Dominican Sister Catherine Stewart had emergency surgery on Aug. 6, 2014 — the Feast of the Transfiguration.
“I will never forget the transfiguration I experienced that day,” said Sr. Catherine, principal of Fr. McCartan Memorial School in Marceline and author of a book called Facing Cancer with Mary.
That day, her surgeon found a cancerous tumor and removed it, along with all but 18 inches of her large intestine, and diagnosed her with Stage IIIB colon cancer.
Then came an aggressive chemotherapy regimen.
“I started it on the Feast of Michael, Gabriel and Raphael — Sept. 29,” she recalled. “I finished sometime in the middle of March.”
All the while, she kept a prayer journal, jotting down reactions and reflections on what she was experiencing, feeling and observing.
“Some of it was art-as-prayer,” she said. “I did some drawing along the way. Some of it was quotes that struck me. I put them into my journal and reflected on them.”
She found meaning and motivation in walking back to health with Mary, who had followed her Son through joy and suffering and into eternal glory.
“Mary was a strong and courageous woman,” Sr. Catherine noted. “She lived in darkness at times when she was unsure of where her journey was taking her. She grew in her relationships — small steps at a time.
“She lived in the present and tried to respond to the moment at hand, trusting that saying ‘yes’ in small, everyday ways would deepen her faith and assuage the doubts that lurked within,” Sr. Catherine wrote.
Time and space
The treatments were successful.
Afterward, Sr. Catherine took the journal with her on a weeklong retreat, as an aid to giving thanks and reflecting on what she had endured with God’s assistance.
Revisiting the reflections exhilarated her and filled her with gratitude.
“Oh my goodness! God has been so present!” she said. “What a gift of grace!”
Almost instinctively, she began tying the ups and downs of her cancer journey to something as natural to her has her vocation: the Rosary.
“Part of our life as Dominicans is that we pray the Rosary every day,” she noted. “I’ve been doing that since I entered the order.”
It dawned on her that Mary had been a central part of her journey of healing.
“I just hadn’t been deeply aware of it until I had the time and space to begin pulling it all together,” said Sr. Catherine.
She also recognized parallels between instances in her treatment and recovery and the Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary.
“For me, the cancer journey was well balanced,” she noted. “There were moments of joy, of sorrow, of gloriousness.”
Near the end of the retreat, she started writing.
“The idea was in my mind and I had been running away from it,” she said. “But by Thursday, it was like, ‘I might do this.’”
Once she started, she couldn’t stop.
“It was more for myself,” she recalled, “just to pull all the pieces and parts together so I could make sense of my own journey and where God had been present and where Mary had been present.”
Sr. Catherine was glued to the TV with her 36 second-graders in Duluth, Minnesota, watching a U.S. schoolteacher blast off into space.
It was Jan. 28, 1986.
Before their eyes, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, killing teacher Christa McAuliffe and the other six astronauts onboard.
“You could hear a pin drop,” Sr. Catherine recalled.
Later on, one of the children asked her, “If you knew you were going to die, would have gone up in the Challenger?”
“I remember looking back and saying, ‘Yes. God only asks us to do two things in life. The first is to let people love us. My mom and dad, grandma and grandpa, aunts and uncles have all loved me.
“The second,” she continued, “is to love other people. I have loved my dad and mom and grandparents and all of you.”
The children were satisfied: “We’ve done all those things. We’re ready to die, too.”
Sr. Catherine’s spontaneous answer and her students’ response has stayed with her.
“God only asking two things of us: to love and to be loved,” she said. “That’s probably the heart of this whole book — that throughout this whole journey, I was loved and I loved others.”
“Get it done”
Sr. Catherine holds a doctorate in curriculum and instruction.
She was serving as a professor of education at Blackburn College in Illinois when her cancer journey began.
She was already a published author.
She had written Learning Centers: Saints, a collection lessons and activities for teachers to share with their students about holy men and women of the recent and distant past; and Enriching Faith: Lessons and Activities on Prayer, a collection of prayers and activities that can be shared with young people.
