“The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement.
But the opposite of a profound truth may be another profound truth.”
– Neils Bohr
A friend – someone who consistently tells me the truth as he sees it – recently said I should remove the website link to this blog from my e-mail “signature,” since I haven’t posted anything in months. His suggestion is a good one, but before I do that, here’s a reflection that has been emerging for some time, helped along both by my friend’s prompting and by my mother’s dying.
Betty was diagnosed with bone cancer just before Christmas. In her mid-eighties, she is a breast cancer survivor of what is a miraculous thirty-five years. Yet it seems at least one cancer cell survived all those chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Now she is in the final season of her life. Thankfully, the good people of the same hospice that cared for her father in his last days are now caring for her. Thankfully, my beloved four siblings are helping my mother (and my father) to make her final transition, from earth to heaven.
I know I will continue to reflect on my mother’s life and how it has impacted me and so many others so powerfully. But for now, in this season of her dying, I am drawn once again, as I have been since my seminary days a quarter-century ago, to the mystery of authentic Christian living. This is “the faith,” as I, and others who have taught me much, have come to understand it.
In 1980 Parker Palmer – Quaker teacher and spiritual writer, recognized as one of the great public intellectuals of our time – published his first book. I read The Promise of Paradox: A Celebration of Contradictions in the Christian Life in seminary. It was a time when my faith was being challenged like never before, in ways it truly needed to be if I were to be a priest of the church, something my mother saw me becoming long before I did. Palmer’s book was republished in 2008, and in a new introduction, he writes:
The promise of paradox is the promise that apparent opposites – like order and disorder – can cohere in our lives, the promise that if we replace either-or with both-and, our lives will become larger and more filled with light. It is a promise at the heart of every wisdom tradition I know, not least the Christian faith. How else can I make sense of the statement, “If you seek your life, you will lose it, but if you lose your life, you will find it”? Or “the first shall be last and the last shall be first”? Or the affirmation that Jesus Christ was fully human and fully divine? Or the notion that we know there is a God but we cannot claim to know the God that is?
In Palmer’s words about Jesus’ teachings, I am challenged again to have, in common Christian parlance, a conversion experience. I am reminded of the wisdom from Orthodox Christianity, that the mind must descend into the heart. “The capacity to embrace true paradoxes,” Palmer continues, “is more than an intellectual skill for holding complex thoughts. It is a life skill for holding complex experiences.” Experiences like giving birth, and living, and dying.
Another of my teachers over the past quarter-century has been Richard Rohr, a Roman Catholic priest who presides over the Center for Action and Contemplation. In his meditation on this, the church’s feast day of the Holy Innocents, slaughtered by Caesar soon after the birth of Christ, Rohr says:
“Full transformation is finally resolved in you, when you agree to bear the mystery of God: God’s suffering for the world and God’s ecstasy in the world at the same time….Agreeing to love and trust this history of absurdity…and contradictions is much harder, I’m afraid, than just trying to be good.”
Today, my life is, I pray, about more than just trying to be good. Today, the mystery, contradiction and paradox of the Christian faith as I have come to know it – through Holy Scripture, the traditions of the church, the reasoning of my mind and the experiences that dwell in my heart – can be, if I choose, lived out afresh. My mother’s dying presents, once again, an opportunity for me to be converted by God and transformed in Christ.
What I am learning, in the words that my wise wife and former hospice chaplain gave me a few days ago, is that dying, like giving birth, is hard work. The work my mother is doing, in her own way, the work God is doing in her – this work invites me to let God work in me, to do my own work, in my own way.
This work we do is very hard work, filled with labor pain. But we do not do this work alone. And the fruit of labor, paradoxically, is rest. When beloved Betty’s work is finally done, may her soul, with all the souls of the faithful departed, rest in the peace of God.
– December 28, 2010