Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The human condition -- on a personal note

I've often thought, and several times said (whether on this weblog or not I cannot recall) that those of us who live with all the conveniences would do well to have to do our laundry at a laundromat at least every once in a while. Perhaps it is my blue-collar upbringing, but I feel at home in a laundromat, almost as much as I do in church. In my case, the danger of romanticizing either is not great. But for a graduate course in subjects that can be studied at the undergraduate level in laundromats, an emergency room in an urban hospital late on a Saturday night is hard to beat.

Complications related to Liz's illness and the numerous medications she is enduring because of it took us to the emergency room on Saturday night. Crowded conditions and the various procedures and diagnostic tests Liz had to undergo kept us at the hospital until 6:30 a.m. Sunday. While Liz was being diagnosed and given an emergency MRI, I sat in her wheelchair in one of the little curtained-off cubicals trying (against impossible odds) to get at least a few minutes of sleep.

The curtain of the cubical where I sat was opened, and I was able to see and hear the choppy segments of the emergency room drama. To the din of blaring televisions (a ubiquitous curse in most places in the typical hospital today), sirens, intercom staff messages, shouts of patients who were in pain, or on drugs, or drunk, or all three, I tried (largely unsuccessfully) to sleep. (Wheelchairs are not made for sleep.)

At one point, two of the patients, males in their 30s who seemed to be high on something or other, went for each other, triggering an avalanche of testosterone, as uniformed security personnel, men in street clothes and surgery scrubs emerged from every corridor. The shouting died down, and, after milling around for a few minutes, most drifted off to resume their assigned roles.

All the while, I was wondering how Liz was handling the exhaustion and the diagnostic tests, and worrying that her tumor might have gotten into her spinal column. (Mercifully, it had not.)

Back home on Sunday morning for a few short hours of sleep and then a day like most other days, quiet and revolving around Liz's needs. As I may have mentioned in an earlier post, before dinner each night Liz and I have always had a period of prayer and reflection and personal sharing. We call it "port time" because it invariably includes a glass of port or an equivalent libation. Liz isn't able to read these days, so I have lately been reading a few paragraphs each night from something of spiritual interest to us. For the last couple of weeks or so I have been reading from Romano Guardini's The Lord.

As it happened, on Sunday night, when I turned to where I had left off the night before, it was at Guardini's discussion of the Beatitudes, and more precisely the following paragraph, in which the great German theologian reflects on the Beatitudes as Christ's manifesto for a new order of existence:
To participate in this new order, man must open his heart. He must free himself from the clutches of natural existence and advance to meet the things to come. He must eradicate the old, deeply rooted claim that this world is sufficient unto itself, the essential and only reality; he must admit that earthly existence even at its best is stained and discredited in the eyes of God. Naturally such self-emancipation is particularly difficult for those for whom the world holds the most delights-for the powerful and creative, for all who have a large share in earth's greatness and beauty. These are the rich, the sated, the laughing, the praised and honored ones-hence, the woe that threatens them. On the other hand, blessings on the poor, the mournful, the hungry and persecuted, not because their condition in itself is blessed, but because it helps them to realize that more than just this world exists. Need teaches them only too well how inadequate existence is, and once taught, they turn more easily from earth to heaven for something better. [The Lord, p. 72]
Fresh from my long vigil at the emergency room, this marvelous paragraph seemed to me to capture the sum and substance of Christian faith. All the more so is this the case, inasmuch as Guardini took pains to warn against sentimentalizing Christ's transvaluation of all values. "We must guard against one thing only," he insists, "sentimentality." (Something that would survive in the emergency room for about 30 seconds.)
Nothing on earth ever, of itself, guarantees heaven. Poverty can make men greedier than wealth. ... Hunger can harden; pain can drive to despair; contempt can inwardly destroy. ... But on the whole, Jesus' "Blessed are you" is correct. He spoke from experience: it was the poor, the suffering, the despised publicans, sinners and harlots who at least attempted to believe. The powerful, the learned, the wealthy, the secure were provoked by his message, or laughed at him, or hated him, whom they considered a danger to the political existence of the nation.
The Church is humanity's emergency room, where the weak and the wounded, the reckless and the raging, the broken and the frightened are thrown together to be ministered to by others only marginally healthier or holier than those to whom they minister.

At this very moment, as I am tying these words, Liz is sitting on the sofa nearby looking intently at an image of the Mother of Sorrows which was carved by our friend Vonn Hartung and which hangs in our living-room. Mary, with her heart pierced by the sword, is the icon of the Church: the Mother of Sorrows, under whose protection we huddle together with all the other needy ones.

How blessed we are to be under her protection and in the care of Mother Church.


Jonathan Larson said...

Reading what you wrote reminded me of Eliot's Four quartets. I do not know if you pondered over this in your writting, but incase not. The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer's art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

East Coker
The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer's art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam's curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.

The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

Gil Bailie said...

Eliot's Four Quartets are among my most treasured. Thanks for the reminder.

Unknown said...

Man can I relate Gil. You have the gift of description and you found a secondary purpose in your ordeal. If we could put every US Congressman and Senator in your shoes we could solve our national health care problems.
Your Friend From The Begin,