By Donald Schell
Peter is twenty-eight now. This memory must be almost twenty years old. It was Christmas. I’m guessing we were home between the early Pageant Liturgy and the Midnight Choral Eucharist on Christmas Eve. Peter, just beginning to grow into his manhood, took an elegant nonchalant stance leaning against the mantle over the fireplace when a tea-light on the mantle ignited his t-shirt. He felt heat on his back glanced over his shoulder and did what any of us might do seeing fire - he ran. His mother, the nurse, did what she knew to do – though I don’t remember her telling us that she’d been trained as a tackle in nursing school. She ran after him to the dining room, threw her arms around him, and slammed him against the dining wall, smothering the flames. And when the nurse had dealt with the first stage of the emergency, his mom reappeared to comfort him and calm him enough to get the t-shirt off and survey the damage.
Between Peter’s shoulder blades, he had a blistered area about four inches across, second-degree burns. Some small areas were charred, third degree burns. My dad, the physician was there and Ellen and Dad cleansed the wound and Dad set out the twice-daily protocol for debriding the wound. For the next several days I was her assistant.
A serious burn destroys our body’s most powerful defense against infection, our skin, and to make matters worse, dead skin in a moist wound is particularly hospitable to airborne bacteria. Debriding is tough love. Twice daily with a sterilized pair of tweezers Ellen methodically pulled dead skin from the wound. Dead skin is attached to living skin. It hurt Peter. My job was to help him lie very still on his stomach while she worked. I say ‘help him’ because Peter proved a brave and cooperative patient. Step by step Ellen told him what she was doing, and when she was about to pull. He did his best to steel himself and not to jump or pull away from her. My pinning his shoulders down was his back-up. Because sometimes he had to flinch, and then, without my hands on his shoulders holding him still, he would inadvertently poke himself on the tweezers or break his mother’s grip on the scrap of skin she was pulling away. Sometimes too, Ellen asked me to help by pulling the healthy skin on either side of the wound taut to make a dead skin fragment yield an end she could grab.
My role was mostly silent. For the first couple of days I thought of what an unlikely nurse's assistant I was. Growing up with both father and grandfather physicians, I lost track of how many people had asked me if I wanted to be a doctor. Usually I just said, ‘no.’ Sometimes I might venture a boyish imagining of vocation as ‘a preacher.’ But either way, my unspoken response was a forceful ‘NO,’ imbued with the painful knowledge that not only didn’t I feel called to medicine, but that I couldn't do it. Visible wounds made me queasy. Injuries to my own body frightened me. I was convinced I was too squeamish to be a doctor.
When my firstborn was coming and dad heard that her mother and I were taking birthing classes and that I planned to be in the delivery room, he wondered whether my presence there was a good idea. ‘Birth can be a little startling,’ he said. ‘It’s messy. There’s blood.’ But I was determined, and was glad to be present, and am still very glad for that experience. It was also my first hint that I’d outgrown some of the old un-ease at how raw bodies can be.
Then in my Clinical Pastoral Education at St. Luke’s Hospital, New York, I saw some badly battered bodies, some living, some dead, and I did my job all right, helped families talk to staff, stood by the body, said prayers, touched when it was helpful and appropriate. For my C.P.E. summer I’d been assigned to be the student chaplain on the Intensive Care Unit, which included burn patients.
Eighteen years later, as Ellen and I began our twice-daily routine with Peter, I remembered St. Luke’s burn unit. The memory of a child on the burn unit, most of his body burned, no one knowing whether he’d live or die, helped me with context and focus as we worked on Peter. Where, I wondered, was God in such suffering? I wasn’t satisfied with any answer I could offer to that question, but ‘where is God,’ resonated in this work, the painful and more hopeful treatment of my son. My job was to watch closely to anticipate when Peter's taut muscles would jump or lurch. As the delegated minister of stillness, my task was to watch, to hold a steady gaze as Ellen’s tweezers patiently took us to lower layers of Peter’s burn.
