On Friday of this week I set off on a two-hour drive to a Connecticut hospital for a visit I was dreading in a situation that I could only describe as tragic. I went to see a dear friend of many years whose life is drawing to a close. She is a woman who has lived by words. She has been a successful author and also a publisher, a woman of deep prayer and an equally deep commitment to the ministry of healing. Her words have brought hope and enlightenment to countless people. But time, and her body, have robbed her of her words.
About ten years ago she had a serious stroke, from which she recovered quite well. But since then there have been other strokes, large and small, and gradually the words departed from her, first because she could no longer write, and now after last week's stroke and seizures, because she can no longer speak. She has been mostly paralyzed for months now, and her ability to manage ordinary communication has grown more and more limited.
It's a terrible situation - the sort of condition that causes people to doubt the existence of God or the worth of ideals, and to pray fervently for a different sort of journey at the close of their lives. Very few of us would want to live the end of our life like this; but very few of us have a choice about that. I remember with clarity a conversation about death with this dear friend in which she said: "There are very few easy ways out of this life."
Of course I needed to be there, and I had to move a bunch of appointments to clear the time, but everyone understood. And so I set off. To say that I wasn't looking forward to the journey would be understating things a very great deal.
If you follow this blog at all regularly and are used to my writing style, you know already that I'm about to say that it turned out differently than I had expected. When I walked into the hospital room, my friend was sleeping. Her children, whom I know, were sitting about the room in the usual attitudes of a long wearying bedside watch. They smiled and welcomed me, and one of them shook her and when she opened her eyes said: "Mom, Bede's here."
What happened next was totally unexpected. Her body stretched and moved. Her face lit up. With the few facial muscles that still work she broke what I can only describe as a radiant smile. She glowed. She might not have much access to her bodily functioning any more, but with all that she had she was welcoming me. From a corner of the room one of the family members said: "Look at that!", and someone went in search of a camera. I just hugged her gently and gave thanks.
So I sat beside her and held the one hand that still works and talked to her. I started with doing what one usually does - telling her the news, who is doing what, what's going on at the monastery. That was OK, but it became clear very soon that it wasn't what she really wanted, so I stopped. What she really wanted was me, and that's what I needed to give her.
So we spent the afternoon together while I held her hand, and the time felt very full, and quite enough. She is having small seizures at frequent intervals and after each one she needs to take a little nap. The afternoon was marked by periods of silence and companionship and then by one of her small naps, after which she would awake and find me there all over again, and smile her radiant smile of welcome.
It was an afternoon of comfortable being together, punctuated with little bursts of joy. It all happened in silence. She was completely there. I had access to a part of her that was not limited by her physical condition. She was wholly my friend and my companion on the spiritual quest. We didn't talk much, and nothing was missing from our visit because of that. We had what both of us needed.
Then the end of the afternoon came. It was growing dark. Some snow threatened to make the return journey difficult. She was tired and needing rest. I had to go. So I rose and laid her hand down and told her I was leaving. And I can only describe what happened then by saying that she grabbed me. She didn't do it with her hands, because they hardly work any more. She did it with her eyes. She pierced me with a deep and intense gaze. She looked straight down to the bottom of my soul, and opened herself to me. And for many minutes we gazed at each other, and I was as open as I have ever been.
I felt completely welcomed, completely loved, completely accepted. She offered me all of herself, and received everything I had to give. It was all done in silence, of course, but it was so intensely private that the other people in the room quietly stole out to leave us alone, because even though not a word was spoken it was clear to anyone there that we were having a very personal time. I can't tell you how long it lasted. It lasted a long time, or a short time. It lasted forever. It was beyond time. Love conquers all our boundaries.
And then I drove home in a Friday evening rush hour of people leaving Manhattan for a weekend in Connecticut or upstate New York. I drove bumper to bumper at an average speed of 17 miles an hour and the trip that usually takes 2 hours took 5. It seemed like a few minutes. Through the whole time I explored the corners of my heart that had been seized and touched through the wonders of the afternoon.
I was sad, of course, and not wanting to go through what comes next. I was even more open than I had been before to the awful aspects of her situation. And I was filled to overflowing with love and gratitude and joy. A most remarkable transformation has been working in my old friend in these past few months. God has taken the gift of her soul, which she has so steadfastly offered over the years, and made it into gold. And I got to see that. This inner transformation is no longer an article of faith for me - I have seen it with my own eyes.
When I arrived home the members of the community wanted to know, of course, how it had gone. What I found myself saying was that I went expecting to see a tragedy, and what I found was very, very different from that. I found something about the depth of life.
This morning's Eucharist reading from Romans urges us to "abound in hope." That reading gave words to my experience on the way home from the hospital. I was abounding in hope. And the hope I have been abounding in is not an empty experience, hoping for some fulfillment that I don't have yet. It is a fulfilled, wondrous experience of what we look forward to. Life does flourish in the midst of dying and in the midst of death. I have seen that directly now, and in my own way have been transformed by it.
What a perfect Advent gift, as we wait for the coming of Christ. Thank you so much, dear friend, for your gift.