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.
In the Roman Catholic devotion called "Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament,” consecrated Host, or communion wafer, is exposed for viewing in a special holder called a "monstrance," so the faithful can pray in its presence. Although the risen Christ is said to be present everywhere, he is believed to be present “in a special way” in the consecrated Sacrament.
Nothing could be more alien to my Methodist upbringing; indeed, I have no doubt that some of my church mentors would have considered the practice idolatrous. Nevertheless, or perhaps precisely for that reason, I have attempted to practice Adoration for many years, whenever I found myself in a Catholic environment in which there was Blessed Sacrament exposed for that purpose. In all that time, I never felt even a tingle – no connection whatever to Jesus in, or as, that piece of bread.
There is a sweet little Adoration chapel in the Basilica of St. Anne de Beaupré, and I visited it more than once during my pilgrimage of healing to the Québec shrine. (Below is a picture of it. I don't know whether photographing it is considered disrespectful or not; I hope not.) During my last visit, as I prayed the Adoration of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament Chaplet, I had the impression that the consecrated Body spoke to me. I don't mean that I heard a literal voice, and my ears were not involved; it was more like the words dropped directly into my head.
"You are the Body of Christ," the Sacrament said.
Then, all on its own, my mind supplied the remembered words of St. Teresa of Avila:
Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
The message was clear: get up out of that little chapel, and start being the Body of Christ in the world.
Now, I'm certainly not saying that there is no validity in Adoration of the Sacrament; in fact, I have no doubt that many, many people draw from the practice the very inspiration that empowers them to function as Christ's body in the world. Maybe you need to grow up with it in order for it to "take." At least, that seems to be the case with me. I seem to have been cut from the team.
It didn't happen all at once, but over the weeks since my return from pilgrimage, I have felt as though all the spiritual practices, all the reading, all the classes and workshops I have undertaken throughout my adult life have finally begun to bear fruit. I feel a little like Daniel in the movie The Karate Kid.
Mr. Miyagi, an Okinawan immigrant (played by Pat Morita,) undertakes to teach karate to Daniel (played by Ralph Macchio) so he can defend himself from some vicious bullies. During the first several lessons, Mr. Miyagi assigns Daniel a number of menial tasks – waxing his collection of classic cars, sanding his deck, painting his house and fence – all with very specific physical motions. Eventually, Daniel decides that rather than teaching him karate, Mr. Miyagi is simply using him as a household slave. As he stalks off, Mr. Miyagi calls him back, and directs him to reproduce the motions he used for accomplishing each of the tasks. “Show me wax-on, wax-off,” he orders, insisting on the specific motions he had originally assigned; he goes through all the tasks, having Daniel show him the physical gestures he had required to use in doing them.
Then he throws a punch at Daniel.
Without thinking, Daniel uses the car-waxing motion – which, by this time, he has used thousands of times – to parry the punch. The teacher throws an array of punches and kicks at the student, who blocks each of them using the gestures he has internalized over many days of performing menial tasks. “You learn plenty," he tells the startled boy. "Come back tomorrow."
Since my return from Canada, two friends have contacted me to ask for prayer about the same issue, as it appears in different forms in their lives. Honoring their requests, I have found reserves of self-application I didn't know I had. I have found myself much more able to remain present in the moment, more patient with myself about the things I find it difficult to do now, and happier to address myself to the things I can. And while I certainly still have stiff, sore days full of debility and foul moods, I am making great progress learning to function within the new normal, and spending less time regretting the past and dreading the future. As long as I keep coming back tomorrow, maybe I can keep the vicious bullies of my soul at bay.
So maybe I do have some healing to show for my pilgrimage; maybe the intercession of Good St. Anne did obtain some grace for me. Or maybe it was just the effort of the pilgrimage itself that awoke my latent spiritual gifts. If you've read much of my writing, you know I consider this a distinction without a difference, and it doesn't interest me much. So though I haven't been cured in the way I wanted, I seem to have been healed in the way I needed – and that is a lot to be thankful for.
