not worry about the other person’s side.  I know that often times, those amends are rote, because I know that I need to do them – it is the forgiveness without the repentance or community of which Bonhoeffer speaks.

In the same way with compassion and generosity, I can serve in the soup kitchens, make the charitable contributions, speak out and defend the refugees, and so forth.  But these acts too can become rote responses with little personal investment of true self beyond the material and mechanical.

Again from the Book of Joy:

“One of the differences between empathy and compassion is that while empathy is simply experiencing another’s emotion, compassion is a more empowered state where we want what is best for the other person.  As the Dalai Lams has described it, if we can see a person who is being crushed by a rock, the goal is not to get under the rock and feel what they are feeling; it is to help to remove the rock.” pp. 259

I do not intend this post as an exercise in self-flagellation.  But in the same way that I view my AA recovery program as a continual process and not a single event, I find the eight pillars of joy are best approached in the same way.  I know that if I continue to work the 12 Steps of the AA program, that process enhances my recovery.  In the same way, I believe if I continue to examine and am mindful of my forgiveness, humility, compassion and the other pillars, that process enhances my joyful living and my ability to share that joy.  In the same way that I am a recovering alcoholic and not recovered, I continue to seek a life with more meaning and joy.  Everything I know about living is that if I continue to be active and seek, I will continue to find and to grow.  What an incredible blessing and opportunity!

Evolving Perspectives on Cancer and Recovery

In The Book of Joy, The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu discuss the Eight Pillars of Joy: perspective, humility, humor, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion and generosity.  I find all eight pillars are relevant to my recent cancer diagnosis and my years as a recovering alcoholic.  I generally view myself as a “glass is half full” kind of person, but the Dalai Lama’s discussion of the “perspective” pillar presents a more complex and holistic approach:

We must look at any given situation or problem from the front and from the back, from the sides, and from the top and the bottom, so from at least six different angles.  This allows us to take a more complete and holistic view of reality, and if we do, our response will be more constructive.  – The Dalai Lama, from The Book of Joy, p. 196

Even from a simple dualistic approach, I find that considering alternative perspectives provides incredible “aha” moments.

Why me? vs. Why me?

I took to sobriety pretty much from the day I committed to a detox unit in 1984.  Although relieved, I asked “Why me?” even though accepting that I was an alcoholic and unable to drink like “normal” folks.   In early recovery, alcoholism became my burden to bear or my lot in life.  When I was 20 years sober, I had an “aha” moment.  I began to ask “Why me?” again.  But now I asked the question because I maintained my sobriety for two decades where so many others had relapsed.  Why was I so fortunate?  I know sobriety does not rely on intelligence, depth of alcoholism, or many other factors.  Since my “aha” moment, I have maintained a new perspective on the “Why Me?” question.

I can’t drink alcohol today vs. I don’t have to drink alcohol today

I vividly recall walking out of my 30-day detox program with a fear that I would be drunk within 24 hours.  However, I stayed sober then one-day-at-a-time with a commitment that I “won’t/can’t” drink for that today.  In the first six months of sobriety I had an another “aha” moment.  I was driving home from my sobriety bowling league feeling good about being sober at 11:30 pm on a Saturday night.  I thought about how I would not wake up hungover the next morning and could spend the day doing something enjoyable.  Life was good.  And then it hit me – if I chose to drink alcohol I would lose that good life.  I no longer had to drink to escape a life I despised.  I came to accept living life on life’s terms.  The I “won’t/can’t” drink today changed to I “don’t have to” drink today.

I am going to die vs. I am alive today

I have stage 4 cancer with an ambiguous prognosis.  The chances are good that cancer will be my cause of death. Today, I look out over the rooftops of the same neighborhood where 40 years ago I stomped the streets in anger, despair, and drunk.  Today the cold snap broke with temperatures in the mid-60s.  I spent the morning raking leaves and branches from our backyard, planted two trees, and began to get ready for our spring gardens.  I am in no pain and my body is functioning as normal.  As I sit on the back porch writing these words, I look out over our backyard which is my kingdom, my Garden of Eden, my heaven on earth.  The sky is incredibly blue today.    I cannot imagine a better way to live my day in my favorite city in the world.  I am at peace and having cancer means nothing to me as I am alive this day.

I am not certain my oncologist agrees with me, but I believe one of the reasons my cancer has not progressed more than it has to date is because I am blessed with a perspective whose seeds were planted over three decades ago when I entered a rehab for my addiction to alcohol and drugs.  Consistently since that time, I learned that feeding the solution and not the problem produces a meaningful and joyful life.  Today I accept the problem of having cancer but also have come to appreciate the lessons and wisdom that my response and solution to the disease has brought me.

