Part 2: 'My body is a temple of the Holy Spirit': Healing service precedes surgery
July 2, 1996
Bishop Geralyn Wolf has agreed to allow the Journal-Bulletin to chronicle her physical, emotional and spiritual journey through breast cancer in occasional stories. "My health is intertwined with the health of the community, so why not?" she said in an interview yesterday afternoon. "Why not share this?"
Though she never used the words, "breast cancer," and referred only in passing to the surgery she will undergo tomorrow, Episcopal Bishop Geralyn Wolf nonetheless got a personal message out to 400 people who crowded into St. John's Cathedral last night for an unusual healing service.
She talked of being beckoned into something "totally different and new," of learning to let herself be ministered to, and of attaining a new sense of freedom as she opens herself to "the great outpouring of affection" from her flock.
Wolf, 49, announced two weeks ago that during a routine breast self-exam, she found a small lump, which proved cancerous. Her right breast and several lymph nodes will be removed tomorrow morning in a modified radical mastectomy at Women & Infants Hospital, after which she will immediately undergo breast reconstruction surgery, using muscle tissue taken from her back.
Her hospital stay is expected to last from three to five days.
In last night's service at the cathedral, during which she was anointed with oil by four Episcopal priests, Wolf offered her experience to the congregation as a chance for them to learn something together.
"I don't pretend that I'm going to enjoy Wednesday - or Thursday, or Friday," she said in her only reference to the surgery, but just as Jesus sent his disciples out with no destination, she said, she, too, has none.
"Don't think for a minute," she said, "that just because one is a bishop that one has all the answers."
The service was in the form of a "Taize prayer," which was developed by monks in the Burgundy region of France, where the bishop has spent some time. It is chanted in Latin.
Aware that it might be unfamiliar to most present, Wolf opened the service by assuring them that "if you don't get anxious, it will come to you and you'll feel comfortable." She promised that when all the different voices blend as one, "it makes quite a beautiful sound."
Indeed, the people's voices filled the cathedral in waves of repeating sound that resembled chimes. White votive candles flickered everywhere, and incense wafted upward, all creating an ethereal effect.
The bishop chanted with them in a clear, high voice. During quieter moments in the service, she seemed lost in meditation.
And then there were times when her plain-talking approach to ministering caused the congregation to break up in laughter.
"Please don't appoint yourself as an usher," she instructed them at one point, by way of explaining how communion would be distributed. "I am convinced that the people of God know how to move down an aisle without assistance."
Later, she thanked those who sent cards and letters, which "boost me up at just the moment I want to turn on the TV and fold into someone else's reality."
At the same time, however, she praised the value of "just staying away."
This last comment reflects her strong desire for privacy and quiet time, even as she opens herself up to increased public attention.
Since the news broke of her cancer, which is in its early stages, she said in the afternoon interview, many well-wishers have stopped her to talk about it.
"I love being the bishop. I am in my element. I love it. I love Rhode Island. I love the people I've met," she said. "I don't love going out to the supermarket . . . and having someone talk for 20 minutes about breast cancer. It's really very nice, but it's wearing."
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A change in diet
By the end of last night's service, however, the bishop seemed not at all tired, but jubilant, accepting embraces near the cathedral door from a long line of congregants, who spilled out onto the steps as happily as if they'd just witnessed a wedding.
"She's truly someone very special," said Dianne Dugan, 42, of North Kingstown.
"She makes an impression on people," said Robert Shillaber, 63, of Wickford. "Something about her . . . she's got a great presence. She touches people."
In the afternoon interview, the bishop said she feels "terrific" and is eager to get the surgery behind her.
In preparation, she has followed her doctor's advice to increase the amount of fruit and vegetables in her diet - "spinach, broccoli, oranges, grapefruit, juices, cantaloupe, peaches, plums, Swiss chard, bib lettuce . . . " - and she tries to get enough sleep.
She urged others to take responsibility for their health, as she has - "whether it be a breast examination or whether it be stopping smoking or whether it be maintaining a good diet or exercising."
Of her decision to speak publicly, she said that, in today's culture, people think they are free and independent, and that's true to a degree, but that we are also part of a community.
"The roads I drive on are the same roads you drive on, so we're sharing common space," she said. "We are really mutually dependent on each other. There's private time, there's personal time and there's the uniqueness of each individual, but there is also this communal spirit, which I think is essential if we are going to make it in this world of ours."
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'Okay to talk about body parts'
Another reason she's speaking out, she said, is to help people see that "it is okay to talk about body parts."
"In our culture, we think of them as being dirty, and forget these are gifts that we've been given by God. They're sacred, so why not take care of sacred things? A sacred vessel - that's who you are, so why not take care of it?
"If I can help you take care of your sacred vessel, isn't that ultimately my job as bishop, as a person of God? That counts more than doing office work or things like that. To be able to say, 'Look, my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit and therefore sacred, and therefore I will treat my body in a special way, honoring it and not be afraid of it.'
"This is good. Maybe someone else will think that way."