Several years ago, one of my sisters died of cancer. She was an Ursuline nun, possessed a deep faith and had, for many years, given herself over to the service of others with an unselfishness that was exceptional.
Yet, despite all this, she found it very hard to die, very hard to let go.
Why? I have seen others, with less faith, let go much more easily. In my sister’s case, this was the difficulty: She was not afraid of God, of the after-life, or of the unknown. This was not the issue.
The reason she found it so hard to die was, quite simply, that she loved her life so deeply.
She thoroughly loved and enjoyed her life. Friends, work, family, good food, good weather, good chocolate (her weakness), these she basked in.
She wasn’t a particularly reflective person, but she wasn’t a moody one either. Her impatience was with those who gave life too much of a tragic or stoic twist. This she considered pompous, false, a waste.
Life, for her, was good, something to be drunk in with delight. Her view: To enjoy life is to end up with a double chin. This is what separates the true Christian from the stoic. The formula worked for her. She had a happy life, did eventually develop a double chin and died a deeply loved woman. What this story highlights is something that is too often lost within spirituality, namely, that the highest compliment someone can give to a gift giver is to thoroughly enjoy the gift. The highest compliment we can give to God, our creator, is to thoroughly enjoy the gift of lie. One should never look a gift universe in the mouth! The best way to pay for a beautiful moment is to enjoy it.
More often than not, this is not the message that has come through in Christian spirituality, or in virtually every other spirituality and secular philosophy for that matter. Mostly what has been presented as mature, as the ideal to be imitated, is stoicism, the Hamlet-figure, the Socrates-figure, the person who is somehow above and detached from the enjoyments, pleasures and delights of the ordinary person.
A saint who craves chocolate! There aren’t many icons, outside of Buddhism, that show someone with a double chin. We are the poorer for that. What is not mature is our spiritual understanding. We have mistaken Hamlet for Jesus, stoicism for Christianity, despair for healthy detachment.
This needs correction. The Christian, as John Shea is so fond of pointing out, is not the noble anti-hero, luxuriating in despair, but the child of the kingdom, the grace-merry person who, while sharing fully in the tears of this world, is ultimately distinguished through his or her laughter.
To consider life as tragic is to not believe in the resurrection. It is also to not imitate Christ who shocked as many people with his capacity to enjoy the earth as he did with his challenge to live in the face of the fact that this world is not our true home.
I was taught this lesson by Gustavo Gutierrez, the father of liberation theology. I was once fortunate enough to meet him. He is a man with a passion for justice but he is also a man with a passion for life. I remember an incident some years back when he came to deliver some lectures at the college where I was teaching. My job was to pick him up from the airport, take him to breakfast and get him settled in. I guided him into my car with considerable trepidation for, in my mind, I was transporting an icon.
That feeling, unfair as it was, disappeared when I took him to breakfast in our college cafeteria. He wasn’t a pious icon, he was man, and he was a man who thoroughly enjoys his breakfast!
After loading his plate with a generous sample of everything that our cooks had laid out, he sat down to the table, said a grace, and then made the pronouncement: “I like eating! When I was a child there often wasn’t enough food. Now, when there is, I thoroughly enjoy it!”
He enjoyed good food without apology. He also had the beginnings of a double chin. Hardly what you expect from the father of liberation theology! But then people didn’t expect that of Jesus either.
Passing strange, yet strangely true, but it is invariably those who see and live out most clearly the fact that this world is not our true home who also have the ability to enjoy life most fully. Occasionally too they have double chins. My sister would have liked Gutierrez. They would have enjoyed chocolate together.
The best way to thank a gift giver is to thoroughly enjoy the gift.