The National Catholic Review
Facing who I really am
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I have noticed among undergraduates a difficulty accepting that Christians actually hold to the old Jewish belief of resurrection of the body and not to the Greeks' "immortality of the soul." Whether this issue arises while discussing Jesus' resurrection or the afterlife, I find myself explaining that Christians believe it is intrinsic to human beings to be physical in some way. Even if our current bodies are not prepared for permanence, Jesus' resurrection still indicates some sort of continuity, which Paul contemplates in the First Letter to the Corinthians. In our imaginations, the immortality of the soul is a less messy idea, if comfortably vague. When talking with my students, however, I argue that the idea of resurrection has more satisfyingly complex claims to make, wrapping together fundamental beliefs about being human, about the cosmos and the doctrine of Creation and our relation to our environment.

Newer experiences have made the question not just historical and theological, but immediate and personal. In April 2007, as a doctoral student, I had a small basal cell carcinoma—the happiest of skin cancers, with an infinitesimal metastasis rate—removed from the side of my left nostril. It was excised and smoothed over with minor plastic surgery in one afternoon, a satisfying story of the wonders of medicine.

Except that they did not get it all. Somewhere between doing the surgeries together and running samples to a lab to verify that all the cancer had been removed, they missed something. And for the next four years, these cells proceeded to eat away at my face: a skin cancer under the surface of my skin. Only in August 2011, as I started my second year of professorship, could some sign be seen on my skin, when the surgery location began to dimple. Consulting a plastic surgeon, I discovered that the skin dimpled there because there was no longer anything below it. Further examinations revealed a cancer so large that I was going to lose the left side of my nose, my inner left cheek and some of my upper left lip.

In December 2011 I found myself at home after the excision, staring into the bathroom mirror and summoning the courage to change my antibiotic dressings for the first time. This required me to reach into my head and pull them out of my exposed nasal cavity. This also meant that I would now see the new me, entirely revealed. I was no prize-winner before, but at that moment I knew I was never going to look like me again. As I stared, aghast, the old phrase came to mind: I’m losing face.

I coped by joking about it, marveling at the oddity of it all and tapping into the plastic surgeons’ enthusiasm for their work. (I recognize academics geeking-out over their subject.) I made mock complaints about teaching in bandages, or perhaps a Phantom of the Opera-style mask, so as not to repel my students during my semester of reconstructive surgeries. And I recalled that many people had worse problems.

I reconsidered my students’ debates about the idea of the resurrection and asked questions of my own wounded body. Was my lost face not really me? Was it, like any lost hangnail, or even a limb, able to be discarded? Are our bodies only passing dust? That seems in line with the Greek way of thinking, after all. Yet humans are wired for facial recognition. We identify with our faces differently than with any other part of our bodies. (I could not recognize any friend of mine by the elbow.) That sounds a little more like the Jewish perspective on bodies.

Further hints came from the two ultimate resources: acquired wisdom and grace. I knew that eventually today would be yesterday, that life had already taught me that things that are now overwhelming are later simply stories to tell. “Keep walking” became the reminder I repeated to myself.

Grace came, as usual, in forms unexpected. One night it was Sarah dropping by, an artist I was helping to design a stained-glass window for a chapel. She did not know that I had returned that afternoon from my most disfiguring reconstructive surgery: a forehead-flap nasal reconstruction. I had a strip of my forehead hanging down, sewn to my nose, growing into it as new flesh. I was stitched, taped, draining and bandaged; and (forbidden to shower for another day) my hair was still matted with dried blood. If there was ever a time I did not want to be visited by a stylish young artist, this was it. I warned her through the door about my current state, but she insisted on coming in. She had brought dinner. Despite the fact that I looked like a chew toy for Jaws, she spent the next several hours looking me in the face, laughing and conversing, amazed that I would think that she was bothered by my current appearance.

“Losing face” was real, but so was the fact that I was still myself. My face was still my own, though changed by a drastic, unexpected experience. Perhaps a chief lesson our bodies teach us is that they are continuity in transformation. Our bodies never were static, unchanging realities. At Easter, the disciples experienced transformed continuity in Jesus, and as such, even the extreme possibility of resurrection is still somewhat consistent with our general experience. After all, the face I have now is not the face I had previously, but even that face had been different from the face I wore at 20 or at 10. Scarred, with a lumpy, uneven nose, this is my face—new, but still me.

Michael Anthony Novak has served as visiting assistant professor of religious studies at Loyola University New Orleans.

Comments

Ken Shick | 11/18/2012 - 12:56pm

Michael I had had melanoma myself and the operation which was just before Halloween prompted me to call myself Shickenstein. But the experience for me didn't confirm a belief in bodily resurrection or intrinsic physicality. In my reading of the mystics who knew God the concept of self which spawns self-love is man’s problem not his reality. This is universally accepted in Mysticism around the world. However, for people who just want to believe, anything is possible. In all due respect if I misread your article please let me know. 

6466379 | 11/3/2012 - 5:29pm

I want to congratulate Mr. Michael Anthony Novak for his “article of Faith,” yes, a bona fide ARTICLE OF FAITH, “The Man In The Mirror” which I found Faith-confirming and love-affirming  in the Lord for  whom all things “work together” in positive ways unto good, even disfiguration absorbed into the disfiguration of the “Suffering Servant” who  lacking in human attractiveness, became  as it were, “a worn, not a man.” Jesus Christ, disfigured so that humanity may be refigured!

It’s interesting to relate to Jesus as “worm,” earth worm so to speak. The Inspiring Spirit knew, but Isaiah couldn’t know what an appropriate image he used by naming Jesus a “worm.”  The humble earthworm is a most valuable creature without which there could be no greening of the earth – a creature who  loosens the soil through it wriggle, allowing oxygen  to enter the soil and who through its bodily waste adds nitrogen to the soil – Oxygen and Nitrogen, the two indispensable additives necessary to greening the earth, without which only moon-like desolation would prevail. On the spiritual level we know what “Worm Jesus” did for us by his + and how desolate would we be without his disfiguration!

Mr. Novak’s facial cancer surgery brought forth  from his soul a song of profound wisdom, acknowledging that, “The face I have now is not the   face   I previously had … new but still ME!” “New, but still ME,” yes, the everlasting unchanging and  unchangeable  ME, nurtured in the  warm embrace and “unchanging newness”  of the Everlasting Arms, in whom the ME experiences  “no change or shadow of alteration,” applying Paul’s imagery explaining Everlasting Life.

Thank you Mr. Novak! With Jesus I  say with amazement, "Not even in Israel, have I found such Faith!”

susan russell | 11/2/2012 - 4:48pm
This is an amazing story of courage and understanding   Understanding "of yourself" and courage and energy to climb a mountain.
Although your description was graphic it brought the point "home" acquired vision and grace! 
I wish you years of insight ! You must be an exceptional teacher.
 S. Russell