Friday, July 2, 2004

Trish #25

In a hospital, one must confront the "underbelly" of life. Death, defecation and physical deformity simply can't be hidden here. No one can disguise the odors, disabilities and misfortunes of human existence. So it doesn't take long before one realizes what a sanitized existence we have made for ourselves in modern times.

The quality of human life cannot rise above the level of animals until we learn to clean ourselves and to keep the more unsavory parts of our existence discrete. Hygiene and good manners protect the space we must share with others. Thus, discretion and appropriate self-care allows us to transcend animal existence. Taking care of our animal needs with appropriate dignity and grace sets us free to expand our nature into art, spirituality, economics and all the other kinds of soul-enriching tools we use in our quest to become fully human.

On the other hand, the "baser" parts of our natural lives remain, (as the word "baser" implies,) the "base," or the foundation, upon which we build all that we are. As Trish and I have learned this month, no one can enjoy art, Bible study, political discussion, economics or much of any thing else if his or her basic existence gets threatened. If you can't go to the bathroom or feed yourself then the other parts of life, however noble and important, become irrelevant and even superfluous. Hospitals rebuke our attempts to be other than human.

Somewhere in his writings, C.S. Lewis reflects upon the curious fact that human beings seem constantly amused and even embarrassed by their basic animal needs. We seem amazed that we cannot become so mature or sophisticated that we no longer need to defecate, for example. Most adolescents can be reduced to spasms of hilarity by the silliest allusion to flatulence. This amazement is amazing. It is as though we can hardly believe that we have bodies.

Of course, we do have bodies. And, according to the New Testament, we always will have bodies. For "we believe in the resurrection of the body." We are a species of embodied spirits. We touch our spirits through physical and material means and we alter our physical selves and our material environment according to our spiritual and intellectual beliefs. Spirituality and materiality interpenetrate in creating and sustaining a life that is fully human.

When Trish makes progress in her walking and swallowing, she seems to also advance cognitively and emotionally. As she gets a clearer picture of her situation and thus increases her ability to participate in her own recovery, her physical abilities seem to take a leap forward.

Christopher Reeves describes his own remarkable journey toward recovery in similar terms. He tells us that even though he was totally paralyzed, he continually imagined himself as moving and working. However, he is not trying to make a New Age kind of claim that he healed himself through imagination and mental prowess. He also found machines to move his physical body as though it were actually doing the kinds of things he imagined. This combination of applying both mental force and physical motion to overcome his disability resulted in such astounding progress that the field of neurology has had to take notice.

The lessons are clear: because we are incarnational creatures -- beings whose essence involves a state of spiritual embodiment --recovery of any sort requires both material and spiritual components.

During this current hospital adventure, I have drawn strength from the more earthy and practical parts of the Bible. The Proverbs, the Epistle of James, and even the dietary laws of ancient Israel in books like Leviticus and Deuteronomy, speak to the natural and "baser" side of our spirituality. By temperament, I am more at home in books like Ecclesiastes, St. John's Gospel and St. Paul's Epistle to the Colossians. I like soaring like an eagle. But life has a habit of teaching us that if we don't do practical things like taking a day of rest, or passing up the wrong kinds of food most of the time, or forgetting to feed hungry people, all of our pretended spirituality will sooner or later collapse. Castles in the clouds are very impressive in the comic books. In real life they are impossible to build. Real castles need a ground and a base. I suspect that the same is true for our theologies, philosophies and all other kinds of cute and complex abstractions that mesmerize and mold our thoughts.

Human beings, as it turns out, are created for transcendence. They are also created to need bedpans.

These are the two borders of our existence, the God-decreed limits of our being. No one becomes a truly spiritual person without coming to grips with this reality.

St. Joseph's hospital is filled with spiritual people. On every hand one experiences prayer and love. The kindness, the servanthood, the consistent care for the spirits and emotions of the patients and their families is remarkable and laudable. However, if the bedpans were not emptied and sterilized; if the wounds were not cleaned and dressed, all the love and concern in the world would not heal these sick people, one of whom is my wife.

Well, I'll stop now. For if I am not mistaken, I believe I have just rewritten the Epistle of James.

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