Be who you were created to be, and you’ll set the world on fire. --St. Catherine of Siena
Growing up in the 70s as a Brainy Music Geek (BMG), I naturally listened to a lot of the same music as my Brainy Music Geek friends. Consequently, I spent many hours trying to convince myself that I liked Progressive Rock. Some, like Rush, I actually did like; some, like Pink Floyd, I still do. But such flagship ProgRock groups as Yes and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer never gained any purchase in me, no matter how assiduously I tried to absorb Brain Salad Surgery.
Committed as I was, ideologically, to brainy music, I generally looked down my nose at AC/DC, Guns n Roses, and other hard rock groups (though for some reason, I was able to admit that I liked Van Halen.) And though I flirted with Grunge in the early 90s, heavy metal was never on my radar. (Also, I never liked punk rock, but Led Zeppelin was complex enough to pass muster in my BMG world. Southern Rock I can take or leave.)
It took being over 50 and partially disabled to make me finally admit to myself that I actually like heavy music. So now I embarrass my children by playing my AC/DC Pandora station in the car, regaling their friends with Scorpions and Metallica. (Also P!nk, who scratches the same itch in a more contemporary way.) In revenge, they delight in reminding me that the two metal rods in my neck make it inadvisable, if not impossible, to bang my head.
Why do I bring this up? Because being true to myself is about more than bad-ass guitar solos and another midlife crisis. Liking what we like keeps us aligned with the people we were created to be. In C.S. Lewis's novel The Screwtape Letters, a mid-level demon bureaucrat advises his young nephew Wormwood during his first temptation assignment:
The deepest likings and impulses of any man are the raw material, the starting-point, with which the Enemy has furnished him. To get him away from those is therefore always a point gained; even in things indifferent it is always desirable substitute the standards of the World, or convention, or fashion, for a human's own real likings and dislikings...The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the world, for its own sake, and without caring twopence what other people say about it, is by that very fact fore-armed against some of our subtlest modes of attack. You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favour of the "best" people, the "right" food, the "important" books.
For years, I abandoned the music I really liked in favor of more "important" music. In doing so, II parted company with the person I was made to be, and tried instead to be the person I had made up in my head. If catching up with what I missed during my pretentious youth means inflicting "weird old people music" on my children, that seems a small price to pay.
In his 1988 memoir, The Ragman’s Son, Kirk Douglas revisits Paris some years after having been stationed there during the Second World War. Unable to recapture the feeling he’d had during those heady days, he realizes that what he is actually searching for is his 22-year-old self, who, obviously, isn't there to be found.
I had a similar experience the first time I revisited the Sterling Renaissance Festival after some years away. My first two years at that show – living in the woods, swimming in Lake Ontario, performing with extraordinarily talented colleagues – were in many ways idyllic, and I was eager to relive the feeling of freedom I had had there in the first blush of my youth.
It didn't happen. No matter how I tried to re-create the experience I remembered, it simply didn't feel the same. Then one morning as I walked from my tent to the showers, I heard a voice say very clearly in my head, "Why are you standing here looking up at the sky?"
I knew at once the story the voice in my head was alluding to.
Then (the disciples) gathered round (Jesus) and asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’ (Acts 1:6-11)
I had never really connected with this story. Centered on Jesus’s bodily ascension into heaven—an idea I have always struggled with—it had always left me unmoved. Likewise, the promise of Jesus’s bodily return is treated elsewhere in the New Testament, and is not the main point of this story.
For me, the operative part of this passage is when the angels ask the disciples why they are standing around looking up at the sky. As long as they all strain their eyes to catch sight of the bodily Jesus, they cannot look inward to find Christ in themselves, or outward to find Christ in others. Their preoccupation with the Jesus they have known makes them unable to "seek and serve Christ in all persons." (Book of Common Prayer) They were like Kirk Douglas and me, looking for their youthful selves rather than experiencing themselves and others as they are now. The disciples could not receive power through the Holy Spirit until they accepted that the physical Jesus was gone.
