I have found most hospice patients happy to see the chaplain, or least receptive. At worst, distracted or indifferent. But I once had a patient who was downright hostile, and made it clear that my visit was something to be checked off with as much dispatch, and as little engagement, as possible. He laid down on the bed in his worn leather jacket and dirty baseball cap, answering my assessment questions peremptorily: yes, he’d made peace with his children; yes, he’d said his goodbyes. He was fine, thanks, And that seemed to be all—until I learned that he was a retired union organizer.
I mentioned that some of my Dad’s uncles helped to organize the West Virginia coal mines. After a rich silence, he said softly, “That was back when you could get shot for doing this. Those guys left all the cushy jobs to us.” Before I left, we held hands and prayed together.
Near my old high school is a large property owned by a local limestone quarry. The property includes a lake, a waterfall, limestone caves, deciduous forest, evergreen forest, and wetlands. The area around the lake is replete with fossils, and the lake is so clear (due to the alkalinity of the limestone) that you can see to the bottom. There is also, deep in the woods, a large, flat rock at the top long rise, commanding a spectacular view of the lake and surrounding forest. I spent a lot of solitary time there in my teens.
My high school had standing permission to take students to this tract of land for various field trips, and there was a legend that some students once managed to purloin a large lump of potassium from one of the school science rooms, and throw it in the lake to watch the explosion. As I heard the story, people were picking fish out of the trees the rest of the summer. Kids would also go to the caves at odd times to drink beer and smoke weed, of course.
On the way to this high place, I first had to traverse a marshy area, with a very narrow footpath that went on for a long time, and invariably gave way to smelly marsh mud at least once along the way. Once I emerged onto higher, solid ground, I could see a low, ruined stone wall that follows the path for about 100 yards. It is all that remains of an 18th-century farm. The limestone hills of central New York State are dotted with post-Revolutionary war ruins, the remains of farms that were given in return for military service, and gradually abandoned as their unsuitability for farming became clear. (I once played a gig at an annual party that takes place in the foundation of a ruined farmhouse near some abandoned railroad tracks halfway up one of these large limestone hills.)
Of course, all the land used to belong to the Onondagas, the local branch of the Haudenosaunee, or "longhouse people." (The Native Americans more widely known as the Iroquois.)
As I continued along the path, I’d came to a stream, over which people periodically left planks, large branches or limbs, or fallen saplings by way of bridge. It was always an adventure getting over the creek on this makeshift pontoon, but I was grateful that it was there. Until, of course, the day when it wasn't, and it fell to me to scrounge up enough windfalls to bridge the creek.
After crossing the stream, I would walk on a wide path through the woods, with a steep slope downward on my left that led toward the lake, and a steep rise in my right that led toward a ridge where the limestone caves and my lookout rock were to be found. When I saw the faint path off to my right, I would leave the main trail and start climbing. At the top of the ridge I would hoist myself onto the large flat rock and into the sunshine.
I think about this place whenever I see the memes and tweets people post about the difference between what they blithely call "spirituality," and what they deride as "organized religion." My path to this high, open, sunny place with the amazing view was rough in places; it included the ruins of projects that didn't work out, and the land itself had been stolen from the previous inhabitants. There are silly stories associated with the preserve, and people definitely abuse it for their own gratification. Nevertheless, because of the people who trodden the path before me, I was able to reach my goal without having to resort to a machete or heavy equipment.
One of my composition teachers in college once said, "Composers who set out to create a new musical language usually end up not getting anything said." I am grateful to those who came before me, and spared me the trouble of having to reinvent the wheel. I am grateful to have been able to make my own small contribution toward keeping the place accessible. I am grateful that Jesus is "the pioneer and perfecter of our faith," (Heb. 12:1) because I am not made of pioneer stuff myself. It's not a perfect arrangement, but it is there, available to help me reach my goal.
If all we have is "spirituality," we must all be pioneers, laboriously blazing our own trails. The trails that other imperfect people have blazed for us serve us in the same way that "religion" serves "spirituality." They make our inner strivings visible, or struggles relatable, and our goal attainable.
