Dancing to my Death, with a love called cancer by Fr Daniel O’Leary (Columba Books, €16.99) reviewed by Michael Mullaney.
Fr Daniel O’Leary, bestselling author and retreat director found his ministry upended and his life utterly disorientated when he was diagnosed with cancer in June of 2018. His final book Dancing to my Death, chronicles his Via Crucis as the foundations of his faith were shaken, the pillars of his certainties fell and the usual faith strategies he shared with others no longer worked for him. Plunged into suffering so intense that shook every fibre of his being, he lost his centre as he wrestled with doubt, denial and desolation. He was shocked at the difference between his past ‘good and holy thoughts’ about dealing with cancer and dying, and the terrible, raw and relentless reality of it.
This seasoned man of faith felt once more a complete neophyte in the search for God and meaning. There is no masking the turmoil and trauma, in short, the deep and long dark night of the soul that O’Leary entered into during his final journey. With his mastery of language, colourful imagination, rich treasure of lifelong reading and reflection, he vividly chronicles how he struggled to find redemption in his suffering, learning ‘to grow by subtraction’, and articulates graphically the almost unbearable and overwhelming fears he experienced as he faced into the dark abyss.
This book is a challenging read. It is harrowing and honest as Daniel O’Leary swings between despair and hope; learning to cope with humiliating indignities that cancer inflicts on those whose bodies it ravages. In a graphic detail, we learn how cancer not only chips away at the body, but also our cherished beliefs and securities.
Anger and disillusionment bubble up regularly through this diary of his personal Calvary: not only at his sickness and God as would be expected, but bitterly at the harm inflicted on innocent children by abusing priests and at clericalism in the Church. He finds himself in a place he never was in before and there is very little relief from his relentless spiritual Gethsemane which permeates much of the book.
O’Leary’s spiritual diary of dying strips back the shallowness, emptiness and superficiality of our religious lives; suffering and dying ‘finds us out’, whether we are prepared to follow Jesus into this territory and “be crucified to a new way of living and love…. Walking away seems a good idea.” He invites and cautions us not to wait until tragedy strikes to work this out.
Through the pages the reader waits for the slow but radically new level of salvation to dawn; a new conversion to seeing God even in the mystery of suffering. Pious thoughts, we discover, are clearly no morphine for the agonising and tormented soul.
The steadfast journey through this book feels like a long winter of the soul, yet suddenly you begin to notice spring shoots. Undeniably, hints of light, glimpses of deeper meaning and healing moments occasionally break through. Just enough and just in time! O’Leary draws strength and healing from the wisdom of those who have reflected on their horrific suffering and struggled with their temptation to despair. But he forges his own wisdom drawing from the Paschal Mystery. He stands at this liminal space where his inoperable cancer becomes the way through, by grace and personal courage, ‘to a much deeper level and a much larger frame.’ He surrenders into the divine embrace in way he never had to before, to become his most authentic presence: “It is from here that I may one day start living again…” Seven months after beginning this book Daniel O’Leary died. It is a rich and rewarding legacy to the intensity and depth with which he lived those final months both physically and spiritually. Those who read the book will appreciate the wisdom of an old proverb: no matter how long the winter, spring is sure to follow.
If you would like to buy a copy of Dancing to my Death, you can click here.