This is a remarkable book (Into Extra Time – Living through the final stages of cancer and jottings along the way by Michael Paul Gallagher, published by Darton Longman Todd, 2016), but first an admission: in 2011 I myself was diagnosed with cancer, went into hospital and had two major operations, nearly died, but through the grace of God came out the other side – to walk again in sunlight and breathe fresh air once more. So that in admitting this, I guess I am also saying that I have a certain bias in favour of a book that chronicles such sufferings since I have experienced some of them myself. And of course, to chronicle such sufferings is not to wallow in them or exalt them in some way; they are part of the human condition. As Philip Larkin observed in one of his great poems, Ambulances, they visit all of us at one time or another: “They come to rest at any kerb:/ All streets in time are visited.”
Indeed, for Michael Paul Gallagher it was his third cancer visitation which proved fatal. He had had cancer before, starting back in 2002, but it was the return of it early in 2015 when he was travelling from Rome to Ireland to give a course that led to his death, at the age of 76. What the book does is multi-faceted: it provides a mini-autobiography of his life as a distinguished Jesuit priest, teacher and author; a deep insight into his beliefs and concerns, especially those appertaining to unbelief in the modern world; fragments of ideas about openings, darkness, revelation, imagination, transformation and transcendence; a cancer diary, detailing actual experiences and emotions as they occur; and finally a few stabs of his at poetry, which by his own admission, were “never my talent”, but which in certain lines do achieve a serene beauty.
Interspersed though all of the above there is also a wonderful and telling aphoristic quality where he either nails some issue definitively, or he cites just the right authority to do so on his behalf. So here are three wonderful lines from his book:
“Now I began to see that faith is blocked much more by lifestyle than by ideas or philosophies”
“Trusting in medical technology will end in disappointment”
“It’s very simple: how you live shrinks or expands what you can see”
It should be obvious from the above and the contexts in which these quotations occur that Gallagher is a profound thinker, which is hardly surprising given that he was a professor of fundamental theology at Gregorian University. But alongside the depth of thought also goes a deep humanity. Citing Dr Johnson he observes that “death concentrates the mind wonderfully” and so during the course of the book the issues of his life begin to unravel: we sense his doubts, his hesitations, even his very real reservation that he should die at all, knowing indeed, as we all do, that he will and he must.
Particularly poignant is our growing awareness of what an active and able man he was: always planning, scheduling, being useful and productive, yet now finally having to live when he can no longer be any of these things. Even we learn, and explore, whether he had made the right choices in his career? Yes, he rationalises, but should he have specialised more and been less of a generalist? Is he – we feel – really convinced by his own answer? And most telling of all: Monique, the young girl he met at 19 and the road not taken. Where is she now? What happened to her? He prays for her happiness and there is a poem for her. It is in fact that poem that ends the book: Monique at Caen. Think about it – this Catholic Priest, this Jesuit since he was 22 years old – his last word, a poem to Monique? Is this a cipher for the Virgin Mary? I think not; here he achieves in the final sentence a quite sublime beauty:
… Or can you visit,
As I do, wonder echoes
Of hands held and eyes knit,
Symbols of a love bigger than
We were able for at twenty one,
But changing me at least forever.
The syntax of the final two lines is as tortured and complex as the emotion behind it; and for all of us as human beings we resonate as we reflect on our roads not taken, as death concentrates our minds wonderfully too.
There is much more in this book than space permits, but it should be obvious that, despite my bias in its favour, it is an eloquent, absorbing and fascinating work that I strongly recommend to all readers of Towards Wholeness: most impressively of all, Michael Paul Gallagher keeps his faith in God in tact despite all the sickness and suffering that his cancer throws at him. Do buy and read this book; it is uplifting.