National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  November 14, 2003

The healing power of prayer and friendship


It was just a little mole, surfacing in a sea of freckles on my upper arm. I greeted it with a slight nod, used by now to the unexpected eruptions, droops and disintegrations of middle age.

Then I became fascinated, staring at it every time I showered. Odd that vanity would rear her coiffed head now, I thought. My skin has long looked more like chocolate-chip than vanilla.

Still, the thing had presence.

And one day, as I stared, it bled.

I felt silly going to the dermatologist, especially when she agreed that it was probably nothing. But she sliced it off anyway. And two weeks later, she called, sounding apologetic, and told me it was melanoma.

This hit rather harder than I expected; my father-in-law died of melanoma. I left work to go for a walk -- in the sun, because irony is always with us. Then I made the suggested appointment with a plastic surgeon, so he could chunk out a three-inch section of my arm.

I thought he’d do it in the office. I said a prayer and rode the elevator and strode in like Mel Gibson in “Braveheart” -- only to learn that this would be surgery, with full anesthesia, and we should probably remove a lymph node or two while we were at it. Just to be sure.

Gulping, I went where they told me, got a pre-op X-ray and blood test, and drove home planning my funeral. That hymn about eagles would be nice ...

Yet when a dear friend and Episcopal priest suggested a healing prayer, I cringed. Way too evangelical for my tastes. What was she going to do, slap my forehead back and urge the worshipers to come forward and catch me when I swooned? I’m an introvert, for God’s sake; I don’t do spontaneous public expression. I like emotion when it’s been refined, choreographed and labeled art. Besides, I wasn’t sure I was supposed to pray for healing; I thought God’s will might be more appropriate.

But how do you refuse when somebody offers to pray for you?

I showed up, trudged down the aisle, knelt while she smeared something that smelled like slightly rancid olive oil on my forehead. When she rested her hands on my hair, I felt the tingling, sweet consolation of any tender gesture, whether it’s a child stroking your cheek or your husband’s big hand cradling your neck.

And when I rose, I wasn’t nervous anymore. I walked back down the aisle in the state of utter serenity I normally only achieve after orgasm or in extreme exhaustion.

Four days later, I entered the surgery center in the same serenity. The night before, I had shocked myself by sleeping. Soundly. Now, I found I could sit quietly, no cold clutch of a pirate’s hand at my stomach. Forced to wait hours for the dye tracing that would stain the suspect lymph node, I managed to amuse another patient and even made a grumpy doctor laugh. I did threaten the nurse-anesthetist with death if he withheld anti-nausea drugs, but aside from that brief homicidal flash, I remained calm.

I never did throw up. Arrived home still a bit high from the drugs, and not in anything like the pain I’d expected. The only rough patch came that Sunday when my husband was away at work and our toilet backed up. One does not wish to mop sewage with a raw wound on one’s right arm. And I managed to get through grad school without anyone revealing that useful little trick about turning off the water before the commode overflows.

An hour later, I sat down on the steps, exhausted and sore and worried about what might have splashed onto my surgical dressing and mad that my husband wasn’t there to help and really, really sorry for myself, and burst into tears.

The doorbell rang.

Two friends from church had decided to surprise me with Communion.

They also brought a teddy bear.

Clutching the bear to my bosom, I poured Merlot and brought out Cheddar crackers and told them just how good their timing had been. We laughed over plumbing stories, and eventually they brought out the blessed wine and host, and the dog came and lay down right at the foot of the coffee table altar, alert but quiet, sensing something special. That short, cheerful ritual was the most sacramental Eucharist I have ever experienced. And the earlier healing prayer I’d resisted so strenuously? Reality finally penetrated my small, stubborn brain, and I realized something simple: The real healing was the calmness, the sense of being held in the minds and hearts of a hundred warm souls, regardless of the outcome. That prayer lifted me out of my private angst and set me down in a community, and the energy of all that goodwill and connection went right past my conscious fussing and soothed away the fear, coating my nerves the way Pepto-Bismol coats a fiery stomach.

The path report came back clean. But if it hadn’t, I know where I would have turned for healing and communion.

Jeannette Batz Cooperman is a freelance writer living in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, November 14, 2003

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