"The conditions of my life are precarious," film critic Roger Ebert wrote last week in a posting on his online journal titled, "Fall from Grace."
Ebert, 69, perhaps the pre-eminent film critic in the United States and a longtime colleague of mine at the Chicago Sun Times newspaper, where he's been a staff writer since 1966, has rather famously been battling a series of health crises in recent years.
Diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2002, Ebert has since battled cancer in his salivary gland and jaw bone, undergoing grueling treatments and numerous surgeries. While today he is, blessedly, cancer-free, he can no longer speak or eat and wears a prosthetic chin for his appearances on his television program, "Ebert Presents: At the Movies."
While his body may be weaker and his audible voice gone (but for the nifty text-to-voice computer named "Alex" he uses to vocalize his thoughts now), as trite as it may sound, Ebert's spirit is as vibrant, alive and engaged as ever.
In that blog post earlier this month about a nasty fall he took reaching for a book that had dropped to the floor next to his bed late one night, Ebert, as he so often does, spoke honestly, with great wit, from the heart.
"I have arrived at a balancing point between sickness and health, and it is the bargain I live with. I don't take chances," he wrote. "(Doctor) Havey gave me some pain med. Nothing addictive, I insisted. It helped a little. He said the pain could last as long as six weeks, but it now seems to be subsiding. It is the pain to my peace of mind that continues."
The fall, he said, cast him into a depression, faced with the realization that he has been "having a daily reprieve from greater disability."
"I was walking on a narrow path with a chasm on either side," he wrote. "I returned to reviewing movies, which as always freed me from myself and occupied my mind... What I was avoiding, I realized, was writing about this subject. It is humiliating for an adult to fall out of bed, and still worse if he has done it not by accident but by stupidity. Why didn't I simply sit up in bed and bend over? The fall portrayed me as vulnerable, and I prefer to think of myself as enduring."
Ebert may feel physically vulnerable, but he certainly endures -- the embodiment of the motto, "A writer writes." The critic is prolific, perhaps even more so since his medical battles this past decade.
Most recently, Ebert, who has published more than a dozen books -- not including his annual movie guides -- has written a memoir titled "Life Itself". As I understand it, the book grew out of his online blog and diary, and it maintains the same compelling voice, august wit, virtuoso sarcasm and exquisite writing that have been his hallmark as a critic and columnist.
He starts at the beginning with his childhood in Urbana, Ill. "I was born inside the movie of my life," he writes in the first lines of the memoir.
In the last few chapters of "Life Itself," Ebert, a cradle Catholic who often invokes his childhood religious training and beliefs in his reviews -- and who regularly and quite deftly writes about spiritual issues in film -- turns his attention to eternal (or maybe not) matters.
The chapter "How I Believe in God," is one of the more self-aware, humble and eloquent accounts of personal belief I've ever read. Ebert is unfailingly honest, whether he's writing about a movie he hates -- he famously wrote of one such film "Your movie sucks!" -- world events, politics, social mores or his personal life.
"I have no interest in megachurches with jocular millionaire pastors," he writes. "I think what happens in them is sociopolitical, not spiritual. I believe the prosperity gospel tries to pass through the eye of the needle. I believe it is easier for a Republican to pass through the eye of a needle than for a camel to get into heaven. I have no patience for churches that evangelize aggressively."
"I have no interest in being instructed in what I must do to be saved. I prefer vertical prayers, directed up toward heaven, rather than horizontal prayers, directed sideways toward me," he continued. "If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, we must regard their beliefs with the same respect our own deserve."
Ebert will not affix a label to his spirituality, instead preferring to give more complicated, more fully honest responses to spiritual questions.
"I am not a believer, not an atheist, not an agnostic," he writes. "I am more content with questions than with answers."
Life Itself concludes with the chapter, "Go Gently," in which Ebert contemplates what comes next, if anything. He looks forward by looking back.
"To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts," he says. "We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances.
"We must try," he says. "I didn't always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out."
Amen, Mr. Ebert.
Cathleen Falsani is author of the new book BELIEBER!: Faith, Fame and the Heart of Justin Bieber.
This column originally appeared via Religion News Service.