“I am poor and needy.”[i]
Since I was a baby, and throughout my life, I have been slowly and relentlessly stripped of strength and abilities by progressive motorneuron disease. Crawling, sitting upright, lifting, grasping — one by one, things that I used to be able to do were no longer mine. I don’t have the strength and independence to move my legs or arms anymore: not to bathe myself, feed myself, or rub my own eyes. Ordinary actions of everyday living are no longer part of my days, no longer part of my life.
And I mourn the loss.
I also grieve to think what else I will lose.
The stripping of strength and movement is relentless in my body, as relentless as time itself. Time passes for everybody, and, as we age, things that were part of our lives yesterday won’t be part of our lives tomorrow. How much have you lost in your life, dear reader? How many past abilities do you miss? How many passed people do you mourn? How often have you felt yourself stripped through injury, illness, betrayal, or the death of loved ones?
As I’m writing this reflection, people all over the world are self-isolating in order to avoid spreading a deadly coronavirus, which, at this posting, has already killed tens of thousands of people across the world. “Social distancing” has become part of our daily existence, which means that many, many things that were integral parts of our lives have been stripped from us. We’ve been stripped of our mobility, of our normal routines, of our daily interactions with others, perhaps of our work. As a consequence of this stripping, we may feel alone, abandoned, helpless.
Jesus, God in the flesh, was stripped.
Fully human and fully divine, He did not want to endure imprisonment, torture, abandonment, and the pain of death. It was not His human will to suffer this way. But He gave His will — and all of His human longings and fears — over to divine will.
Amazingly, it was God’s will to intimately experience loss, loneliness, helplessness, and the reality of being stuck.
First, He who is God chose to empty Himself, to be stripped of limitlessness and omnipotence in order to assume our human nature and become one of us: a limited, dependent creature. Then, as one of us, He allowed Himself to be stripped of worldly goods through poverty and deprivation. Finally, Jesus was forcefully stripped of friendship, through betrayal; of group support, through abandonment; of property, through the tearing off of His possessions; and of mobility, through shackled imprisonment and being nailed to a cross. Ultimately, God in the flesh was stripped of earthly life.
God knows what it’s like to be stripped. Jesus was an impoverished man … but was any human ever so rich? Jesus was truly rich — wealthy in all that He could eternally give away.
During the holy season of Lent, Christians offer to give up something for forty days in solidarity with Jesus, who fasted and prayed for forty days in the desert. The self-denial is meant to be a kind of purgation, a stripping of attachments and worldly pleasures from our daily lives in order to help us grow in holiness. Stripping ourselves of habits and behaviors that we think that we need in order to be happy reveals to us how much extra we have in our lives, how cluttered our days are with nonessentials, and how much freer we can be when we cease to think so much about the desires of the flesh. Much in our “normal” lives has little to do with self-giving love (much, in fact, may even impede us in true charity) and so self-denial — purgation, stripping — frees us from petty dependencies, helping us to discover the divine peace of needing little and loving much.
May we all discover this inner core of freedom and peace through the sacrifices made during the covid-19 pandemic, for however long it may last.
Here and now, I am going to share with you, dear reader, my greatest fear of how I might have to live. Social distancing and staying home are not fearful situations to me, because it doesn’t really feel much different than my normal life. If, however, I had to be separated from my loved ones through their deaths or something that would render them incapable of taking care of me, then I would have to live in a nursing home. In that situation, a variety of overworked nurse’s aides would keep me alive by feeding, toileting, and bathing me. They would need to learn to put on my BiPAP machine so that I could sleep without dying and try their best to get me comfortable so that I wouldn’t be in pain, which is not an easy thing to do. Not only would I be sorrowfully lonely, mourning the loss of hourly interactions with my loved ones, I would also be stripped of my abilities to do the things that I do now: like sitting comfortably and writing on my computer, for example.
This is not a scenario that I want to come true. But thinking about its possibility allows me to bravely realize that there is so much stripping left to be done in my life.
While I was being stripped of mobility as a child and young adult, the powers of imagination and intellect filled the void so that I grew in strengths even as I physically weakened. I am told, however, that this is not human fulfillment. Substituting the brain for the body is not my ultimate spiritual destiny. My brain, after all, is part of my body, is flesh. And even my vivid imagination and ability to ponder and meditate upon spiritual matters is grounded in matter, in my senses and my brain — in my flesh. What would happen if I were stripped of my vivid imagination, my way with words, and even my delightful senses? What then? What would be left?
If my worst-case scenario were to come true, then it would be an opportunity for full and utter purification, body and soul.
Can you tell that I just finished reading St. Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle and have begun Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross? In order to be fulfilled as human beings, in order to receive full union with God, these saints tell us that we must undergo both a sensual purging and a spiritual purging. I’m not a mystic contemplative, so I don’t expect to go through such intense stripping in my prayer life (although I experience dryness, like anyone else), but we know that there are other kinds of stripping.
What if I should lose my physical senses, and my cognitive and imaginative abilities? With no more delicious love for created things, no more delectable thoughts about profound love and divine presence, what would I have? Who would I be?
My true identity and reason for being wouldn’t actually change. Just as when my parents were stripped of their expectations for my life on discovering my debilitating and lethal disease, I would remain who I eternally am. As I wrote in, It’s Good to Be Here:
“The truth of who I am is the same as it ever was and ever will be: I am a divinely treasured creation, a simply complex human being, a beloved child of God — and of Dan and Francine.”Finding about Christina
Although the things that we knew and experienced yesterday may not be ours today or tomorrow, there is no reason for us to be stripped of joy. God is with us. God is within us. When all other experiences are stripped away, no matter how good and beautiful they were, the astonishing truth of eternal beauty and goodness will be revealed. The intimate experience of divine love’s infinite glory will permeate and shine through our stripped selves.
May I always let God love me, because God always loves me. Even if I don’t always feel it at times.
(PS. None of us, including Jesus, want to be stripped or enjoy deprivation. Let’s all pray for those who are living in physical impoverishment, who are facing financial insecurity, and who are experiencing despondency or depression during this time. May they (you, we) know the true peace of Christ and the true, active love that we humans are meant to have for each other. We are one in Christ. #AloneTogether)
© 2020 Christina Chase
[i] Psalms 109:22
Although crippled by disease, I'm fully alive in love. I write about the terrible beauty and sacred wonder of life, while living with physical disability and severe dependency. A revert to the Catholic faith through atheism, I'm not afraid to ask life's big questions. I explore what it means to be fully human through my weekly blog and have written a book: It's Good to Be Here, published by Sophia Institute Press.