“So one can talk and write of love. People still want to believe in that even when they are all but convinced it is an illusion.”Dorothy Day
Christ died for love, not an idea, writes Dorothy Day, but most people no longer believe in Christ as God. Christ has been reduced to idea: the idea of higher Love.
Meanwhile, those of who hold to His Mystery mumble prayers to Him even as we concede to use the lower language: love as the Noble Idea because, as Day writes, it is hard to talk about God if your listener does not believe in Him. At the end of my sister’s life, she became one of these people.
A Parable, Forgive Me
I’m still rummaging through my memories and my grief over Naomi.
ASIDE, HERE: I’m totally ripping off Nora McInerny’s TED Talk to justify this return to events previously blogged about but I retain my right to do this because “We don’t move on from death. We move forward through it.” BTW, she has a TED talk which I know will be great. I haven’t viewed it, but listening to her podcast Terrible, Thanks For Asking, has been therapy for me. It’s better than getting my nails done. Thank your or you’re welcome, TTFA and Nora. Love you. And for good measure, because I’m from the Midwest, Sorry.
I suppose I made Naomi’s death a bigger bomb by strapping her to me right after her diagnosis. I chose to make her the focus of my MFA thesis project, interviewing her frequently, increasing our time together and then confiding as much as interviewing. Then I agreed to help her have a green burial. And, the bi-state living I did for the last few weeks of her life. I lived mostly in Maryland through September and October, far from my beloved husband and my children, and working from my parents’ house so I could mutter at her when she putzed into the kitchen. I’d mutter at her while she reheated soup that she didn’t eat it.
“Are you excited about the release of Stranger Things season two? Should we re-watch Season one?”I asked while grading exams. But I knew the answer. She’d stopped watching TV. The sound hurt too much. Then, her husband, our siblings, watched the first episodes while she slept in her chair, dehydrated, mostly asleep, the smell of stale phlegm filling the room and the sound of her clearing her cannula overwhelming our sensations.
I have not moved on. File your complaints with the complaints department in room…. (indistinct voices). I am moving through. I am changed. I am having epiphanies about life and death and God and faith and stuff. Neuroscience says the memory cycles and rewires with each regurgitation. It makes new meanings. I’m reassured because I live the seasons of a liturgical religious cycle where this is valued. In the Church there’s an official season that returns us to life, death and the meaning of our actions. It’s Lent. And in it, thoughts get real, y’all.
Like, I realized that I end up praying for her more informally than formally. We have these services called Soul Saturday liturgies. I’ve missed them all. We are supposed to show up and remember our beloved dead. I let my husband, the priest, whisper her name. In place of that, I pray other services alone, while running or riding my bike, exercising or exorcising myself.
On the first anniversary of her death, I invited all my coolest friends to a party and bombed them with a prayer service. Heck it was also my birthday, and she would want me to wallow only for a few minutes, giving her credit for her awesome effects here and there, then go on being inspired by her ethos of joy.
So, my prayers are my punch in the face to the painful flashbacks, like a surprise cube camera flash to the eyes. Like this memory, this parable of a memory of her final days.
She jabbed weakly at the plaid fleece throw on her lap just days before she died. She was trying to talk, which required blocking her cannula while gesticulating.
“I’m trying… my life, like the parts of ….” she pointed at the brown on the plaid lap fleece “dark and light, trying,…” long breaths breaths and hacking between “to find my way to this light.”
Right as it happened I thought, this is a God moment. I wrote about it shortly after it happened. I interpreted it one way. I’ve heard my mother explain it another since, but I recall my father, mother and me at her knees like suppliants to her and God, whispering prayers for a girl who said:
- It’s easier not to think about God and guilt and the church.
- I don’t believe in God anymore, but I respect that He’s important to your life. He’s part of our family culture.
My breath snags at that memory. I lose my spiritual certainty on this God, heaven, hell, love thing. I conjure another memory where told her about a night of jaggy weeping for the future souls of her and our siblings. God forgive them should they ever lose their faith. It’s what kept me awake at night when I was sixteen, I said. What kept her awake at night was us dying young. When I try God on this, in response to readings, in Confession, in prayer, I find a pretty systematic answer.
God is Love.
For Lent, I picked up a published set of talks that Metropolitan (fancy title for one of the Bishops over a region in the Orthodox Clerical hierarchy) Anthony Bloom. Tonight I read the chapter about the nature of damnation in the book entitled Churchianity vs. Christianity. The Judgment is real to be sure, writes Bloom, but that’s in his third point.
I’m getting ahead of myself because it goes the first point I would present about my sister. She knew love. I think she knew love, then she got lost from the source of it because of disease. Disease shows up like a physical manifestation of the spiritual crisis: the co-existence of good and bad that leads to death while hiking through the valley of misery. Some of my **favorite** (sarcasm voice here) are long-acting diseases like cancer, NMO, MS, Lupus, Parkinson’s, dementia, and Alzheimer’s especially because they twist parts of one’s self into its own enemy.
Disease is the living experience of death. It’s the one we live to tell about. No wonder we want to end it early. No wonder some want nothingness afterwards. And no wonder we make heroes of those who somehow hang onto their humanity, showing what humor and love they can, like my sister did. It’s makes a lot sense since disease is stealing the energy of love, which is life, one cell at a time. It steals energy from self-care, keeping up with a heart bursting with love for your children/partner/friends/family. Yup, who has time for the Ineffable when the physical now seems like a mystery or less than real? Only pain is real.
But back to my sister’s essence and the Great Judgment
In the parable of the Great Judgment, writes Bloom, the first judgment that confronts us is “the vision of who we are.” Have we been “simply human,” in the simplest sense of mercy, compassion, charity? First this, before communion with God.
