by Father Robert Lauder
Sixth in a series
IN EXPLORING the ways that God communicates with us, Father James Martin in his book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life (HarperOne, An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2010, 432 pages, $26.99) and in his essay, “Get Closer” in the March 21 issue of the Jesuit weekly, America, mentions the experience of being vulnerable.
The essay, which I think is exceptionally good, is adapted from the book. When our defenses are down, God has a better chance of reaching us. I think that what Father Martin writes about vulnerability is extremely important.
Father Martin points out that a very popular but false notion is that when people are suffering they turn to God in desperation, using God as a crutch. People who seem to have neglected their relationship with God for most of their life often turn to God when they experience their vulnerability, for example, when they are seriously sick or approaching death.
A popular attitude among some is that this kind of religious “conversion” is merely superstition, a “conversion” that is motivated totally by fear. Father Martin disagrees and so do I. He writes the following in the essay “Get Closer:”
“During a serious illness, a family crisis, the loss of a job or the death of a loved one, many people will say that they have turned to God in new ways. More skeptical minds may chalk this up to desperation. The person in need, they say, has nowhere else to turn and so turns to God. …
But in general, we do not turn to God in suffering because we suddenly become irrational. Rather, God is able to reach us because our defenses are lowered. The barriers that we erected to keep out God — whether pride or fear or lack of interest — are set aside. We are not less rational. We are more open.” (p. 19)
Father Martin’s essay has set me thinking about my own experiences of vulnerability. I know when I am ill — and I mean sick with some minor malady such as a virus or a cold — I view my life differently and become more aware of my blessings. I always think that once the illness passes I will appreciate my good health much more and I resolve to remember the experience of being sick so that I will be more grateful for my good health and in general for the blessings that God has showered on me.
Unfortunately, and I am embarrassed to write this, I quickly forget the experience of being ill and I do not use it to “listen” to God, to hear what God is communicating to me. But the message about finitude and dependence, which God may be trying to teach me, is lost, not because God is not “speaking” to me, but because of my deafness.
Becoming More Human
In his essay Father Martin describes how his father, when he became seriously ill, became more religious. Never overtly religious, his father seemed to change a great deal as his death drew near. Father Martin reports that his dad became more gentle and forgiving and prayerful.
After his dad’s death, Father Martin mentioned to one of his former professors of theology, a Catholic sister, that his father in his illness seemed to become more open to God. She replied, “Dying is about becoming more human.” I believe what she said is profoundly true. It sums up much of what Catholics believe about human existence. Death is not the termination of all life. As the funeral liturgy proclaims, in death life is changed not ended.
At the moment of death we are what the sum total of our free acts have created. Some of those free choices may be more important, dramatic and life changing than others. I think the choices made when someone knows that he or she has a terminal illness, or when someone is on a deathbed, may dramatically change a person’s life.
Some people will tend to minimize the importance of the religious fervor of those who are dying. It is easy to suspect that the fervor is coming from fear and superstition. Are such choices made only because of fear and superstition?
I don’t think so. They may be made because the vulnerable position that the person is in has freed the person be more receptive and open to God’s loving presence. God is always trying to communicate with us.
Perhaps when we are vulnerable, for example, near death, we are more ready and able to listen. What has distracted us or preoccupied us during our life no longer distracts us. Perhaps near death we can listen in a way we have not listened previously. If we can, then we will hear Love.