What Not To Tell Me About My Cancer

I recently read a post about what not to say to folks with cancer written by someone in their 40s undergoing treatment for the disease.  Much of the discussion did not ring true to me.  Here are some of the reasons why:

  • I am 65 years old.  I would have been dead long ago had I not gotten sober when I was 32.  From this perspective I have existed on borrowed time for quite a while. I have lived a good life, especially the last 20 years with my bride.
  • For someone with Stage 4 cancer, I am fortunate that my treatments to date are minimal and I remain pretty much pain-free.  My biggest physical manifestations are fatigue and some gastric distress and I am often uncertain whether these conditions relate to cancer or age.
  • My wife and I are both technically retired, though we maintain active lives in our chosen professions/vocations.  However, we could pull back on those activities if need be.  Though we are not wealthy by any stretch, we have the luxury to make do on our retirement incomes if we are frugal.

Therefore, I am not the 30-something with ovarian cancer and three kids to raise, undergoing chemotherapy, trying to figure out those life challenges with a possibly terminal diagnosis less than half-way through their life expectancy.

So, I consider myself truly blessed.  As I write these words, I am listening to the Huayno song Adios Pueblo de Ayachuco and reflect on my time working in Andean Highlands of Peru where I made many friends, have three Godchildren, and had some of the most satisfying professional work of my career.  Today my wife Emma and I were going through boxes of “stuff” filled with paperwork, mementos, letters, and photos of our adventures over the past 20 years.  I have truly lived a good life.  Yes, I would like to live another 10 years, but if it is only going to be two, that is okay too.

So, what don’t I want people to tell me about cancer? I do have a couple of things:

  • Although I appreciate hearing suggestions on the latest experimental and holistic treatments, please do not keep asking me if I have tried the one you suggested or be offended if I have not.  I am not that desperate to spend all of my waking hours to find a miracle cure.  I am very pleased with my care from the fabulous oncology folks at Touro Infirmary here in New Orleans.  And I remain open to alternatives.  For example, my friend Janet Davis’ recommendation of Guided Imagery to Fight Cancer is a critical tool to enhance my quality of life.
  • I don’t want the focus of my interactions with people to be about cancer.  But I find that often folks either stay away or avoid any discussion when seeing me.  I suppose that says more about their discomfort in talking about the issue than mine.  I mean, if I were not open to conversation, I would not blog all of this.  In fact, I see this blog as a way to keep those with an interest informed on my status.  Folks are able to say “read your blog” and know the details, like if I had a broken leg.  We can then move on to other things.  In fact, as I posted recently, many of the seemingly smaller things in life are of great significance to me – like my door of cards received from friends throughout the country over the past few months.

As I say often, my three decades of addiction recovery in a 12-Step program proved the perfect training ground for living one-day-at-a-time with cancer.  Life is good and I am blessed.

Redemption, Resurrection, and the 12 Steps of AA

Recently my wife and I had dinner with two friends whose family was very active in the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.  I commented how much I enjoyed living in Jackson, Mississippi years ago because there was such a spirit toward racial reconciliation that is not present in many other locations I have lived.  Indeed, as our friend noted, the newly opened Mississippi Civil Rights Museum is the only such institution sponsored, supported, and operated by an individual state in North America.  He then commented with something like the ‘Redemption is commensurate to the degree of the sin.’  In this way, Mississippi, and the rest of the U.S. in my opinion, sin(ned) greatly and are in need of substantive redemption and resurrection.  I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes from Richard Rohr:

Death is not just physical dying, but going to full depth, hitting the bottom, going the distance, beyond where I am in control, fully beyond where I am now . . . When you go into the depth and death, sometimes even the depths of your sin, you come out the other side – and the word for that is resurrection.

Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond pp. xx-xxi, Josey-Bass

I have long equated my sobriety as going to that depth of death with the opportunity for coming out the other side in resurrection.  Compare the general content of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous with Rohr’s Twelve Ways to Practice Resurrection Now:

 

Twelve Ways to Practice Resurrection Now

1. Refuse to identify with negative, blaming, antagonistic, or fearful thoughts (you cannot stop “having” them).

2. Apologize when you hurt another person or situation.

3. Undo your mistakes by some positive action toward the offended person or situation.

4. Do not indulge or believe your False Self – that which is concocted by your mind and society’s expectations.

5. Choose your True Self – your radical union with God – as often as possible throughout the day.

6. Always seek to change yourself before trying to change others.

7. Choose as much as possible to serve rather than be served.

8. Whenever possible, seek the common good over your mere private good.

9. Give preference to those in pain, excluded, or disabled in any way.

10. Seek just systems and policies over mere charity.

11. Make sure your medium is the same as you message.

12. Never doubt that it is all about love in the end.

Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond, pp. 211-212, Josey-Bass

This past December I had the opportunity to hear Richard Rohr speak.  During a book signing session, I spoke to him briefly.  I commented how my experience as a recovering alcoholic paralleled so much of what he discussed in his presentations.  He noted that recovering alcoholics by virtue of their resurrection are folks who are often better able to understand the spiritual development toward true self.  I certainly agree and find that journey one of the true blessings of recovery for which I am grateful.