Fingering the wounds

I went on home visits to very poor neighborhoods in Montevideo last week with the excellent publicly funded palliative care teams at Hospital Maciel, originally a charity hospital founded by an order of sisters in the eighteenth century.

Interestingly, the otherwise state of the art palliative care teams did not do spiritual care, or do spiritual assessments when doing patient intake.  The professionals I asked about spiritual care responded that they provide “psychological care,” if necessary.  Courses in psycho-spiritual elements of palliative care are taught by psychologists.

Uruguay is a very secular country, an anomaly in Latin America, with a only minority of citizens identifying as Catholic or regular churchgoers.  Yet the country is well off, and very progressive in many ways, also an anomaly in that its national health service includes home based palliative care services.  The people are extremely friendly, and greet one another, even strangers like myself, with a kiss, much like the early Christians! It made me think, as I often do when I reflect on my secular friends and family members who wouldn’t be caught dead in a church, of theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity,” a concept he did not have a chance to develop before he was executed by the Nazis in the last days of the Third Reich.

Although he was a Lutheran pastor, Bonhoeffer was very critical of the church and understood why people were drifting away from an institution that offered largely “cheap grace…grace without discipleship, grace without the Cross.” (Cost of Discipleship)  As Bonhoeffer said, “We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore.” (Letters and Papers from Prison) The concept of “religionless Christianity,” on the other hand, demands costly grace of disciples, and obedience to Jesus’ call to radically follow him. 

This morning’s mass readings for the Second Sunday of Easter include Jesus’ famous words to the disciple Thomas, the one who said he would not believe until he put his fingers in the wounds made by the nails of the Crucifixion.  Jesus tells him straight up to put his hands in the wounds, and feel for himself.  Although John’s Gospel does not specify that Thomas actually did that, it’s Jesus’ instruction in an era of religionless Christianity that interests me, because that is exactly what today’s doubters, today’s Thomases should do.  Feel for themselves the wounded body of Christ.

That wounded body is the forgotten ones — the people who are hungry, humiliated, diminished, marginalised, mentally ill, and dying. The doubters should put their hands in that body, literally get their hands dirty with the work of serving, like Dorothy Day, like the countless anonymous Christians and non-Christians who serve their helpless fellow human beings all over the world. Whether or not they interpret it that way, they are tending to the wounded body of God.  I think that is what Bonhoeffer was getting it.

I particularly love how John tells us that when Jesus appeared in his resurrected body in the middle of the huddled and frightened post-Crucifixion disciples, “Jesus breathed on them and said “receive the Holy Spirit.”  Classical Greek renders that breath as πνεῦμα or pneuma. The Holy Spirit came through his breath.  I remembered to do the Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen at a patient’s house the other day in response to the dense suffering that surrounded this teenager’s dying, and what a great practice tonglen is in such circumstances, when the pain brought on by the despair of losing a child is unbearable.  Being present to that despair allows us to breathe in the suffering as we inhale, and send out the holy spirit in our outbreath, our pneuma, to serve as a container for the pain, when the one who is suffering cannot.

Providing spiritual care as an integral component of palliative care can respect the secularity of the patient and family. It does not have to be religious or even “spiritual,” but can simply be compassionate, intentional presence  — being with the patient and family in their distress. According to one consensus definition, “Spirituality is the aspect of humanity that refers to the way individuals seek and express meaning and purpose and the way they experience their connectedness to the moment, to self, to others, to nature, and to the significant or sacred.” Attending to that need for meaning and purpose fills a vacuum that is otherwise filled with great suffering, suffering that cannot be assuaged by any amount of excellent clinical care.

I have been praying daily for the young man who is dying of an aggressive brain tumor, who is bedridden and whose friends don’t visit any more, and for his mother, whose grief we we were able to accompany for a brief time last week. Thank God for the palliative care teams — the religionless Christians — who could visit their humble home at no cost to the family, who could at least alleviate the young man’s physical pain and by their very attendance on him, let his family know they are not abandoned in their hour of greatest need.


