Grace Beyond Words

Ruby is dying in front of me from complications due to advanced dementia. Long alienated from her adult children, Ruby’s final earthly companions are the nursing home and hospice staff members and volunteers who shower her with affection. Still, the sight of Ruby – whose smooth skin and glowing white hair make her look decades younger than her eighty-plus years – scares me.

On my visits before today, Ruby would, upon the sound of my voice, usually look at me briefly and then drift back to staring absently out her window for the remainder of my visit. I have many patients like Ruby who have lost their ability to speak coherently, if at all. My communication with them is through touch, eye contact, and song.

As an overeducated American who spends way too much time living in my head, being with Ruby stretches me beyond my comfort zone. I am the product of the best formal education money can buy. My trade is in words – books, conversations, ideas, writing. Words have nurtured me and given me life. Words have connected me to people and worlds far beyond my limited experience. Words have been my anchor, my lifeboat, and my shore.

Which is why being in the presence of Ruby pushes my buttons. After hours of sitting with Ruby and many others like her recently, I have come to see that while words have often been my salvation, they have also been my prison. I have used words to attack, wound, and manipulate. One of my professors at Harvard once congratulated me on my “killer instinct” and encouraged me to become an academic because of what he saw as my outstanding “intellectual ruthlessness.” Most of all, I have used words to run away from intimacy, to hide my true self behind massive walls of feigned self-sufficiency, control, and superiority.

At Ruby’s bedside, words offer me neither comfort nor protection. Her sheer powerlessness in the face of dementia’s cruel ravages unmasks my own vulnerability – and my sheer terror of losing my intellectual capacities and cognitive ability. I am a member of a society that judges people by what they do, how they think, and how much they produce and consume. Truth be told, I am probably more captive to the world views of Wall Street, Washington, and Hollywood than I am surrendered to the Sermon on the Mount. Who would I be, after all, were I not able to function as a “productive,” “autonomous,” “self-actualized” individual?

Ah, here is where Ruby – and the millions of other people with intellectual disabilities – transform themselves from patients into prophets. Jean Vanier, one of the great spiritual heroes of our time, reminds us,

God has chosen the weak, the foolish, and the crazy to shame the clever and the powerful; he has chosen the most despised, the people right at the bottom of society. Through this teaching we see a vision unfold in which a pyramid of hierarchy is changed into a body, beginning at the bottom…The mystery of people with disabilities is that they long for authentic and loving relationships more than for power…They are crying for what matters most: love. And God hears their cry because in some way they respond to the cry of God, which is to give love (Vanier, Living Gently in a Violent World , p.30.).

Ruby challenges me to remember who I am – a beloved child of God – and WHOSE I am – a Loving Presence in whom I live and move and have my being. Through encounters with those who are helping me accept my own fragility and vulnerability, I am learning that it is okay for me to feel my feelings and to share them with others; that I am only “as sick as my secrets;” that life is to be lived one-moment-at-a-time with joy and gratitude; that I am capable of love, honesty, and intimacy with others; and that God loves me for who I am and not because of anything that I have or have not done.

As I prayed the final Prayers of Commendation for the Dying over Ruby’s sweating brow a few hours ago, I noticed that hanging in the corner of her room is the famous picture of the elderly man giving thanks for his meager loaf of bread and bowl of soup. First taken in 1918 by photographer Eric Enstrom in the tiny mining town of Bovey, Minnesota, the image was then painted in oil by Enstrom’s daughter.

During the Great Depression and Second World War, Grace (as it is known) became for many Americans the iconographic embodiment of humble gratitude in the face of deprivation, suffering, and loss. That same picture keeps vigil over my parents’ kitchen table, just as it did over my grandparents and great-grandparents’ tables.

In my youthful arrogance, I used to dismiss that image as a piece of trite, sentimental Americana. More recently – and most especially this afternoon – Grace has assumed a prized place in my spiritual life. Seeing it near Ruby’s peace-filled deathbed reminded me that, at the end of the day, what matters is not words but the Word-made-flesh who heals us in Love and holds us in Life, even that Life and Love which are everlasting.

I have a sense that the old man in the photograph knew what Ruby and many of my patients seem to know: the mystery of grace is never an object to be grasped, only a gift to be received with empty minds, bowed heads, prayerful hands, and surrendered hearts.

Paul Tillich, a famous Protestant theologian of the 20th century, uttered one of the great truths of the Christian story when he wrote this about grace.

Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged.

It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage.

Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: ” You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!”

If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.

Thank you, Ruby. And may you be at peace this day and dwell in the paradise of God forever.