Write In Between

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Lessons of Paradox

I sat on the edge of her bed and squeezed her hand to let her know I was there. I listened to her labored breathing as she rested, eyes closed, propped up on her pillows. At that moment I knew I was sitting close to a soul that would soon be in the presence of God in heaven. Simple conversation and smiles were exchanged as she awoke, but less and less needed to be said. More and more was understood.

Illness had rendered its change. My friend, who was once taller and more vivacious than I, was now stooped and bent. She had shrunk in height and weight due to the gravity of her illness. Her frame reminded me of a little girl’s, nothing but sinew pulled taut over bones. She looked small. She took on child-like form on the outside, but through this final crucible, her soul was growing exponentially. Appearances can be deceiving. Such is the nature of paradox.

Time and disease marched on. More and more had to be done for her. A grown woman--a wife, a mother—was now mothered in return by her grown children in her final days. She needed help to bathe and dress. Someone else prepared the meals and tidied her home. I watched her husband ably cradle her and adjust her position in bed when she could no longer lift her body weight. Then he tenderly tucked her in, again, like he would a little girl, but with complete dignity befitting a beloved wife.

I saw her every week and witnessed the decline. Toward the end I was taken in by her complete surrender to what had befallen her. (Midlife is not when we are “supposed” to die!) And yet, she found delight in momentary joys –like playful romps on the bed with giggly grandchildren, or a friendly visitor bringing Holy Communion from her church, or a tasty bit of take-out food from a favorite local restaurant.

Her littleness, indeed, her final humility, unlocked the mysteries of spiritual paradox: yes, there can be strength in weakness. Yes, an adult can become like a little child. Ultimately we need both to become childlike and dependent… on him who made us, knows us, and loves us.

Christopher J. H. Wright in Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament states: “Self-sufficiency is the diametric opposite of the prime quality needed for entrance into the Kingdom of God—humble dependence on God.” Wait a minute…there’s my struggle. Aren’t we supposed to be self-sufficient? Don’t we spend our lives striving to act like grown-ups? I know I do. It took me four and half decades to get this mature! Still, I’m finding there’s a tension inside of me, a longing to live out the delicate balance of wisdom that comes with experience coupled with a holy winsomeness.

Jesus said, “I tell you solemnly, anyone who does not welcome the kingdom of God like a little child, will never enter it.” (Mark 10:15). My friend’s childlike faith through her extended illness and death epitomized that. In the final hour, it was nothing more than her holding onto the hand of her Father and taking the next step.

I find living examples of the Gospel paradox whenever I encounter vulnerability, littleness, meekness, or humility.

I see it in older senior citizens I know--especially those who are more frail and living with some level of elder care. Their hearts have child-like wonder. Their faces light up with joy at the simple pleasures of life: holding someone’s hand, sharing a story, or watching children play. Slaves neither to jobs or fashion, they live with a certain freedom and detachment. They don’t mind if they fall asleep or stay awake as long as you don’t call them late to supper. You know the kind of folks I’m talking about – they are rare gems in our age – people who are simply grateful for any little thing you do for them, any little kindness you bestow, and any little time you can afford to be with them. Humbling, isn’t it? It’s supposed to be.

So, in my own limited paradoxical experience, this is what I conclude: God, who made us, like a good parent, wants to raise us with enough self-sufficiency to be able to choose him freely. As a Catholic parent, I’m striving to raise my own children to be “independent and responsible,” but, hopefully, in such a way as to not be blind to their own need for God. For myself, and for my children, I pray for the humility to take the hand of my Father every day. And when I actually do that? Less needs to be said, and more is understood.

This article is also appearing at www.Catholic.Mom.com.

Copyright 2006 Patricia W. Gohn

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