The cosmic dance: being for and of the world as delusion

Being for the world as delusion, for love of the world: the dance as God

I wrote this essay while reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s (DB’s) ethics of Christian imperative of participating in the world, in the context of the my personal tantric view of the “outside” world as we perceive and act in it as a projection of our minds, delusion, ignorance, etc.

Since I totally get that perspective, why am I participating so deeply in the world, and if I am going to continue interacting with it, how can I do it better and more successfully?

Perceiving and reacting to “the outside world” as reality rather than seeing it as delusion and projection doesn’t mean that freedom from the world somehow mitigates the effects of the delusion. Our delusion persists whether we work in the world or not — the question is how much damage we do when we engage without awareness, or withdraw into a state of narcissistic awareness, another delusion.

There seem to be degrees of delusion, hierarchies, though! According to DB, to Kuan Yin certainly, the suffering of the world entails action and engagement. But how do we engage ethically with delusion? That has to be a contradiction in terms!

Just as people, usually out of ignorance, built worlds from negative, destructive delusions, people can also, from a place of awareness and intentionality, reprogram our common, perceived reality, to more closely resemble the Kingdom. First we have to reprogram ourselves, though: download the divine software so to speak.

The strong challenge is always the temptation to identify ourselves with our perception of the world as it appears in our thoughts and desires. When we do that, we miss the connection with inherent, non-dual reality, that is the source of compassion.

The pathology of consumer, market driven society is that it tempts us to disassociate from that non-dual reality. Or has it always been so? Dogen said, “how could you waste your time delighting in sparks from a flint stone?” And that was back in the 13th Century!

Neo-liberal corporate/consumer culture intentionally and relentlessly urges people to delight in the sparks, to identify with our desires. I am my desires. I burn with them.

We may perceive there is less space to make a choice to identify or not. But we still do have that choice and that space, we just have to practice awareness of our thoughts and desires…especially the very charged ones like passion and aversion.

Jesus did give the world a model of resistance to false identification, and a free choice to love God in ordinary people, in everyone, from the leper to the centurion.. And Buddha gave us the method of training the mind, the noble eightfold path.

I need both, because J’s method of Kenosis, love, metanoia, love, is a tough feedback loop for those who live in their heads! Getting into it is easier said than done, and most people in today’s world at least need to suffer a lot before they can surrender like that.

Then it is hard to see it as voluntary self-giving except by some extraordinary souls like Simone Weil, Etty Hillesum, and DB of course, just to name some recent examples, although of course the community of saints is crowded with them.

DB, like Ignatius, was convinced that God is in the world, even making the strong existential claim that God is the world. DB’s ethics was that the Christian, the church, should be fully engaged in the world in order to live the Gospel and Jesus did.

This comes back to indifference though — but indifference to ends, not to process and means. Process can be deeply passionate, can lead to martyrdom, etc. Can we be deeply passionate about the process, but not attached to the ends?

The attachment to ends contaminates the free development of the process. I’m not sure why that is, except perhaps that it diverts attention from the present moment, which is the source of all knowledge.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we shouldn’t have an idea or a vision of what the ends should be or might look like. Jesus was very clear about the Kingdom of God being a “free for all,” with a welcoming, open door policy.

But the process is the path. Our attitude to our neighbour is the path. The ends are the means, as L said. It’s not about either “justifying” the other.

This is what the Tibetan/Indian iconography means by The Dance of Shiva/Shakti, the cosmic dance is a pretty universal symbol of non-duality. We participate in the dance passionately, erotically, with abandon — self-abandon, Kenosis, knowing that the participation in the dance of the World is The Kingdom.

That is the only way I can live and work — engaging with the delusion. Doing otherwise creates to much suffering, which unfortunately I am all too aware of, having received a visitation from Kuan Yin herself when I was nineteen. Kuan Yin’s thousand eyes and arms are always identifying and reaching out to offer what is needed to alleviate suffering.

If that is not activity for love of the world, I don’t know what is. We can envision that activity as our delusion just as we can join Jesus in envisioning the Kingdom, and thereby construct the sort of world God had in mind when S/he first created us.