The Goodness of Creation and Cancer

“Perhaps you have noticed

that even in the very lightest breeze

you can hear the voice of the cottonwood tree;

this we understand is it’s prayer to the Great Spirit;

for not only men, but all things

and all beings pray to Him continually

in differing ways.”

Dear Friends,


It is doubtful that the philosopher/anthropologist, Pere Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit whose books I read in college, would ever have encountered the quotation, above, which is attributed to the Lakota Native-American, Black Elk [ca 1863-1950]. Teilhard [1881-1955] could have, since he and Black Elk were almost exact contemporaries.


I can just imagine what kind of conversation Black Elk and Teilhard de Chardin might have enjoyed had they met. Teilhard would certainly have endorsed Black Elk’s prayerful insight. Black Elk would have appreciated the lyric phrase the priest used when he posited that all creation “groaned” for the fulfillment of its highest potential.

For Teilhard, the “highest potential,” simply put, was that all creation, animate and inanimate, yearned to render to its Creator whatever was its most appropriate acknowledgement for its very existence.  Black Elk would have understood.

Teilhard also conceptualized a more obscure notion about human consciousness. He predicted a time in the future when there would emerge a “noösphere.” This was a point in time at which human consciousness—across the globe—would somehow become fully integrated and would “converge” as the consciousness of all earthly creation. Such an insight lifted the idea of the interrelatedness of all creation from a commonplace, to a higher level; one when all creation—through the consciousness of humanity—could more completely acknowledge itself as the loving, completely coherent community that was generated and intended by the Creator.

These ideas were heady matter (and inspiring reading) for an idealistic college student of the 60’s. The boldly optimistic image of creation seeking its highest aspiration remains with me, even today.

I remain attracted to the concept that all creation is naturally driven towards achieving its highest potential. I’m attracted to the thought that the human species aims towards the convergence (not dilution) of individuals in a loving community and that humans potentially bring to creation, itself, conscious awareness.

The first is already evidenced, in the biological realm, by the evolutionary push of natural selection (even as it was perceived and originally hinted at by Charles Darwin). Science, and the Church, is slowly discerning a richer understanding of the processes that allow biological species to evolve and adapt to different environmental conditions, perfecting their abilities in the process. We are beginning to see the truth of Black Elk’s understanding, that all of creation, in its distinctive unique way, acknowledges the intentions of its Creator.

The second is in a far different realm. It requires more of us than simply being a part of creation. Scientists do not yet undertand the mysteries of the human mind. They might well be skeptical that minds can communicate in a way that might activate a noösphere. Nevertheless, there are already suggestions of what Teilhard imagined, in the way people all over the world are, for example, using technology to converge more closely… or how peoples of diverse cultures are building communities that are already linked to each other through prayerful awareness. Both types of activity are required, and both examples are already building-up a global consciousness.

Open Source software has made it possible for the world’s software engineers to interact with each other when writing programming code. This is an impressive application of technology in support of human collaboration. It has enabled rapid advances in solving sophisticated mathematical and scientific problems. One result of such work is that there now exist enormous databases of algorithmic code snippets that can be used, freely, by anyone to build even more sophisticated computer programs.

Another example of the way human aspirations are already linked—even over great geographic distances—is the way social networking tools are influencing the geopolitical and social evolutions that are taking place in diverse corners of the world.

Prayerful communities exist on every continent. To the extent that they are genuinely seeking an understanding of our relationship with the Creator, our relationship to one another or our role in creation, they represent an important stage of convergence.

Admittedly, these are very crude examples that only dimly hint at the noösphere. But they help me imagine, in tangible ways, what is otherwise obscure to me in Teilhard’s use of the term “convergence.”

Whether or not I understand its details, what seems clear to me is that we humans live—as I believe the Creator intended us to live—in an existential reality of perpetual potential.

Fulfilling my potential properly, and to the extent possible for me, is my life’s challenge. Our collective success in doing so (or lack of it) is continually reflected in the evolutionary history of our species.

