by Donald Schell
We began our journey to Holy Week and Easter with the stark reminder, “you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Or is to so stark? For the past few years congregations venturing out to city streets with Ashes to Go have found strangers eager to receive smudged cross of ashes and those words reminding us of our shared mortality.
At the other end of our Easter journey when our congregations have just begun to ring with resurrection alleluias, on Thomas Sunday each year we hear Jesus offering his wounded hands and side for the beloved, resolute skeptic to see, touch, and probe.
So our journey to Easter begins with a reminder of our mortality and takes us our own dusty end to what is truly stark in the Gospel narrative, the insistence, even in resurrection joy, that Jesus himself suffered as brutal and painful death at others’ hands as the worst we read in the news. And there’s flesh all along the journey until we come to Lazarus’ corpse stinking in his tomb and the woman washing Jesus’ feet.
Lent, Holy Week and Easter reveal fragile flesh and blood in “carne” of our Christmas incarnation preaching – simpler wonder of the baby, Immanuel, God with us. From Jesus’ Baptism through the temptations and each step to cross and resurrection, the journey is resolutely fleshy, all of it framed in the glory of warm breathing human flesh and the aching loss we feel when flesh is cold and lifeless. Like Prospero in Shakespeare’s Tempest, for our Lenten, Holy Week, Easter journey, “every third thought shall be of my grave.”
I’d been a priest for about ten years on the Ash Wednesday I was presiding for our Franciscan sisters at the Community of St. Francis here in San Francisco. I’d imposed ashes over a decade of Ash Wednesdays, but that Wednesday, in a year of visiting the sisters every Wednesday morning for early Eucharist and breakfast, something in that lovely, intimate Eucharist with friends brought the words to vibrant life.
“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” I’d never heard the tenderness in those words before. Never heard what good news we can find in the simple finitude of our limited, embodied liveliness. Franciscans tell us that St. Francis only added the words about Sister Death to his “Canticle of the Sun” as he himself lay dying. Maybe he glimpsed something like this too.
This Lent the congregation I helped found invited me and my wife back to lead a course helping people frame conversations about mortality and end-of-life planning with their parents, their children, or other people they love.
For the course we read Atul Gawande’s excellent book, Being Mortal, Medicine and What Matters in the End, my wife and I shared a letter we’d written and shared with our children about our own end of life wishes, inviting them to think with us about what they may have to do some day interpreting our written directives about interventions, quality of life, and hoped-for-outcomes, and we watched For the Coyotes, a not-yet released film featuring our actor son Josh and James Carpenter, one of San Francisco’s local theater greats, as estranged father and son finding their way to an end-of- life conversation as the father faces terminal cancer.
Over three Sundays the forty or fifty people gathered for our class told personal stories and the listened and wondered. Something about speaking our uncertainties touched the Truth. Our class conversation felt as exhilarating as imposing ashes on the sisters had felt tender.
Preparing for the course, I’d also read and marveled at four books by superb writers facing death too soon – poet Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss, physician Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, and the pair by artist Marion Coutts and her art critic husband Tom Lubbock, The Iceberg, and Until Further Notice I am Alive. Any of them would make good Eastertide reading.
All four books sometimes moved me to tears, sometimes to moments when I had to stop reading and linger in the awe and wonder of our experience of being human. Two of the authors, Christian Wiman and Paul Kalanithi wrote as believing, practicing Christians, and their discoveries in faith and would make good sense to St. Thomas or any faithful but still wondering and questioning Episcopalian.
But as we move into Eastertide, the two by Marion Coutts and her husband Tom Lubbock, neither professing Christian faith, reverberate oddly for me with intimations of resurrection.
Tom Lubbock was Chief Art Critic for the Independent in the U.K. from 1997 until his death in 2011. Marion Coutts is a prize-winning artist and art teacher who’d never written a book before The Iceberg.
The story they tell begins in 2008 when Tom Lubbock was diagnosed with a “grade four brain tumour, situated in the left temporal lobe, the area responsible for speech and language.” Tom was a man whose patient looking and careful listening that enabled him to speak and write with joy. It seemed to him and to Marion that his words were the very essence of who he was. When the three-year journey of his dying began, Tom was just fifty years old, Marion in her early forties, and their son Eugene almost new. For three years as they struggled to communicate or were sometimes overwhelmed by fear and uncertainty, they continued learning and finding communion. Both books witness to the enduring power of love. For three years Eugene was growing into language while it left his father. The story is word become flesh from beginning to end.
Tom assumed that as the tumor gradually stole his ability to speak, write, and understand language, that he would begin to disappear and that Marion and Eugene would be forced to witness his dissolution. To his and Marion’s surprise, Tom’s language does go, but as it goes, in the moments they can communicate clearly, Tom keeps letting Marion know “I’m still here.” In their two tellings of it in The Iceberg and Until Further Notice, I Am Alive they continue to find their way back to gratitude.
Early in his book, Tom wrote,
“…’behold I show you a mystery…’ No souls without bodies. Mortal, We occupy a limited patch of space for a limited stretch of time. Like the art of realistic painting: pictures hold an equivalent in the confined areas which they enframe, and the brief narratives or actions they represent. Others think paintings figure mortality through the paint itself. Perishing, like flesh. Manipulated by our failing bodies. We know the deal. We’re bodies. We’re not in our own hands.”
We are dust, ourselves in a different way from Christ word made flesh. And embodied and fragile as we are, as St. Irenaeus taught in the Second Century, “The glory of God is a human being,” or, as he insists in another passage, “everything that breathes, breathes by the Spirit of God.”
The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.