Tambourines Of Life
Recently, we read an article written by the Anchoress for Inside Catholic. In it, she recounts the last days of her brother's life and how she and her family ministered to him. The article, A Tsunami Cannot Be Drawn In Pastels:On Dignity And Suffering does not recount a story that is unique to the Anchoress or her family. Her story is the same story one we all know or will know. She writes beautifully and poignantly to be sure, but her recollections are more sublime.
A few days ago, I watched as Mom fed her dying son his supper, patiently holding small spoonful after small spoonful to his lips, encouraging him to swallow and take a little more, offering him a drink, dabbing at his lips. Occasionally, watching him do the hard work of simply eating, she would shake her head sadly and offer him another bite.
I watched this unshrinking woman -- a woman who, ten years ago, would have told you that she could not possibly endure such a reality -- feed her son a pureed meal from his dish, while she nourished him -- and the rest of us present -- in a completely different way, with her unconditional love. Forty years ago, she had fed her son as she feeds him now; back then it was a game, now it is a heavy sadness. But both meals had been flavored by the constancy of her love.
She goes on to repeat the script that too many of us know and still plays in an endless loop inside of us, in the most secret places of our inner selves.
Recently, we stepped outside -- once again -- to allow the nurse to turn her patient in his bed. We know she used the utmost care and delicacy in handling our brother, and yet we could see, upon re-entering his room, how exhausting it had been for him. I stood at the foot of the bed and saw his face as Mom drew near. Too exhausted for words, he reached for her and she took his hand. His eyes saw only his mother, and they said, "Mommy... oh, my Mommy," and her eyes said the rest: "Son... oh, my son."
But this is too sad, it is. Life is so very sad and so very beautiful. Some will scoff: "Beauty? What beauty? What kind of sick mind can find beauty in this pietà? It would be more beautiful to help your brother to end his suffering. Real love has nothing in common with pain. What is to be gained from all of this beside some medieval Catholic satisfaction in suffering?"
I can only answer that question with a question: Do you think that giving my lionhearted brother a "compassionate" needle would truly lessen our suffering, or his? By cutting short the process, do we step off the ViaDolorosa and avoid it all, or do we merely thwart a plan for our own lives? Should we steal from our brother the opportunity for him to reach out a hand and have it immediately grasped, to have everything about his existence affirmed, over and over?
Should we steal from ourselves the opportunity to love?
What the Israelites crossed the sea parted by Moses, they left more than the land of the Pharaohs. In crossing over to the other side of the Red Sea, they exchanged slavery for freedom. While they were no longer shackled by the chains of physical bondage, the psychological chains were not so easy to shake.
The cultural bonds of slavery are not so easy to break. Only when the chains of the cultural bonds of slavery are broken are we really free.
A slave is uninspired. Bondage is a never ending cycle in which the slave seeks only to do the least amount of work with the least amount of effort, because the slave has no hope, for himself or for those closest to him. No slave deliberately seeks out a more tortured existence. To the slave, whatever is easiest is best.
It is no surprise that people who are enslaved are so cavalier about life. Abortion as a form of birth control, adequate health care for the privileged few, poor care for the elderly and the dying are a way of life, because a culture of repression, oppression and bondage offers no hope. The slave is less than human. He or she feels there is no escape or they feel their status as slaves makes them unworthy of even the most basic of human dignities. This is all a part of the culture of slavery.
On the other hand, those of us who are free have the opportunity to create the kind of life we desire. We are free to work for our goals. We are free to work to make our lives and the lives of our loved ones better. We are free to have hope. Freedom from bondage means we are free to explore our possibilities- and that freedom only enhances our worth as human beings. We do not easily destroy things that have value.
We noted in Of Burning Bushes, Places And Time that
It is easy to see the beauty of our spouses, children and loved ones when they are healthy, charming and well dressed. It is not always so easy to see their beauty and uniqueness when that is not the case.
It is also true that sometimes, a person’s real inner beauty and strength are revealed when they face adversity. There are mothers and fathers that marvel at a child’s strength through a debilitating illness. What parent has not secretly proposed to God that they, and not their child, be stricken or afflicted? What parent has not agonized over the trials and tribulations that each child must endure at each and every stage of their lives?
There are husbands who see their wives in a way they had not understood, as those women fight cancers that are unique to their gender and impact how they see themselves as women. Those men come to see a beauty and dignity they had never known and marvel in a stricken spouse’s concern for them and their family. There are wives who have heard grown men, weakened by pain and despair, often in inarticulate and fumbling words that are nothing less than the sweetest poetry, profess their love and appreciation for the wives and family that have nurtured them.
It is at those times we see the real beauty of those who we love and those who love us. It is at those times that we come to understand the kind of love that is real commitment and loyalty.
The Anchoress makes clear how the value of our freedom is very different from the culture of slavery. Life is worth fighting for. She cannot and will not deprive herself of the opportunity to love, because when it is all said and done, that is the greatest gift of freedom- to ferociously defend the right to live and love and to reject thehopelessness, tyranny and the inhumanity of the culture of slavery.
It is also true that our freedom to love and revere the gift of life is not without cost. As the Anchoress has noted elsewhere,
Love cannot exist without pain...
But now I understand, a little, why some prefer not to believe, at all.
Slavery can be intoxicating and numbing and there are a lot of people who like that, not being able to feel. That is the easy life. Slavery is about existing and not living. A lot of people who exist who resent people who really live. They are the purveyors of a different kind of cultural slavery, intent on making the rest of us slaves so that they do not have to live.
The Bible recounts that when the Israelites crossed the parted waters and reached the other side and safety, Moses sister Miriam and others picked up tambourines and celebrated not just the liberation from their oppressors but their liberation from the culture of slavery. Those people, a ragtag collection of a once glorious nation now reduced to a frightened mass by the cruelty of slavery, were meant to overcome their fears and celebrate. Once more, life had meaning and potential for the Children of Israel. Once more, their destiny was to be authored by them and not by the cruel Pharaohs in whatever form they were to assume.
Miriam's celebration was an act of rebellion. She rejected both the physical and cultural chains of slavery. The Israelites were to live and embrace life and fight for life as it was meant to be cherished and fought for, with the ferocity they could muster. They could have sat back and cling to that culture of slavery, the only one they knew. Instead, they chose to embrace life.
The Anchoress and her family were to reluctantly participate in a cruel and heartbreaking family drama. She and they could have acquiesced to the culture of our time, the culture of indifference and self absorbtion, the culture that distances us from the fight for life.
We have been trained in the secular world to disregard life as something holy and to understand that our human potential is inextricably tied to our personal freedoms and our domination over those uncontrollable matters of life: death, pain, and joy. This is a great deception. The truth is, just as human expansion upon the earth depended upon someone being willing to explore those uncharted waters marked, "Here be monsters," our human potential can only grow when it is open to exploring the Unknowable. The vehicle for that exploration is faith. If the monsters of life are pain and suffering, fear and doubt, moving through them is what leads to discovery, growth, and -- yes -- holiness. God does not give us more than we can endure, but we cannot ascertain on our own precisely how much strength we have.
It is impossible to explore the depths of our potential, or its limits, if we steadfastly refuse to take the journey. But increasingly, that refusal is being regarded as wisdom.
The Anchoress, like Miriam before her, chose to rebel against the cold culture of slavery. She and her family embraced life and the opportunity to fight and care and live and love. She would reject the self imprisonment of the prevailing culture and instead fully embrace the richness of life and loss.Distance in life leads to separateness and isolation, a very real deprivation and slavery. The distance of loss preceded by the closeness of love, leads to a more meaningful and cherished life.