“The leukemia is creeping toward trouble zone,” I answered, “and I’m not sleeping much, so sometimes I’m pretty wiped. I don’t deal well with physical discomfort.” Then I added, laughing but serious, “I feel ready for eternal life.”
That evening I opened to my bookmark in Vikram Seth’s magnificent, mammoth novel of post-World War II India, A Suitable Boy: p. 550 (out of 1349 pages). This is my first re-reading since the novel came out in 1993, and I’ve conveniently forgotten nearly all of it and so am entering into its dramas as if for the first time. At the point I’d reached that evening, one of the characters was doing her daily recitation of the Bhagavad Gita, which Seth quotes from.
Krishna is counseling Arjuna about “fleeting things” like “heat and cold, pleasure and pain”:
Arjuna, you must learn to endure
fleeting things—they come and go!
When these cannot torment a man,
when suffering and joy are equal
for him and he has courage,
he is fit for immortality.
Oh dear, I thought, embarrassed at how facilely I’d pronounced myself “ready for eternal life.” According to Krishna’s standards, I’m not at all “fit for immortality.”
I definitely don’t do well at enduring fleeting things like pain and discomfort. I realized that when I told my friend I was “ready for eternal life,” what I’d really meant was “I’ve had enough of dealing with the uncertainties and discomforts of my illness; I’m ready to escape from them into eternal life.”
And alas, “suffering and joy” are not equal for me. I’m a wimp about suffering. Give me joy any time.
Not that I don’t have good counsel from my own faith tradition on exactly these points. Three times a day I pray from Christian Prayer: The Liturgy of the Hours, a modern version of the age-old breviary that only Catholic priests used to pray. This prayer book draws heavily on the psalter, and a line from Psalm 16, which I recite once a month for Sunday Evening Prayer, gives me the same standard as Krishna’s: “the lot marked out for me is my delight.”
I ponder this line often, wondering if I can ever truly live its words in my heart. The line is saying: “I accept with delight whatever lot falls to me… including my chronic illness and insomnia.” Oh, how I long for this acceptance. But I’d guess I’m about 2% there. Maybe 5% on good days.
Then in Night Prayer, every night at bedtime I say to God, from Psalm 4: “You have put into my heart a greater joy / than they have from abundance of corn and new wine.” As I say these words I try (when I’m not daydreaming and simply saying them by rote) to sense in myself this joy. Yet when I’m feeling exhausted, the joy-meter hardly registers.
“Well, that’s what prayers are for,” my husband says, trying to encourage me when I whine at my joylessness. “We pray for what we don’t have…otherwise we wouldn’t need to pray it.”
He’s right, of course. I smile at him gratefully.
And near the close of Night Prayer: “whether awake or asleep, we live together with Christ….” Yes, yes, I do believe this. But I feel as if I’m living a double life. One dimension of my being trusts in God, knows deeply that all is well: that whatever happens, Christ is alive in me and will sustain me.
“Both in life and death we are the Lord’s”: through the day, I repeat this line from Romans like a mantra. Simultaneously, though, there’s this other dimension of me that’s quivering in fear: how, it wonders, in times of uncomfortable exhaustion, can I sustain the effort to keep trusting in God? It completely forgets that it’s God who is sustaining me, so this isn’t an effort I need to make by myself.
So I muddle along, one foot stepping firmly in trust, the other stumbling weakly in anxiety. Limping along in this way, I unexpectedly bumped into these lines from Wendell Berry’s “Sabbaths 2006”:
Heaven enough for me
would be this world as I know it, but redeemed
of our abuse of it and one another.
Boing! Picture the cartoon stars and light bulbs popping out of my head. This was exactly the re-conception of heaven, of eternal life, that I needed. A vision of redemption not trapped in my personal trials, but seen rather in our world freed from abuse. No more poverty and joblessness, no more wars with their merciless slaughter, no more racist oppression; no more fossil fuel devastation of the planet.
This is the Cosmic Christ, “who is our peace,” who made us all one “by breaking down the barrier of hostility that kept us apart.” This passage from Ephesians has long been one of my favorite Friday morning readings in The Liturgy of the Hours.
For the instant of letting Wendell Berry’s vision wash through me, drawing with it the fullness of the Cosmic Christ, I’m taken out of myself. What a relief! It’s a blessed instant of experiencing eternal life: “heaven enough for me.”
Peggy Rosenthal is director of Poetry Retreats and writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for a full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.
Image above by Simon Rahn, used with permission under a Creative Commons license.