Who do you think you are?
And he changeth times and ages: taketh away kingdoms and establisheth them,
giveth wisdom to the wise,
and knowledge to them that have understanding. ~~ Daniel 2:21
The heart can think of no devotion, greater than being shore to the ocean.
Holding the curve of one position, counting an endless repetition. ~~ Robert Frost
I’m getting older. Oh, I know everyone else is, too, but due in part to my forty-third birthday and in part to a confluence of events around me, I am acutely aware of time, and have witnessed a correlation between the increase in years and the increasing evidence of God’s refining Hand in my life. What’s neat about getting older is its paradox: the more I know who I am, the less there actually IS of me. I seem to slip ever further into a mosaic, as one little tile, and yet the color of me becomes ever more brilliant, ever more infused with definiteness. God is dusting a lot of extra stuff off, and I’m shining more because of it. The tough part is when He uses not the brush, but the file, or the sandpaper, to refine me.
People are leaving . . . my mother, through physical death, friends, through life’s meanderings or by revelation of their true intentions, and my children, getting older, no longer babies in the strict sense, edging away from my protective aura, letting me know that motherhood is my vocation, but not ME. And as always has been, the space junk floating around in my mental and spiritual Milky Way is disorganized UNTIL a crystallizing moment, which is never at a poetic time of importance, never when I’m wearing a great dress and standing in the forest, and never when I have a pen and journal handy. It’s in a hospital lobby, or in a grocery store parking lot, or in the shower when I’m letting my V0-5 Hot Oil Treatment sink in.
I have been “me” for a time, but just who do I think I am? ‘Who do you think you are?’ people ask, when you have gotten too big for your britches. You can’t answer that in a vacuum; it must be examined in relation to others, for we live in families and larger societies, after all. Never until the last few years, though, did I perceive myself a cell in a larger body, in fact, The Body of Christ, wherein Jesus is Head, Mary is neck, the Magisterium is shoulders, the Holy Spirit is soul, and we, the laity, are the arms, legs, hands, and feet. Now this idea comes from St. Robert Bellarmine, but the practical application of it has manifested itself so magnificently and risen out of the fog so surely in my prayer life and my daily words and actions that I can now say I know it. I have learned at age 43 that right and wrong are labels, cardboard stage sets. There are only two states: truth and untruth. I want one and not the other. So there is no pride in being in a state of truth, and no sense in keeping secret that one has been in untruth. My utter smallness is absolute, and yet, He has counted and numbered every hair on my head. How can this be? It is a testament to Him, to the absolutely unbeatable and undecipherable power I am privileged to meet and worship in The Church. Figuring out and articulating Who I Think I Am is of less and less priority as I dedicate more time, thought, prayer, and action to finding out who God is. Who is the Holy Spirit? Where is He? And where is Jesus? In the Blessed Sacrament. At the right hand of The Father. And in the man who handed me a tissue at Mary Immaculate Hospital in Jamaica, Queens.
I can’t think of a place or time when I had been more vulnerable and less aware of my surroundings. I was single-mindedly miserable. My mother was in the hospital, and things really couldn’t get much worse for her than they were. Without expanding into detail, I will say that dying of cancer is not at all as it is depicted in the movies or on soap operas. Your loved one does not merely become pale and start to whisper, and then die after a heartfelt final speech. Your loved one suffers, suffers, suffers some more, and then fades away. On this particular day, I had come downstairs into the hospital lobby after seeing my sixty-four year old mother in as horrid a condition as a human being can be. I had to argue on her behalf with some nurses, because they had left her bald head uncovered, and I wanted her to have one of those blue paper hats, or something, so that she wouldn’t be cold, and so that not everyone around her, who passed her in this open ward full of the dying, would see her hairless head. She would have hated that, and I knew it. In the elevator, I kept on my poker face, but I barely made it to a lobby chair and then I broke. Silent sobs shook me, and I knew I had to get this cry out before I faced my two year old daughter at home. I think I forgot where I was in space and time. And then I sensed someone in front of me. I looked up, and an African-American man, in his fifties maybe, extended his hand out to me, with two tissues folded up between two fingers. He kind of just suspended them there, and I took them, and blew my nose, and said thank you. He smiled a little and sat down across from me. I said, by way of explanation, “My mother is up there.” He looked at me blankly, and answered, “Mine is, too.” I had so many other details I wanted to lay out, and in that moment, I think I could have curled up in his lap and stayed there for the rest of the day. In that second, he was the only thing tying me to life, to breath, to hope, or to my own humanity. But I didn’t have the energy to say or do more. I got up and walked out, and never saw him again. That man, who most would classify as a stranger, was not. He was as much a part of me that day as my own son, or my own father. Our pain united us. His simple gesture united us. His words united us. But more than all of these accidents, God united us, long before either of us was born, in a way that I didn’t fully understand then.
The thing to know about this connection, this supernatural moment, is that it had little to do with his kindness. Anyone would have given a tissue to a sobbing woman obviously in need of one. The act was one thing; what happened between us, something that transcended linear time and earthly identity, was another. Usually we don masks, and live in closed loops of time and space, where we move around in our lives and in our heads and only have certain accepted and limited points of contact with others, even those closest to us. But occasionally we get a tiny pinhole of a view into Heaven, into our place of origin and destination, where we are literally and happily all one but still distinctly the selves whom God loves so completely. And God can do that; He can transcend that which the scholarly among us consider limitations, because He is God. He sets the times, and He creates the scholars and the pundits, the laws and the exceptions to the laws. He is the constant, the shore, the steady center of all of us and all of creation, the seen and unseen. That we would for a second question His existence or His power is almost comical; that we believe He is the connecting thread among us and that our lifebloods share His code is credible, even axiomatic, if we have a Biblical faith.
The other day, while waiting in the grocery store parking lot for my husband to come out with some last minute supplies, I was stopped cold by the acknowledgement that the many folks entering and exiting that store were my brothers and sisters. I looked at their hair, their clothes, their mouths moving to form inaudible speech. I recognized no one over the other, and no one was of particular beauty, but I was captivated. The lump came to my throat, the tears sprung to my eyes, and my head and heart burned with a painfully acute love for them. In that moment, I would have given my life for any of them. The burden of an empathetic epiphany is temporary but stinging: oh, their collective tragedies! Who is battling what demon, and for how long? Who has lost a child, who is being eaten up by regret or secret lust or paralyzing fear? Who needs urgently to ask for help but for pride cannot? I am impotent in the moment, and then the moment leaves. What is the function of it, this peek backstage, these thirty seconds of reality buried in the middle of my mundane daily illusions? There may not be a profit in it for me, at least not one I can spend now. Not like the theological gain of discovering at last my relationship to Mary, our Blessed Mother, for example, which yielded an obvious profit to my spiritual life. Once I saw her for who she was, once I started looking at women and mothers through the Church’s lens, the profit was immeasurable. But unraveling a key Church doctrine like the identity of the Mother of Christ is not analogous to finding yourself soul mates with the produce manager at your supermarket. Or is it?
Maybe the wisdom God is giving me is just that: the endless repetitions of conceptions and deaths, of kindnesses and cruelties, of people in and out of doors all over this world, are not only His to count. I, too, am called to watch. I, too, am called to be the devoted. I am called to unravel the mystery of each person, and find a way to decode each one, to see Christ in each one, just as I found my way to know and love Mary, the way I suddenly and totally saw Christ in Mary. I am only one little tile in the mosaic, tiny, almost indiscernible from a universal vantage point, and so are you, but as neighbors, we help each other adhere to the surface. Proximity is not essential; union is.
Copyright June 2012 Nicole Motsch-DeMille