Following are excerpts from an interview with Thea Bowman, a Franciscan Sister who became a huge inspiration to black Catholic communities, and to wider circles for her joy and gratitude, her nobility of spirit, and her very real spirituality. The interview, published in Praying magazine and US Catholic, was conducted shortly before she died from cancer, in March 1990, at the age of 53. For me, she is the picture of courage and perseverance of a person living gracefully with pain.
Question: What kind of changes have you had to make in your life because of the cancer?
Thea Bowman: Part of my approach to my illness has been to say I want to choose life, I want to keep going, I want to live fully until I die …
I don’t know what my future holds. In the meantime, I am making a conscious effort to learn to live with discomfort, and, at the same time, to go about my work. I find that when I am involved in the business of life, when I’m working with people, particularly with children, I feel better. A kind of strength and energy comes with that.
Question: What’s ahead for you now?
TB: When I first found out I had cancer, I didn’t know if I should pray for healing or life or death. Then I found peace in praying for what my folks call “God’s perfect will.” As it evolved, my prayer has become, “Lord, let me live until I die.” By that I mean I want to live, love, and serve fully until death comes. If that prayer is answered, if I am able to live until I die, how long really doesn’t matter. Whether it’s just a few months or a few years is really immaterial.
Question: How do you make sense out of your pain and suffering?
TB: I don’t make sense of it. I try to make sense of life. I try to keep myself open to people and to laughter and to love and to have faith. I try each day to see God’s will. I pray, “Oh Jesus, I surrender.” I pray, “Father, take this cross away. Not my will, but thy will be done.” I console myself with the old Negro spiritual: “Soon I will be done the troubles of this world. I’m going home to live with God.”
Question: Is God really present in suffering?
TB: God is present in everything. In the universe in creation, in me and all that happens to me, in my brothers and sisters, in the church – everywhere. In the midst of suffering, I feel God’s presence and cry out to God for help: “Lord, help me to hold on.”
Question: Why do people have to suffer? What possible good can come from it?
TB: I don’t know. Why is there war? Why is there hunger? Why is there pain? Perhaps it’s an incentive for struggling human beings to reach out to one another, to help one another, to love one another, to be blessed and strengthened and humanized in the process.
I know that suffering gives us new perspectives and helps us to clarify our real value. I know that suffering has helped me to clarify my relationships … Perhaps suffering stops us in our tracks and forces us to confront what is real within ourselves and in our environment.
Question: Has your faith changed since you discovered you had cancer?
TB: My faith is simpler. In many ways, it’s easier; it’s closer to home and to reality. I have more desire to grow in faith and hope and love. When I’m in pain, I know I need Jesus to walk with me. I can’t make it on my own. I pray, “Lord, I believe. Increase my faith. Help my unbelief.”
I remember the words of an old song: “We’ve come this far by faith, leaning on the Lord, trusting in his words. The Lord has never failed us yet. Oh, can’t turn around because we’ve come this way by faith.
Question: Do you find hope in yourself?
TB: I know that God is using me in ways beyond my comprehension. God has given me the grace to see some of the seeds that I have sown bear good fruit, and I am so grateful.