At her funeral in Michigan, one of our cousin’s outed Naomi on a good deed she’d kept from us. – I knew she was good at secrets because she said she never wanted me to read her cancer reddits. And, I still haven’t found them.- My cousin had called Naomi some years before when she lived near Detroit. A friend of his was about to be released from prison. If the friend didn’t get picked up and given money for a bus ticket to Ohio, she’d fall back into the old incarceration cycle. Naomi put the money on the credit card. **Side note: When Naomi died, she and her husband had tens of thousands of debt in college loans, crappy cars, medical bills, and her absurd belief that eventually they’d land decent jobs. They’d pay it off by the time they died, she figured BC, that is, before cancer. Naomi gave love.
But about that parable, the counter narrative…
Her husband doesn’t want that plaid blanket, light/dark vignette transformed into legend. No mystery. No spiritualizing the hallucinations of a dehydrating woman on a pain pump. I get that. What can we know about the coherence of the human psyche at the end? Yet I can’t help but think her intellect and spirit were too powerful to give in until she was comatose. I know he wants her final memory to be one of the sister who allied with him in a firm rejection of the idea of God. “What kind of God (fill in the blank)?” ask all manner of intelligent, good people like him.
Yet, here is where I choke. Because Naomi was good, yet she chose to reject the idea of God as love. She wanted love without God. Love that is pure materialism. But what is that? I am too much a mystic to know that. I’m stuck with the fact that there is only one way to out of God is Love. It’s to reject God. Lots of folks do, while hanging onto an idea that dies with each of them. An idea that becomes Noblesse Oblige, a gift from the privileged to the other. A bit paternalistic or bougie, when removed from the Mystery of the eternal. But that’s just my opinion. But in my worldview, we then have to ask a harder question.
What is the nature of damnation?
Met. Anthony Bloom tackled that procedurally.
First, that God is love. God did everything out of love. The law of God is love. Out of love and communion God created all things.
Second, damnation comes with the metaphor of the judicial system, i.e. judgment, comes with some imprecision and incompleteness. Ah, the nature of the metaphor is to circle the elephant and try to define a large thing by comparisons to parts. He points out that of the courts we know this: there is the lawmaking and there is the law judging. The judges are not those who make the law but who execute it.
I teach Karel Capek’s “The Last Judgment” to my 10th graders. I hope the story haunts them as it does me. It’s about a killer, a man guilty of 19 murders, who finds himself on trial in Heaven before a panel of cynical judges who dread and despise the one and only witness ever called to defend all the accused. The witness is God. He always blathers on about hidden motives and mitigating circumstances: the childhood abuse, the life of emotional damage, the needs, the hard edge, the muted conscience, the slow bleeding out of humanity because no one gave thought to love, or forgive or reach out to the person. They are the judges who execute but do not make the law.
Where does the law come from?
Saint Gregory of Nyssa said in doctrinal terms what Capek hopes for, what I hope for: “it is impossible that the God whom he knew as God of triumphant love, of exulting life, should ultimately reject and condemn his people– the people whom he had created, loved into existence, to whom he had revealed the depth of creation, the depth of their souls, and even his own presence and depth” (Bloom 55). But here’s the trouble. The church needed to call out Nyssa on this. They rejected it because it doesn’t square with the entirety of Scripture, yet they validated some of it. God is love. Who the rejector is, that is the issue. The rejection lay on the terms Saint Gregory of Nyssa set, writes Bloom. A God of love cannot reject anyone, but we can reject God.
It is not enough to be loved, it is not enough to be forgiven, it not enough to be offered any gift: we must accept and receive forgiveness and mercy. Met. Anthony Bloom
So the judges in Capek’s story condemn the killer. He asks the witness, God, why he is not the judge. Because he created the man and knows his heart and all that happened to him, replies God.
Third, death is not the finale. The bell tolls, to be sure, but a human’s body and soul, though separated at death, do not end a human’s mark. Yes, our actions in this life cease, but the good and the bad we did remains a force.
Do It For Love
Did Naomi do it for love? What did she do for love? What kind of love?
For love, did she seek to make sense of the light parts of her life, even when it was too tiring to tremble before the fearsome version of a God who is the ether of modern Christianity? Am I reading into her too much to think she confused him with the law itself? That law is a force of nature, like a law of spiritual dynamics. It came into being when man and God were separated. The law of spiritual dynamics says that darkness and light are real, that we are separated from light, the Creator of light, that the principle of death can only be overcome if we commune with our Creator. We need rejoined. I like to tell myself that she wanted rejoined. In the end, maybe she saw the Creator in the only way she could see Him.
I write this for love.
For my sister, for whom I will whisper prayers all my days. For myself. (Lord bear witness: I’ve done terrible things, like kneel down and hurt myself in front of my kids in a cycle of deep depression.) For my friends with horrible diseases who just trying to put one day after another. For those who don’t want to hear me talk about God while I prattle on believing there is a hidden longing in them for communion, for the fullness of Love (God. That’s God, if you didn’t catch on earlier).
I don’t do love well. Maybe if God looks down and sees me (the self-harmer) who selfishly wants herself and all her favorite people in a wonderful communion with peace light joy and, well, God. Then He will look on the times when I didn’t give up wine for Lent, didn’t go live with the poor when every instinct in me says I should do it now or I will keep getting too comfortable with my stuff (aka why I read Dorothy Day), when I hawk my words for a vacation in Ireland instead for others. Maybe God will look down on me and say, still, Maria, I love you. Maybe I won’t be good enough but His love will be.