Monday, April 19, 2010

Stronger Than Death

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. . . As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. (Luke 24:13-16; 28-31)

Relationships change us. From the beginning of our lives, key aspects of our personality—the way we experience ourselves and the world around us—are shaped by our primary relationships. If, as infants, we experience secure and stable attachments with our caregivers, we will develop a sense that the world is trustworthy and safe. If, on the other hand, our first relationships are unstable or otherwise traumatic, our ability to navigate the vicissitudes of life will be greatly impaired. Recent studies have shown that early healthy attachments lead to such things as greater self-esteem, greater life satisfaction, and a more robust immune system.

In the most fundamental of ways, relationships change us.

Later, as our worlds expand beyond the circle of family, our connections with others invite us to discover and develop wider dimensions to our personality. But this process of development is not something that is strictly an internal and individual affair. C.G. Jung states, “The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” This is the basic premise of psychotherapy, that change is effected by relationship.

Religion, too, teaches that relationships can be transformative, particularly one’s relationship with God. All religions place central importance on the development of compassion, but it is Christianity, with its doctrine of the Trinity, that seems unique in asserting that relationship is not just something enjoined by God, it is the very nature of God. Referring to the idea of the Trinity, Huston Smith tells us, “If love is not just one of God’s attributes but his very essence—and it may be Christianity’s distinctive mission in history to claim just that—at no point could God have been truly God without being involved in relationship.” Looking closely at the story, quoted above, of Jesus talking with two disciples on the road to Emmaus, there is a hint that relationship is also an important factor in the mystery of resurrection.

I can’t really speak to the theological understanding of resurrection as it is beyond the scope of my knowledge. And as for the spiritual reality of a life beyond this one, well, that is something that surpasses human knowing. It has always seemed likely to me that there is an existence that continues past this life, and I share Mary Oliver’s attitude in her poem, When Death Comes, when she says:

“I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?”

My personal belief is that death and resurrection are synonyms. Our death is an end on this plane of existence, but it is also an opening to a new and unknowable existence on some other level. A short while back, Carla woke and discovered that she had a sheet wrapped around her and could not move. ALS had left her too weak to free herself and too weak call for help. In order to avoid panic she imagined her body as a sandbag that she dropped off the side of a hot-air balloon. This allowed her to shift out of being identified with her trapped body and to find refuge in her free and soaring imagination. I believe our resurrection is like this, we let go of the body and become all soaring imagination. Or, maybe, it is like an actor walking off stage. We take off the costume and makeup of this character we’ve been playing and remember the wider, more complete personality that we’ve always been.

One of the stories told in the Christian tradition during the Easter season is the appearance of Jesus to two disciples on the road to Emmaus. The two disciples are walking in a state of grief, discussing Jesus’ execution, when they are joined by a stranger. They invite the stranger to join them for dinner and when he blesses and breaks the bread, they suddenly recognize that it is Jesus. As soon as they recognize him, Jesus disappears.

The word ‘companion’ is made from the words com- ‘with’ and panis ‘bread.’ To break bread with someone is to be in relationship with them. In this story, as I noted above, resurrection and relationship are joined together. In fact, in many of the post-resurrection stories, Jesus visits his disciples—his companions—and eats with them. This pairing of resurrection and relationship suggests one way to understand the mystery of life beyond this life. That is, we are most alive in this world and the next where we generate the most love, both given and received.

This, to me, speaks to the psychological dimension of resurrection. Relationships change us. More than this. Who we are is to a large part determined by our interactions with others, good and bad. We are shaped by the successes and failures of love. Relationships not only change us, they create us. It is not too much, I believe, to say that the primary place of relationships in our lives means that we are not confined to our personal, separate selves. We are not merely our egos. We are what happens in the space between two (or more) people.

Certainly, we continue to live on in the memories of those we have loved and those who have loved us. But I am suggesting that we live on in more than just memories. If we are made up of our relationships, then in every person we have met and loved some part of our being has been planted . We live not only in the memories of another, but in his or her very being. Maybe those who are left behind are like pieces in a great puzzle of love. When two or more of the people who have loved us in this life meet again after we are gone, the pieces come together and, in that moment, we are resurrected, we are alive again. We are, in a sense, put back together in those meetings. We are re-membered.

And this to me is where the psychological dimension of resurrection opens out into the spiritual dimension. Maybe our spiritual existence is built up of the love we have generated in the world. The more love we have known, the more our spirit takes on a substantial existence able to become a living presence long after we have released the ballast that is our mortal body. Life ends. Things decay. Even memories fade. Love never dies.

“Love,” teaches Paul Tillich, — and I believe him with all my heart — “is stronger than death.”


Anonymous said...

Missing Carla and rediscovered your blog.

this is so beautifully written.
"If we are made up of our relationships, then in every person we have met and loved some part of our being has been planted . We live not only in the memories of another, but in his or her very being. Maybe those who are left behind are like pieces in a great puzzle of love"
I feel there must be some truth to this.
Carla is certainly embedded in me.
Wishing you ease of being,
housemate of Carla's in boston

Anonymous said...

i have been reading your blog for awhile. i heve never met you (or your sister). you are gifted human beings. gifted...

Anonymous said...

i just learned that carla passed away on may 17th. may she rest in everlasting peace. she was one of a kind - an amazing human being - who will be dearly missed. sincere condolences to you and the rest of your family.

Jennica Serra said...

1 Corinthians 13
1If I speak in the tongues[a] of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames,[b] but have not love, I gain nothing.

4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

8Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. 11When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. 12Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.