I have been told that when physicians attach exotic diagnoses to commonplace symptoms, their colleagues say that they “heard hoofbeats in the hall and assumed it was a zebra.”
In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, "I am thirsty." But according to the gospel, he said it, not for the obvious reasons – that he had probably not had anything to drink since dinner the night before, that he had lost a lot of blood during a flogging, that he was hanging in the hot sun, that he was thirsty – but that he said it "in order that the scripture might be fulfilled." With all due respect to the author of John's Gospel, that sure sounds like a zebra to me.
After my recent spine surgery, between the pain and the virtual paralysis in my left arm and leg, going to the bathroom was such an ordeal that I basically stopped eating and drinking -- or rather, I ate and drank just enough to stave off the loving nagging of my attentive physician wife. This went on for five days in the hospital, and the first two or three days of inpatient rehab. But somewhere around the third day, I began to drink. A lot. The nurses kept the big Styrofoam cups of water coming, and I kept draining them as fast as they came; I simply couldn't get enough. Every cell in my body cried out for it; my blood, my lymph, my cerebrospinal fluid – all of them cried out to be replenished. I was thirsty.
Discomfort with the fact of Jesus’ bodily humanity has a long pedigree. The third century Alexandrian theologian Origen only grudgingly admitted that Jesus ate and drank at all, and insisted that he did so "in a manner unique to himself, such that the food did not pass from his body." Apparently Jesus wouldn't have had the same problem I had in the hospital.
The church’s troubled relationship with the physical body has persisted into our own time, and the world has been watching. I used to write for a large amalgamated blog that specialized in Buddhism and yoga. As one of only two Christian writers on the blog, I often had outraged yogis unload on me about the presumption of a Christian writer writing on a blog about yoga. After all, Christians hate the body. Everybody knows that.
Once I asked a commentor to quote me a passage from the Gospels that suggested a hatred of the body. He came back with about a dozen passages – all from the letters of Paul, not the Gospels. I decided to let that go. But I informed him that the New Testament uses two Greek words that are both translated as "the flesh." Soma means the literal, physical body, and it hardly ever appears in the New Testament. Sarx means the carnal nature, our tendency to sin for the sake of gratifying our physical desires. I looked up all of the passages the angry yogi had provided, and discovered that every single one of them used the word sarx where the English text said "the flesh." Not a single one of those passages referred to the literal, physical body.
And yet, it isn't enough to point that out, because there is truth in the angry yogi’s criticism. The Christian religion, which is predicated on God taking on human flesh, has often had an ambivalent-at-best relationship with the physical body. I believe the downplaying of Jesus’ physical humanity is part of what allows some Christians to applaud the possibility of food stamps and health care coverage being taken away from the poor. "I was hungry, and you gave me food," said Jesus in the parable of the sheep and the goats. "I was naked, and you clothed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink." There are no thoughts and prayers in the parable. It's all about concrete needs, most of them relating to the physical body.
Because the physical body is a huge part what the Christ project is all about. In Jesus of Nazareth, God lived a human life and died a human death, and along the way experienced hunger, thirst, pain, pleasure, heat, cold, desire, aversion, and all the thousand natural shocks that the flesh is heir to – and all the messy emotional stuff, too: love, loss, grief, anger, and abandonment. So when we are suffering, we can turn to God in Jesus, and God in Jesus will revive our spirits.
In fact, if it were up to me to choose a passage of Scripture that the Christ project fulfilled, it would be this passage from the book of the prophet Isaiah:
Thus says the High and Lofty One
Who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,
But also with those who have a contrite and humble spirit,
To revive the spirit of the humble,
And to revive the heart of the contrite.
The unchanging, transcendent, incorporeal creator of the universe has stubbed his toes and blown his nose and seen his loved ones die, in a body just like ours.
Scott Robinson is an interfaith minister, musician, and spiritual director in Philadelphia. Hear his music at www.mandalaband.net.