Sunday, March 21, 2010

Spirituality is not for sissies

As I mentioned back in February, I've begun singing with the Community Singers, a group of people who sing at nursing homes and retirement centers around the island. This afternoon, for the second Sunday in a row, we sang at the island's Rehab Center.

Most of the folks in our audience at the Rehab Center -- unlike those at the retirement centers, where everyone's still pretty active and alert -- are extremely elderly. Almost all are in wheelchairs, and there are two dear sweet little ladies who spend their time all hunched over and clutching their stuffed animals. One has a black and white stuffed cat, and the other a tan teddy bear; I itch to photograph them every time I go.

But today there was a different woman there, in a more complicated wheelchair than usual, with special features and a headrest. Like the other women, she was quite old -- over 90, I feel certain -- but also quite emaciated. She was already in place and dozing when I arrived, but after a song or two an equally elderly man walked in, sporting what looked like a black eye, and pulled up a chair to sit beside her.

He murmured something in her ear, and she lifted her head off her chest. He gave her his hand, and she brought it to her lips, then held it against her cheek. He scooted his chair closer to her, but the wheelchair didn't allow him to wrap an arm around her and leave it there, so he leaned over, gave her a long hug, and spent the rest of the concert with his hand in hers and his feet draped around hers. Eventually the two of them dozed off, though he would occasionally wake at the end of a song and clap.

It seemed painfully clear that they were husband and wife, separated by whatever has laid her low -- a car accident, perhaps? (given his black eye, relative mobility, and obvious non-residence) -- and that they were missing each other's presence terribly. All of us who were singing were moved to tears by the tenderness of their gestures, and one or two of the other inmates stared for a while before returning to their customary hunched positions.

Our leader -- I suspect in response to the couple before us -- elected to sing the song "Today": you know the one: "Today, while the blossoms still cling to the vine, I'll taste your strawberries and drink your sweet wine..." And before singing he said, turning to the audience, "How does that go? Yesterday is but a memory, and tomorrow's a dream, but today is a gift: that's why they call it the present." Yes, it's trite, but also very sweet. And it reminded me, too, of a sermon I'd heard earlier in the morning, about the passage where Mary anoints Jesus' feet with oil and wipes them with her hair, and Judas objects, saying she should have sold the oil and used the money to feed the poor.

Jesus says to leave her be, "For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” I've always found this verse a little confusing, but today our priest helped me see that it's about the value of being present to what IS-- sort of like some folks I knew when I was younger who spent all their time out volunteering for various causes but then were rude or abusive to -- and certainly uninvolved with -- their own children.

I'm a member of the spirituality and practice group on Facebook, and I came home from singing to find that they had posted this question:

"Real faith means holding ourselves open to the unconditional mystery which we encounter in every sphere of our life which cannot be compressed in any formula." (Martin Buber) Do the widespread mysteries of life bother or exhilarate you? Has your spirituality made you more accepting of the unknown or wary of it?

There were 15 responses to the question, all basically saying "accepting," though some admitted they were also wary. Which intrigued me, because accepting is so obviously the "right" answer: more spiritual should mean trusting more -- not just in God, but in life and in others. But I'm not sure -- and this is, I confess, something I tend to flagellate myself about -- I am more accepting.

It's true, that when surprises happen, I can talk myself down from the autonomic nervous response; I get that everything bad that happens usually comes with a gift. It's also true that I'm getting better at dealing with life from the "sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof" perspective. But the fact is that my spirituality -- and the connections it has brought to me over the years -- has also taught me that life can offer up some pretty terrifying stuff; I can no longer trust that simply by believing in God I will be spared from disaster. And though I've learned to love more, that has also made me more vulnerable to loss. So although I'm better at remaining present to the glory of what is here and now, there is at the same time a more intense consciousness of that possibility of loss that seems to parallel that appreciation.

Which is why today's passage was so appropriate: because Mary was anointing Jesus' feet with the oil used to anoint the bodies of the dead, in anticipation of his imminent departure. So there is for her, in the very appreciation of now, an awareness of not-now; an honoring of the separation to come. In a sense, their past history, that present moment, and the future's promised endings all come together in that one moment as her hair spills out over his feet and the scent of that exotic oil fills the room -- in the same way they came together in that moment at the rehab center as I watched the husband's legs entwine around his wife's feet.

If we are truly here, now, then past, present and future have a way of joining into one, just as acceptance and wariness join into one. It's a bit like one of those games where you have to walk around blindfolded: we find ourselves deeply attuned to the moment, and all our senses are heightened, partly just so we can be fully aware of where we are, but partly also out of fear of tripping over one of the many obstacles that we know are in the room. Yes, it's got an element of fun, but...

It's a beautiful -- and terrifying -- moment. And the more fully I comprehend the magnitude of that moment, the more intense both the wariness and the acceptance become. Spirituality -- like growing old (as the poster in my physical therapist's office says) -- is not for sissies.

(PS: this image, since I suspect you're wondering, began with a brace on a ferry wall.)


Maureen said...

I enjoyed reading all of this. The title is perfect.

The question asked of the practice group, had it been stated, "How has your . . .?", would, I'm sure, have yielded thoughtful responses, more than can be conveyed with the single word, as your post demonstrates so well.

Jayne said...

A beautiful, thoughtful post.