When I was hit by a speeding bullet city train in Prague three years ago, the ambulance flew through the streets with me tied to a board and no stewardess with cocktails or even nuts. On arrival at the hospital, I seemed fine, and we all thought I might go home for a glass of wine, but a cat scan and X-ray indicated a double hematoma on the sinus of the brain and a skull cracked into three distinct pieces, floating on jello. Suddenly things sped up and I remember the lights flashing overhead as I was raced on a gurney through hallway and after hallway to ICU where I was told I would live three hours but would fall asleep, without pain, as I died.
“Would you like anything.? Do you need to write to anyone?” the nurse asked. What does one say? “Life, please, not stationary.” I thought to myself. “I would like very much to live please.”
Five days later I awoke and the nurse dropped the tray she was holding, in shock. It was as if God had responded “Well, if you are sure. Ok.” back when I was asked that question.
Recent tests show no change in personality, no thought problems (in fact they were quite generous describing my intelligence!) and no lasting effects except the complete loss of taste and smell – a difficult life-sentence when one was a foodie.
But I lost one other thing as well. I lost the willingness to be quiet in the face of bullying, abandonment or abuse. And in today’s church, that is a debilitating loss which daily threatens my life.
My hero, soul-friend and guide, Richard Rohr says that there comes a turning point in men’s lives when there was a before and there is an after. It is usually in mid life and it usually involves great and terrible suffering. It is that point after which there is no longer a fear of death and so, in a strange way, no longer any fear at all.
The call on a priest’s life is to fight for the underdog. Sometimes that is a diocese, a person, a congregation, or a woman experiencing homelessness who wants and needs food from our walk-in refrigerator or would like to attend our Wednesday night meal. Sometimes it is a congregant being scolded for holding something the wrong way and sometimes it is just defending myself from abuse or neglect.
We humans have the most extraordinary inner compass for life. Even when we choose not to live, we live, because something has been placed within us which craves, grips and locks onto life. The truth is we are not safe. Those words are difficult to write but it is true. Many, many like me, chose to enter the church or monasteries seeking a safe place in which to be protected and nurtured when in fact that has never been its role; and, as it is slowly, quietly unfunded by the next generations, will increasingly be less safe as anxiety and scarcity grip it for the first time since the Viking invasions of its churches and monasteries in the Dark Ages.
But God is safe. God will not protect us from bad things happening, usually. Nor will God always assist when we are abandoned or abused. God does not grab the hand of the person about to hit us nor does God necessarily shut down a growing cancer when we we ask for a miracle. Sometimes God does, but not usually. Instead, God moves in very, very, very close. God lingers when we suffer. God sits uncomfortably close and stares uncomfortably into our eyes, even when we look away or at the floor or at Kai-the-dog. And I notice that when look at Kai-the-dog in order to avoid looking at God’s disquieting closeness, Kai seems always to be looking just to the left or right of me. As if he sees something I do not. Can not. Will not. (As I write these words, his tail just thumped thrice against the floor, in another room!)
God lets us suffer so that we may become our full selves. It may seem unkind or even unfair. God grows us, on the inside, by way of our suffering. And especially for men, suffering is what makes us move from boy to man no matter in what year of life. In the end, God does not seek our happiness as much as God seeks our joy. And Joy is so different. Happiness is about pleasure, but joy is about transformation. And like Jesus, walking in the Easter garden with Mary of Mandala, Jesus calls all of us to turn a second time, not so that we may see Jesus’ new body, but that we may see our new soul.