Though I was born in 1964, I don’t believe I fully appreciated life until April 16, 2001.
That was the morning I awoke in my own bed after spending six days in the hospital.
The reasons for this hospital stay could fill a book; suffice it to say that for the first time since 1987, I was free of the chronic pain that had become so much a part of my life.
That morning as I lay in bed, I could hear my two children in the next room. They were quite young at the time and they were fighting. Rather loudly, as I recall.
I found it to be the sweetest sound in all the world. And at that moment, I said a small prayer: “Please, dear God, please, don’t let me ever forget this feeling.”
I have not forgotten it, but sometimes its light dims a little. A shadow threatens to cover it. Sometimes it’s by simple things — ordinary frustrations, petty grievances — or lately, a worldwide pandemic.
Yet the feeling remains, ready to call me back. Reminding me that life is good. It’s all a matter of how you view it.
Of course, I have teachers who help me on this path. People who, by their writing or their very lives, instruct me on a better way of being. A better way to view life.
For instance, there’s Sister Adeline Kroll.
A Franciscan Sister at the convent where I work, Sister Ade is what you might call a Science Groupie.
She loves science. She reads textbooks for fun, attends lectures in her free time, and can provide a lecture for you should you ever find yourself in need of one.
She is especially well-versed in the many wonders of bacteria and similar single-cell forms of life. She finds them instructive for her faith.
Here is something she wrote recently in one of the convent’s publications (you will sense her enthusiasm for the subject within the first paragraph):
“Our denial of death through creating heaven as an escape from earth has allowed us to destroy Earth as a thing to use and consume. Now all these bacteria and viruses are our buddies and teachers!
“Our place on the planet changes. Past viruses and this one help us see we are all One, interdependent—part of a whole still evolving.
We may be getting smarter as a species but still staying too small. Corona calls us to move from small to whole. Our language has to communicate our interdependence. We need to include the WHOLE story and all in it. We are ancient and future. Past, present and future are all linked! It’s so great to be loved this way! It evokes life, creativity, change—and a new consciousness of the WHOLE (if we let it).”
Viewing my life as one with bacteria — with a virus — being thankful for the lesson it gives me? I’m not there yet.
But it’s an interesting concept. To take the role of the observer and student, ready for any lesson life might bring you.
Of course, Sister Ade has lived with the guidance of her own teacher, St. Francis. In the same article, she quotes his “Canticle of the Creatures” — a poem he wrote and added to over the course of his life.
This is taken from the final verse, the one he wrote as he lay dying:
Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no one living can escape.
Accepting Death as your equal, your Sister, even upon the point of death? To not live in fear of death, but to accept it as the next step in your journey? I’m not there yet. I’m not sure I ever will be, but it’s an interesting concept.
And from the Scientist and Mystic, we turn to the Artist.
In this case, Vincent van Gogh, who I think (borrowing from Sister Ade) sought to “move from the small to the whole” with his work.
If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend the 2017 film “Loving Vincent” (currently on Hulu). It’s a completely hand-painted animation that gives you a glimpse into the mind of the artist. The movie is mesmerizing, both for its beauty and its message.
Here is the trailer:
Toward the end of the movie, they read from a letter he wrote to his brother, Theo. I was so taken by it, I looked it up to get the full quote. (You can access van Gogh’s letters here.)
Painters — to speak only of them — being dead and buried, speak to a following generation or to several following generations through their works. Is that all, or is there more, even? In the life of the painter, death may perhaps not be the most difficult thing.
For myself, I declare I don’t know anything about it. But the sight of the stars always makes me dream in as simple a way as the black spots on the map, representing towns and villages, make me dream.
Why, I say to myself, should the spots of light in the firmament be less accessible to us than the black spots on the map of France.
Just as we take the train to go to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to go to a star. What’s certainly true in this argument is that while alive, we cannot go to a star, any more than once dead we’d be able to take the train. So it seems to me not impossible that cholera, the stone, consumption, cancer are celestial means of locomotion, just as steamboats, omnibuses and the railway are terrestrial ones.
To die peacefully of old age would be to go there on foot.
For the moment I’m going to go to bed because it’s late, and I wish you good-night and good luck.
I especially love “… we take death to go to a star.” (And ending his letters with a handshake charms me to no end.)
At another point in the movie, one of the characters says of van Gogh, “No detail of life was too small or too humble for him. He appreciated and loved it all.”
I wonder, should any of us take that “celestial means of locomotion” to the next realm, would anyone say that of us? That we appreciated and loved it all?
Whether it’s through the eyes of a scientist, a mystic, an artist – or possibly all three? – should we have such a gift, we would view life as a something not to be feared or “won”, but respected and appreciated. And in so doing, we would move from the small to the whole.
It is something I aspire to and even if I never succeed, the attempt will be well worth it.