Now, my wife gazes meaningfully up to the sky whenever she catches me waxing nostalgic about our children's early years. When I start reminiscing about cute things they said and did when they were little, she reminds me that my smart, talented, kind, athletic, funny, beautiful teenagers are right here with me, ready to be enjoyed in the present rather than mooned over in the past.
I'm also apt to gaze up at the sky for a glimpse of the things I used to be able to do before spinal stenosis. It's easy to get caught up in missing those things: playing the concertina, going to contradances, walking for pleasure, picking things up off the floor without losing my balance. Hell, I even miss my hair – and I lost that long before my spinal cord turned on me.
If I am ever to be able to engage the life I have, I know I need to let go of the life that is gone. Not that I think anything ever goes to waste unless we let it; all those experiences – all of everybody's experiences – make us who we are, and are never lost. But as long as we stand here looking up at the sky, straining for a glimpse of them, trying to recapture what is gone forever, we cannot be of any use to ourselves or others in the here and now.
I first knew for sure that I had a problem when I was using the elliptical exerciser. I had been keeping myself in shape with it for years, but it slowly, almost imperceptibly, became more difficult to use. When the reckoning finally came, my left foot would clench up like a fist after only a few minutes of exercise. Then things began to happen faster.
Within a short time, I could no longer play the piano, concertina or harmonium without pain, and could only type with my right hand. (I am using dictation software to write this article.) Centering Prayer became difficult because I could no longer sit still comfortably for any period of time. Cooking became a challenge as my left hand became less adept at holding vegetables while my right hand cut them. And while "any place is walking distance if you have the time" had always been a motto of mine, I soon found even walking taxing. Spinal stenosis – a condition in which the bones of the spine thicken, putting pressure on the spinal cord and causing weakness, loss of dexterity, and decreased range of motion on one side of the body – had left me unable to do a lot of the things which had previously given me joy.
The problem had been a long time coming on; like the frog who boiled to death because the heat under the pan had been turned up so slowly that it hadn't noticed, I failed to register my increasing debility for at least a year before it became too severe to ignore. Besides, I somaticize my emotions a lot, so it was easy to assume that the muscle tension in my left arm, leg, hand, and shoulder were symptoms of stress.
I had surgery which, unfortunately, didn't work; in fact, I was worse after it than before. Everything from picking things up off the floor to putting on my pants became harder, so I did less, and between my physical inertness, and depression urging me to spend many hours sleeping on the couch, I managed to put on about 90 pounds. I went from being a person whose age people routinely guessed ten years low, to getting offered senior citizen discounts at a glance.
I developed an obsession with my "glory days," when I could do so many things I could no longer do, or do as well as I used to. At the same time, I would see friends 10 to 20 years older than me – I am 53 now – move around much more spryly than I could, and be beset with panic about ending up a miserable, contracted 65-year-old in a wheelchair. I was caught between mourning the past and dreading the future.
And the fatigue! Just walking eight tenths of a mile to church and back for Morning Prayer leaves me well-nigh exhausted, and if I follow that up with an aquacise class at the gym, I’ll either need to take a nap or drag myself through the rest of the day at 60% power. My left hand has become so maladroit that even tying my shoes makes me break a sweat. Moving around in a crowded room has become an ordeal, as I strive not to use other people as a luge course from my seat to the bathroom or buffet. Even if it’s for something I love, like shape-note singing, if it’s going to involve a lot of people in close quarters, or there aren’t comfortable chairs, I may stay home. My world is contracting.
“Most people start the day with an unlimited amount of possibilities, and energy to do whatever they desire, especially young people,” wrote a blogger with Lupus. “The hardest thing I ever had to learn is to slow down, and not do everything. I fight this to this day. I hate feeling left out, having to choose to stay home, or to not get things done that I want to.”