In the second day of this gazing as I watched Ellen’s meticulous work, I saw in Peter’s wound what Symeon the New Theologian called, ‘the impossible beauty of the life in Christ,’ or, to put it in plainer language, the awesome beauty of Life.
So soon after the burn “the wound” that I’d begun to know well from steady scrutiny through twenty minutes of teamwork unexpectedly showed a wholly different face. Just hours before I’d seen only ugly disfigurement, an opening to infection, damage, and grave risk to his health. Now healing was visible. In that same place where old skin was dying, brand new skin was beginning to appear. It felt so much like seeing healing in the moment that I wondered whether we’d actually see new cells or fresh patches of healthy skin move into place as Ellen worked. Peter’s body’s own work healing itself from session to session presented greater changes day by day. I was astonished. Watching the wound was moving me to a kind of joy. I loved gazing at it.
Had I not loved my work as a priest, that gazing spoke deeply enough to prompt a vocational crisis. Why had I imaged I couldn’t bear doing what my dad loved so much? Being a physician, seeing healing happen – ever – was an amazing privilege. Did Dad have to get over his own queasiness? Gazing at the wound, I understood something of my father’s heart and of his joy in his work. My Dad was an often skeptical Christian, but he did insist Life and God did the real work of healing, which he said made his work simpler and humbler: doctors could remove obstacles, sometimes clean things up or put them back together, keep them clean and in their right place, and watch healing overcome disease while trying to prevent complications.
Those days of watching my son’s very ugly wound heal I experienced, saw, and felt beauty where I’d imagined nothing was possible but ugliness. I’m not saying I found the idea of healing beautiful, not even my own thoughts observing the process of healing, but rather seeing Life present as Peter’s body healed, I felt the radiance of the Life that is the Light of humankind.
Culturally, but also religiously, we have a hard time with beauty. Sometimes we explain that difficulty in economic terms. When we’re working for justice or any pragmatic alleviation of human suffering, we mistrust beauty, suspecting it’s a luxury or a distraction. By common cultural consent we reduce beauty to a purely subjective, personal, and even idiosyncratic matter of taste.
But theologians as diverse as Jonathan Edwards (who calls the Spirit “the beautifier, the one in whom the happiness of God overflows … the one who bestows radiance, shape clarity and enticing splendor.” (Paraphrased by David Bentley Hart in The Beauty of the Infinite, the Aesthetics of Christian Truth). Or Gregory of Nyssa (“Human nature’s perfection is nothing but this endless desire for beauty and more beauty, this hunger for God.” From Gregory’s Life of Moses, quoted in Hart) Or Hans Urs von Balthazar,
Or – liberation theologian Alejandro Garcia Rivera whose work, The Community of The Beautiful, Jesuit James Empereur draws on so heavily in La Vida Sacra, Contemporary Hispanic Sacramental Theology.
Ancient theologians, a famous Puritan in New England, a Roman Catholic teacher beloved by Vatican conservatives, a Jesuit, and new work in the tradition of liberation theology all tell us beauty drives it all.
Gregory of Nyssa describes the engine something like this:
God creates life, Life beholds Beauty, Beauty begets Love, Love of the Life of God.
(Paraphrase from Gregory’s On the Soul and the Resurrection by Scott King who set this text as a four-part canon in Music for Liturgy)
Just as ‘love is stronger than death,’ beauty, the real thing has power enough to include and transform the raw suffering of a healing wound.
Beauty makes our world radiant with the life of God.
Some recent discussions here at the Café focused on verifiable truth claims got me thinking about Peter’s burn and healing and prompted this piece. Watching my son’s wound heal doesn’t prove the existence of God. In fact those who play the game of proofs, sooner or later will admit that none of the proofs give us a loving, forgiving God; it’s simply not possible
Love proves nothing, and watching that wound heal wasn’t an experience of proof or testing but one of simpler knowing: in a community of love facing a hard task, I was seeing the love that sustains our every moment in Life doing its work. It wasn’t a pretty sight, but it was simply beautiful.
The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.