After finishing her Rosary manuscript, she sent it to a friend to show how fruitful her retreat had been.
Her friend read it and said, “You have to send this to your publisher!”
“No way!” Sr. Catherine answered. “It’s too personal. There’s way too much of me in it.”
Her friend became persistent and then insistent.
Out of frustration, she finally sent what she had written to her contact at Twenty-Third Publications, which had published her previous two books.
They called back within three hours and said, “We want it. Let’s get it done.”
“So now I had to change my tune and say, ‘Thank you very much,’ but it’s still kind of scary,” she recalled.
“It took some time for me to realize that I needed to let go of my fear and let my cancer journey speak for itself,” she said.
“It turned out to be more than fine,” she stated. “Lots of people have been in contact with me about how much it has helped them.”
“There will be gifts”
While praying the Rosary, Sr. Catherine tends to lose herself in the mysteries of each decade.
“Usually, I get lost in ‘what are the annunciations of today?’ or ‘Who in our world needs to be visited today?’” she said.
She contemplates how the mysteries tie into the headlines or into the lives of people she knows.
“Some of them are revisiting cancer for second or third time,” she noted. “A new ‘annunciation’ in their life is their third round of cancer. What does that look like? What does that feel like?”
She said there’s no sense asking “why” when dealing with cancer.
“There are no answers.” she said. “You just say, ‘We’re walking through this together, and there are gifts that will be given. I don’t know what they are yet. I don’t know when I will see them. But I know they will be there.”
She often thinks of a book she read a long time ago: The Father is Very Fond of Me: Experiences in the Love of God, by Edward J. Farrell.
“That has been my go-to because the Father was very fond of Mary,” said Sr. Catherine. “And Mary is very fond of me, and so is the Father. Those are the relationships that get me through everything.”
Sr. Catherine said it has been humbling to hear back from cancer patients and fellow survivors who have read her book.
“It’s been a gift to me to hear how God can work in so many different ways through the same words,” she said.
In that way, it’s sort of like Sacred Scripture.
“We all hear the same words,” she noted. “But the way it comes into our heart and the way we choose to push it back out can be so different.”
Facing Cancer with Mary has now been published in several languages throughout the world.
“What I’ve found really interesting is how different countries use different covers,” she said. “All of them depict Mary, but they’re very different.”
“I can pick out my name in the other languages,” she added.
The publisher of one of the foreign editions asked her to include reflections on the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary.
“Those five reflections are more about survivorship, and ‘five or six years later, what is it like to be the survivor now that you’ve been through the first part?’” she said.
Sr. Catherine reread the book last November, after testing positive for Stage I lung cancer.
Her doctors reassured her that this was not a recurrence of her pervious cancer.
She had the tumor surgically removed and didn’t need any chemo or radiation.
“So I got to visit again with Mary in this very special way,” she said.
This time, as a principal, she had the children at Fr. McCartan praying for her.
“In their own way, they dealt with it,” she said. “They don’t talk about it too much. And neither do I, they don’t need to go there.”
Sr. Catherine said suffering has taught her to be aware and grateful of the here-and-now and “and how important it is to be present in the present.”
She turned to one of her favorite passages in the book. Pertaining to the Fourth Joyful Mystery: The Presentation of Jesus, it speaks of profound gratitude.
“Periodically, my own hands are folded in prayer as I asked God to bless all of those who took care of me — those who emotionally supported me, those who prayed for me, and those who visited me. Simultaneously, I also believed that those who had gone before me also presented me to God for healing. I was adamant in my belief that my dad, grandparents, aunts, uncles and some very close friends who had died from cancer also begged God for my complete recovery.
“But most of my encounters with God at this time were through others. As I chatted with other cancer patients, I found that many of them had the same experience. Praying was difficult, if not impossible, because it was hard to concentrate.
“Like Simeon, I was filled with gratitude!”
Facing Cancer with Mary can be purchased online at: twentythirdpublications.com.