I hate it, too, and the anxiety and weariness still trouble me during my weaker moments. I still fiercely miss making music with friends, cooking without dropping things all the time, and walking for pleasure, and I still dread those further losses that may be coming. But the good news is, I have begun, with the help of my wife and a lot of prayerful introspection, to emerge from that narrow space between the Scylla of the past and the dire Charybdis of the future. It sounds ridiculously obvious, but the secret is to focus on what I can do now.
I cannot play instruments that require the equal use of both hands, but I can play predominantly right-handed instruments like the Irish bodhran, the Basque string drum, the Indian karatals (tiny brass cymbals)—and thanks to some kind biomechanical engineers at Temple University, I now have a motorized harmonium that doesn’t require my left hand to pump the bellows. (I also found a one-handed accordion, with a keyboard on the right but no bass or chord buttons on the left.)
I cannot sit, erect and still, in meditation any longer, but I can pray Evening Prayer or Compline out of the Prayerbook, pray the Rosary once a week with the Morning Meditation group at church, and observe novenas when saints to whom I feel a connection come up in the calendar.
I cannot practice yoga or use the elliptical exerciser, but I can go to aquacise classes and walk to church for Morning Prayer.
It’s hard to slice and dice by hand, but it’s easy to use a Cuisinart and buy frozen chopped onions and pre-minced garlic. (Helpful hint: a hardboiled egg slicer can be used to slice mushrooms, too.)
All of these accommodations have been exercises in humility, of course; having to face loss of ability and accept help are potent medicine for a misplaced sense of self. The cooking accommodations have also shown me that many of the things I thought were quality-of-life choices—always using fresh garlic, rather than powdered or pre-minced, for instance—were actually ego-driven choices rooted in pride; whatever else I was, I wasn’t one of those sorry people who didn’t know what to do with fresh herbs. Now, I save physical discomfort by opening a bag of frozen chopped onions rather than chopping them fresh, and each time I do it, the ego discomfort is a little less.
Best of all, God seems to be validating my adjustments with a stream of successful and rewarding workshops, discussions, and other professional and volunteer opportunities; chances to use the training I received at the Shalem Institute, graduate school and seminary. It almost seemed as though every time I resigned myself to finding a new way of doing something, I get a phone call or email about some new project. It's enough to make you think you're doing something right.
Perhaps most excitingly, I got an email asking me to serve as a Formation Counselor for the Third Order of St. Francis--a religious order within the Episcopal Church whose members live a Franciscan life, with a Rule and under vows, but in the world rather than in community. I had plenty of reservations, and plenty of reasons to say "no". Things like deadlines, files, email, and other things to be kept straight and organized can be daunting to me. Moreover, as I read the handbook and other materials, I realized how much I had been bobbing along the surface of Third Order life in some ways.
When I was in formation, I took to heart what the formation letters said about how it was I, and not my family, who was becoming a Franciscan, and when my children were small – and until quite recently – I missed a lot of fellowship meetings because they were on Saturday mornings, which I considered family time. While the day-to-day business of keeping the rule was something I could still do, I fell out of touch with the larger order in some ways; the newsletters, the intercession list, and other ways of keeping my finger on the pulse sort of fell through the cracks. But I remembered what the Principles of the Order say about humility: "when asked to undertake work of which they feel unworthy or incapable they do not shrink from it on the grounds of humility, but confidently attempt it through the power that is made perfect in weakness."
I have come to believe that one of the best reasons to read and listen to sacred texts many times over many years is that when we are ready, the texts spring into life and offer us the healing or insight we need
I have been anxious and on edge these past several weeks without understanding why. It had gotten so bad that my family was suffering because of it. Then, this past Sunday, I found myself becoming suddenly and inexplicably emotional, to the point of wiping away tears, during this portion of the Gospel reading:
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed,which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” (Matthew 13:31-32)
After the reading, I racked my brains in order to understand why this passage, which I have heard and read ever since I can remember, should have had such a powerful effect on me on this particular Sunday. I realized that I had recently begun a new per diem hospice chaplain job, and had just been contacted about interviewing for another. I still have not lost the weight I have put on since my spinal surgery, and have been frustrated with the painfully slow pace with which occupational and physical therapy yield tangible results, if they yield any. I'd been struggling to re-learn how to play the harmonium, re-establish my physical and spiritual exercise regimens, reclaim the weed-choked flowerbed and half a dozen other things.