This is a buoyant understanding and joyous response to the goodness of creation. “God saw, and God saw that it was good.”

Which brings me to a conundrum.  What about my cancer?  What role does it play in this good creation?

My cancer is undeniably adept. Scientists believe that the genetic mutations that characterize cancer cells have co-evolved with human beings for millennia. Put another way, cancer cells, genetically speaking, seem to have co-existed in human beings—maybe even required us for their evolution—right alongside the countless “ordinary” cells that give my body its corporeal reality. My cancer is, in this sense, already fully a part of me at my birth.

What we don’t know about cancer would fill the world’s libraries. What we observe, is nothing less than astonishing.

Cancer has developed an ability to avoid the body’s impressive immune system. Cancer can overcome the body’s natural defenses so it can engage in its chosen activity pretty much unrestrained. Cancer adapts itself, specifically, to the environment of different individuals. Each person’s cancer seems largely to be customized to that person (making generalized remedies difficult to achieve). Cancer cells have been successful in overriding the natural cellular ageing process that governs the duration of functionality in “ordinary” cells. Cancer cells have an unrestrained capacity for replication and life.

In many objective ways, cancer can be admired for its manifold adaptations to its environments… except for the fact that what cancer cells have evolved to do—combined with their unbridled life goal—is counterproductive to the life of my own body. Is it just that these particular cells are “out of order”? Is my cancer which has such a long pedigree essentially bad or evil? Is the cancer in my body there for any other reason than to harm me?

None of these questions are easy to answer. What appears to be the case, however, is that these cells have “learned” several techniques about living in my body. Scientists could well learn a lot from understanding what and how they employ those techniques. Indeed, it is also likely that in such learning, not only will researchers be able to design a method to contain and restrict the harmful effects of cancerous activity; they might well learn important processes and methodologies that could be used to enhance the life of persons with other kinds of illnessess and maladies.

These three trains of thought are very satisfying to me in a time of uncertainty and discouragement:

• Creation is an intended initiative of a Creator. Creation is, by definition good. “…and God saw that it was good.” Creation’s natural response to being created is to acknowledge the Creator by naturally striving to be the highest fulfillment of the Creator’s intention. So far as we can tell, only we humans have a choice in this matter.

• The apparently unique gift of humanity is our intellectual capacity, our self-referential awareness as created beings and our ability to choose to direct ourselves towards fulfilling our own special potential. When we do this we do so in concert with all creation, but perhaps also on behalf of creation through our collective manifestation of consciousness.

• In aspiring to act humanly, we can build a community of awareness that can activate our collective potential. This requires a humble attitude of love and recognition of each other’s created brotherhood and sisterhood. It also requires a studied and felt concentrated consciousness of our particular and potential role in creation.

In trying to express this carefully, my words sound pedantic, somewhat abstract and theoretical. In fact, to recognize the goodness of all creation, and to recognize that I can choose to fulfill my role within creation to the best of my ability, represents something joyful and exuberant.

Perhaps one way to understand it is the converse of the way I have previously described our dog, Gracie. I previously wrote that Gracie provides for me unstinting loyalty and constant affection and that she takes me out for health-restoring walks. I get an inkling of what I am to do with respect to creation when I provide food, water and shelter for Gracie. I see my different role vis-a-vis Gracie, particularly when I take her out for a walk, all the while anticipating traffic, watching for potentially aggressive animals on the path and somehow orchestrating her experience to bring Gracie delight. I do this through my conscious attentiveness. I should employ this same attentiveness to all creation around me. But its never a one-way activity; such attentiveness seems always to consist in a reciprocal appreciation of life. Perhaps this mystery is best prefigured by the exuberant prayer of one who pre-dated both Black Elk and Teilhard de Chardin. He wrote a long song whose structure  reads as follows:

Praised be You with all Your creatures…

…especially Sir Brother Sun…

…through Sister Moon and the Stars…

…through Brothers Wind and Air…

…through Sister Water…

…through Brother Fire…

…through our Sister Mother Earth…

…producing varied fruits and colored flowers…