We sicken before we die so that we will be weaned from our body. The milk that nourished us grows thin and sour; turning away from the breast, we begin to be restless for a separate life. Yet this first life, this life on earth, on the body of earth – will there, can there ever be a better? Despite all the glooms and despairs and rages, I have not let go of my love of it.

Age of Iron JM Coetzee (p. 13)

… acknowledgment of the personhood of sufferers and affirmation of their condition and struggle have long been recognized as the most basic and sustaining of moral acts, whether among the friendship and kin network or in patient—physician and other professional relationships. The laying on of hands, empathic witnessing, listening to the illness narrative, and providing moral solidarity through sustained engagement and responsibility over the course of chronic illness and in the terminal period are all core moral tasks in caregiving. Theorists of caregiving have also identified “presence”—being there, existentially, even when nothing practical can be done and hope itself is eclipsed—as central to the giving of care. And it is also important in care receiving, because caregiving is almost always a deeply interpersonal, relational practice that resonates with the most troubling preoccupations of both carer and sufferer about living, about self, and about dignity. [read all of Kleinman’s piece in the Lancet]

… openings to a deeper identity

Widows and widowers know the wrenching grief the death
of a spouse brings, and the great gaping wound it leaves in
one’s life. Anna, the prophetess, experienced this at much too
young an age. She could not have been much older than
twenty-one or twenty-two when she lost her husband, and
may have been a widow for over sixty years. In a culture
where a woman’s identity was essentially connected to her
relationship with her father or husband, Anna’s being thrust
into this state must have been particularly devastating.
Deep grief, no matter its source, has a way of shaking the
foundations of our identity. Who are we when we are no
longer someone’s wife, husband, child, parent, friend? When
we are no longer secretary, lawyer, teacher, cook? When we
can no longer garden, walk, see?

Primitive societies allowed a widow communally pro-
tected solitary space to mourn her loss, accept her vulnera-
bility, and reach within for a renewed and deepened identity.
Anna found that protected space in the Temple. There she
was able to find her identity in God. Healed and renewed she
became a spokesperson for God, a prophet.

Our losses can be openings to a deeper identity. If with
the support of others we allow ourselves the protected solitary
time and space needed to turn more totally to God—accept-
ing, adjusting to, and integrating our losses in life—those
unnerving psychic earthquakes can deepen our experience
and conviction of God’s ever-loving presence. In the light of
that presence we see in new ways, and we are able to reveal
God’s compassionate presence to others.

Sr. Katherine Howard, Waiting in Joyful Hope
Katherine Howard, OSB, is a member of St. Benedict’s Monastery
in St. Joseph, Minnesota.

… and suicide. On watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” last night, I was struck by many things. But maybe most of all by the accuracy of its portrayal of the suicide. As Paul McHugh says in The Mind Has Mountains … “Most suicidally depressed patients are not rational individuals who have weighed the balance sheet of their lives and discovered more red than black ink. They are victims of altered attitudes about themselves and their situation, which cause powerful feelings of hopelessness to abound.” (p. 75) The data support the pertinence of this in those nearing end-of-life who request to hasten their death (physician assisted suicide, euthanasia, palliative sedation to unconsciousness) – this is not an “autonomous” choice but a final act of despair by one who sees no other options.

The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it. Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity are not enough.

In the first legend of the Grail, it is said that the Grail (the miraculous vessel that satisfies all hunger by virtue of the consecrated Host) belongs to the first comer who asks the guardian of the vessel, a king three-quarters paralyzed by the most painful wound, “What are you going through?”

The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: “What are you going through?” It is a recognition that the sufferer exists, not only as a unit in a collection or a specimen from the social category labeled “unfortunate,” but as a man, exactly like us, who was one day stamped with a special mark by affliction.

For this reason it is enough, but it is indispensable, to know how to look at him in a certain way. This way of looking is first of all attentive. The soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all his truth.

Only he who is capable of attention can do this.

Simone Weil

 

“The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old. The old need care and companionship; the young need work and hope but have neither one nor the other, and the problem is they don’t even look for them any more. They have been crushed by the present. You tell me: can you live crushed under the weight of the present? Without a memory of the past and without the desire to look ahead to the future by building something, a future, a family? Can you go on like this? This, to me, is the most urgent problem … ” Pope Francis with Eugenio Scalfari in today’s La Repubblica.

the gift of a mother’s face …

One day, Mary, a friend of mine, interviewed a woman who had survived a prolonged, traumatic ordeal.  After listening to her terrible story, she asked the woman what she desired.  “Nothing,” came the response.  But Mary could not believe it, and insisted:  “What is your greatest desire?”  And the woman answered, “Just to die.”  Mary still could not believe it.  Finally, the woman said, “I have a desire…but it is just a fantasy.  In my life only one person loved me, my mother, and I no longer remember her face.”  Mary asked the woman:  “Do you have a memory of her?”  “One day, she gave me some little boots, of white felt, that she had made.”  “How did she give them to you?”  “In the morning, she woke me up and she gave them to me.”  “Did she have you put them on?”  “Yes, she had me sit in a chair, and she slipped them on my feet.”  “But how was she positioned…kneeling?”  “Yes, but what absurd questions you ask!  Anyway, yes, she was kneeling to put them on me and she asked me if they fit…”  Suddenly, she went silent.  “Oh, Lord, I see my mother’s face.”  That woman for years, wrote Mary to thank her for giving her back her mother’s face … In the most desperate situation, the deepest desire we have is the desire of the face of someone who loves us. (Traces 7:16, 2013 Filonenko)