In a flash, I knew what had been making me so anxious: I have been trying to build a tree for myself, when what I needed to do was to plant a seed and trust God that it would grow. I could cultivate it to the best of my ability one day at a time, rather than trying to force it all into existence at once. Because the trees we build for ourselves may stand up, more or less, but they don't grow, they don't make good signs of the Kingdom, and they certainly aren't hospitable to those who perch around our lives.
"I have always wondered about the reasoning behind giving up your favorite thing for Lent," wrote a friend a few moments after I announced that I was staying off my personal Facebook page for Lent.
Well, a lot of people observe Lent, and for a lot of reasons. (I've even noticed a growing number of non-Christians observing it.) Some people do it as a way of bringing unruly desires under their conscious control, increasing their level of self-mastery and winning themselves a measure of personal freedom. Certainly when I was younger, and even more of a slave to my baser instincts than I am now, that was my goal.
It's a little different now, however; at any rate, I frame it differently.
A colleague of mine says that "we give up what we want most for what we want now." I genuinely want to read that book about Aristotle, but with a Christopher Moore vampire novel at hand, that's going to be a challenge unless I give up fiction for Lent.
There's less to be gained by walking to church for morning meditation if I stayed up late the night before watching Netflix than if I'd gotten a good night's sleep and came in fresh. I genuinely want a fruitful meditation time, so I give up Netflix for Lent.
Time spent on Facebook, while I enjoy it, is time not spent on musical and writing projects, so away Facebook goes for a while. That way, when Easter comes, I can meet it as something closer to my best self than I was forty days ago, having spent that season of preparation trading in what I want now for what I want most.
This afternoon in the supermarket, I caught sight of a display featuring some chip-and-dip snack food. The marketing goal seemed to be to give a more sophisticated air to the product, and the display's tagline read, "Life is short; use the good bowl."
I felt like I'd had the wind knocked out of me.
But I have to begin nearly twenty years back, during my mother's last illness.
Our family had a glass-fronted hutch in the living room, in which the "best" china and glassware were displayed. They were never used, because no occasion was ever festive or momentous enough to justify bringing them out of their glassed-in sarcophagus.
One day, my wife began removing the precious items from the hutch and marching them into the kitchen, placing them in the cupboards with the everyday dishes. After a couple of trips, my mother joined her, the two of them forming a little parade of crockery. "What am I waiting for?" my mother asked. "My next life?" We began putting the "best" things to their intended use that very evening.
I wasn't there when my mother died. I took my leave on a Friday afternoon for a weekend performing out of state. As I assured her that I would be back to see her on Monday, she appeared to have a rare lucid interval, her widened eyes intensely blue in her pale face as she shook her bald head, no longer able to speak but clearly saying "no." When I again promised to return on Monday, she took my right hand in hers, raised it to her lips, and kissed it.
I wonder how much of me understood that, knowing she would not survive the weekend, my mother was saying goodbye to me. Not too much, I hope; certainly not the parts closest to the surface. My capacity for self-deception is titanic, but I'd like to hope that I had no conscious awareness that I was seeing my mother alive for the last time, that I wasn't pushing the thought away because I didn't want to deal with it.
People die, and we think we get over it, but we never do. Grief goes into remission, perhaps for years, but some chance association can bring it roaring back at any time. Usually it's bittersweet, as when I see glimpses of my mom in my own two girls, and wish she could have met these children whom she would have loved so much. But sometimes it's like a blow, a shot to the gut that says, "The good dishes were ready, but you weren't."
The people we love are forever with us, and there's no knowing when circumstances will throw the loss of them into stark relief.
Life is short; use the good bowl.
Scott Robinson is an interfaith minister, musician, and spiritual director in Philadelphia. Hear his music at www.mandalaband.net.