What having this cross and wearing it has meant to me

The following is a letter of an Australian born lady of Orthodox Christian faith to her spiritual father. While the identity of both has purposely not been revealed here, the letter is reproduced by permission in order to edify others that may read about the power of faith and personal courage which it describes.

To my spiritual father,

When I first found out I had cancer, November 1996, I was totally blown apart, I felt as if my life was suddenly coming to an end. I could picture myself getting sicker and sicker, then dying and then my funeral. I thought how my husband, children and mother would take and deal with it, and the pain they would all be in; how they would carry on without me; and how I would miss so much of their lives. I also thought of the plans we made with my husband (I wouldn't even get to live in our new house), the special moments as my children grew up -and it went on and on- and this was just in the first night. On Thursday, the next night, we had an 'Euchelaion' at home with Fr John and Fr Constantine from Kogarah. I was numb through most of the service, as much as I tried to concentrate, the "mutilating" surgery I was to have the next day was plaguing my mind, and it occupied most of my thoughts.

I felt I had embarked on a roller coaster and it was out of control. People were coming and going (to pay their last respects, I thought), and my emotions and whole life was in a turmoil.

All that said, I must admit the service helped calm me down a little. So did the prayer session we had when you, my spiritual father, came that night with my Koumbaro.

Having to deal with cancer was like nothing I could possibly have imagined, to me it was not just a word or an illness, and it was a whole life sentence (one that had a long and winding road with no light at the end of it).

Having to deal with my surgery was another hurdle, which seemed too high to overcome. I did not mind the pain of the surgery, as I knew that would not last long, but the emotional pain of parting with part of my body seemed unbearable. Before my surgery, my Koumbaro (Godfather) brought his mother to see me. When I saw her limping and struggling to get up the outside steps, I cried because I knew she would not leave her house unless she absolutely had to. When she saw me, she told me off and said "stop it now, it isn't anything, it's just a tummy ache that will go away". She joked and talked the whole time she was here, in her usual manner, and only got teary as she was leaving. She was giving me courage and even hope just by her mere presence. Later that night my Koumbaro returned with the cross and some holy myro that you had given him. We sat for about 10 minutes, him holding me in silence, just crying, I could feel his pain, as I knew he could feel mine, having been through this experience with his mother and his sister.

I put on the cross, and prayed with everything I had left inside of me. I prayed for strength for me and my family to face whatever was in store for us, especially for my husband who was putting on a brave front. I also prayed Jesus to become the driver of the roller coaster I was on.

The next morning I went into surgery with the cross, taped to my wrist, and was grateful that my Koumbaro and Niko were there to keep my husband company. While in hospital, I read the two books you gave me "The life of St Arsenios" and "In the hours of pain", until then I knew only little of St Arsenios' life.

Before having the first chemotherapy, we participated in a paraklitos at St Arsenios' monastery. You then brought the Holy Lipsana (Relics) of St Arsenios to my house, something that was totally unexpected, although on previous occasions you had hinted to get the house ready, for a special guest. Never did I imagine our guest would be so SPECIAL. It was an immeasurable honour and blessing to me and to my family, unworthy as I am. The aroma coming from the Holy Relics was so sweet and beautiful that it was so calming, soothing and comforting to smell it. There were nights I would wake up frightened and scared, then I would glance at the Lipsana, pray and calm down, then go back to sleep peacefully.

When it came to having my first chemotherapy I was scared, frightened, terrified etc as I had heard and read about the bad side effects of it.

As the needle went in I felt like pulling it out and running away from everything, and I hoped to wake up from the terrible nightmare I was having. I did not want to go through with the treatment, to have those coloured poisons flowing through my veins. I felt nauseous and dizzy. My husband tried very hard to be supportive and to keep my mind off those toxic chemicals, but I did not want to talk or laugh or do anything. Then I touched the cross, closed my eyes and prayed; eventually it was over.

The other five treatments were much harder, because I knew exactly what I was to face for the following week or so. Moreover, as soon as I would step into the hospital I would begin to feel sick. I think the only way I was able to get through it was by clenching on to the cross and praying.

With Radiotherapy, 25 days in all, there was other possible long term side effects that plagued my thoughts. There too for the 10 minutes that I was in the room, the cross was firmly clenched in my hand, as I was not allowed to wear it around my neck, even the fact that I was allowed to take it in with me was a miracle.

I honestly believe that having this cross has helped me so much, I felt as if it helped me gain some strength to get through everything, along with everybody's prayers (especially yours).

With God's help, I got through all my treatment without any major side effects and my hair is even growing better than before.

My family all have been supportive throughout all this, as you know especially my husband and my mother, in her own special way. Both her and my husband have had to put up with me when I was at my lowest, my crying, my anger, my fears, my frustration, etc but both with their love and patience saw me through a very difficult time in my life. I cannot say I have totally come to terms with my sickness, but I can see it has changed my family's life and me. We are now more aware of practising our faith more, we read more, we pray more, and we even read St Arsenios' paraklisi together.

For me it has made me face my mortality, and to appreciate many things that I had taken for granted before, especially the countless blessings I have been given.

Me being the type of person I am (in your words) "one who can drown in a drop of water", did make it through all this, but only with St Arsenios and God's helping hand. I still cannot say I am a tower of strength, but hopefully a little bit stronger for having gone through this experience.

Words cannot possibly begin to express the gratitude I feel for "EVERYTHING" you all have done, for me. I can only pray that our Lord will be abundant in His blessings for you. I also ask that you keep me in your prayers, (as I am sure you are) as I have a long way to go yet.

I guess this letter was not necessary to let you know of how much having this cross has meant to me. You knew how much by my reluctance to give it up.

A lot of people have come to venerate the cross, especially ones in great need, people facing a major trial in their lives, and even others close to me, who wanted to for the blessing.

I have treasured having this cross for such a long period, now I will treasure the new beautiful and perfect silver one, which is filled with so many Holy Relics. Again I did not expect anything so special; I will cherish it as much as I did the first.

I sincerely thank you, for everything, you have done for me (us) and I will always be grateful.

With respect and reverence.

from Voice of Orthodoxy, v. 19(5), May 1998
the official publication of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia

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