Finishing Well: Session 3 – Hitting the Wall

Apostles Anglican Church
Fr. John A. Roop

Finishing Well: Session Three — Hitting the Wall

The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.

Let us pray.

Almighty God, you have given us the treasure of the knowledge of your glory in the face of Jesus Christ, a treasure we hold in jars of clay: Grant us never to lose heart amidst our afflictions, our perplexity, and our weakness for Jesus’ sake, but rather ever to look to you that your grace my increase our faith and thanksgiving; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit live and reign, one God, world without end. Amen.

Introduction: Limitations and Freedom
As I get older, I find the words “used to” entering my conversations more frequently. I “used to” be in this or that profession, but now I am retired. I “used to” enjoy this or that hobby, but I gave those up some time ago. I used to clean the shower drain after washing my hair, but there’s not much need to do that any longer.

There is the tendency for those who see themselves as elderly or getting older to also see life in the past tense, “used to” instead of “am” or “planning to.” And, realistically, age does impose some limitations. In my 20s, I was a good swimmer. Now, in my mid 60s with two bad rotator cuffs, that just isn’t an option; my body won’t let me do that. Mentally, I used to — See how those words creep in? — I used to multi-task well, but now, to be effective, I must focus more intentionally on the single task at hand. The litany could continue, but you understand: “used to.”

Now, here’s a challenge. Can you complete the sentence, “I used to,” in a positive way?
Yes, there are some positive ways to complete “used to,” as well. When I was younger, I used to worry a lot about a lot of “problems” that I now realize weren’t problems at all — just minor inconveniences. Age has given me some perspective about what is important and about what isn’t. I “used to” have a lot of time ahead of me — time to waste. Now that the time ahead is shorter, I savor the moments; I tend to invest time instead of wasting it, and that is a good thing. I used to act impulsively and often with too little information and wisdom. Now, I have a lifetime of experience to inform my thinking and my decisions, and I believe my judgment is better than before.

The elderly may think in terms of past tense and “used to,” about current limitations instead of present opportunities and future hopes. But not the elders: elders are informed by the past. They are enriched by it. But, they are not bound by it. They are not continually living in it. Elders acknowledge certain physical and mental limitations of age, but they also find in these limitations certain opportunities and even freedoms. Where the elderly sometimes see burdens, the elders can perceive blessings.

To return to the race analogy, the point is straightforward: the race is not over until we cross the finish line. Age brings with it both limitations and opportunities, burdens and blessings, both of which God uses for our good, and both of which we are to use for his glory and for the welfare of his people. I have seen the unfortunate tendency in some churches for one generation to retire, to step back, sit down and say, “Well, we’ve done our work, our share. Now it’s time for the next generation to step up and do theirs.” Speaking frankly, that is a selfish refusal to be the elders the church needs. But, it can go the other way also. The younger generation can discount and push aside the very elders whose practical and spiritual wisdom, counsel, and mentoring they desperately need. That is a refusal to learn from the saints of God, and a squandering of a treasure that God has deposited in the Church. We pray to avoid both of these errors.

But, if looking backward, if living a nostalgic “used to be” life is a problem, so is looking forward in fear of what may await us: diminishment in body and mind. In what may be the latter stages of the race, how do we look forward in hope in the midst of likely decline? Good theology and good practice point toward the answers. So, we move now to some essential theology.

Biblical Personhood
God identified himself to Moses as I Am (Ex 3:13 ff), the very essence of being and personhood. We, too, use the pronoun I to refer to our personhood. It is worth asking, though, in the human case: To what does this I actually refer?

The meaning of I depends very much on what follows it in any sentence. For example, “I need a shower,” means that my body is dirty and needs attention. “I am hungry,” means my belly is empty and needs filling. “I like running on the beach,” means that my body enjoys the act and the results of physical exercise, and that my bodily senses — sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell — are pleasantly stimulated by the environment of the beach. In all these cases, and in many more that we could list, I refers primarily to the person as body, to the physical faculties of personhood. We might call this aspect of personhood body.

Body is that aspect of personhood that pertains to the physical nature.

But, I has other meanings, also. “I think…” refers to the mind, to the rational part of the person. “I am very happy,” pertains to emotions. “I feel so guilty,” is an acknowledgment of the conscience. “I refuse,” is an act of the will. None of these uses of I pertains primarily to the body. Instead, we might call this aspect of personhood soul.

Soul is that aspect of personhood that pertains to reason, emotions, conscience, and will.

Though it is helpful to distinguish between body and soul, they are unified in the person. That is, the person is not a body with a soul, nor is the soul the “life force” imprisoned in a body. The person is an integrated body-soul. To treat a person as just a body — as does pornography, for example — debases the person. Likewise, to treat a person as just a soul ignores the essential incarnation of the person. We can easily see the unity of the person in such statements as “I love my wife (or husband).” A survey of the rite of Holy Matrimony — or a reflection on lived experienced — clearly shows that the body, the mind, the emotions, the conscience, and the will are all included in that statement. The love between spouses is a whole person to whole person relationship. When any aspect of personhood is missing in a marriage, there is a deficit in the relationship, sometimes such a serious deficit that divorce ensues.

So, have we now fully defined I — the person — as the unity of body and soul? No, not yet fully, not in the Christian understanding of personhood. Consider the statement “I know God.” To what does I refer here? Do we know God in and through the body? Certainly we do, for the body participates in worship; that is essential to sacramental worship. Do we know God in and through the soul? Yes; reason, emotions, conscience, and will are all fully engaged in the knowledge of God. But, there is more. There is one more faculty that is essential for the knowledge of God, a faculty without which no such knowledge is possible: the spirit. An extended passage from 1 Corinthians makes this clear:

9 But, as it is written,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—

10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.

14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. 16 “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:9-16, ESV).

God makes himself known to us spiritually: his Holy Spirit giving life and revelation and understanding to the human spirit. Our cognitive understanding of God is the mind’s effort to construct a mental summary of spiritual revelation and experience. Our bodily impressions of God is the body’s response to spiritual revelation and experience.

The spirit is that faculty of the person which can know, experience, and contemplate God directly, unmediated by — and unhindered by — the body and soul. It is the spirit which should rightly order both body and soul as the king rightly orders his kingdom.

The Christian understanding of I — of personhood — must include the holistic union of body, soul, and spirit.

The whole person participates in the experience and knowledge of God: the spirit most directly. Then, the spirit rightly mediates the experience and knowledge of God to the mind and the body. If the human spirit has not been made regenerate (born again) by the Holy Spirit, then the mind cannot rightly understand God nor can the body rightly experience and worship God (cf John 14:15-17; 16:12-15).

Any one who has lived any time at all has bumped up hard against entropy: the tendency toward chaos, the winding down and wearing out of all things. Paul tells us it was not always so:

Romans 8:19–22 (ESV): For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.

John promises it will not always be so:

Revelation 21:1–4 (ESV): Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

But, my experience, and I dare say yours as well, says it is so now; all creation is subject to entropy, and that includes us. In life and in the race of faith, we get tired, we pull muscles, we sprain ankles, we hit the wall.

As an Anglican priest, I provide such pastoral care as I can to those who labor under the burden of entropy. Often this means supporting parishioners who are caring for aging family members. Sometimes it means walking beside those who are experiencing their own physical or mental decline. The practical difficulties are many: providing or finding proper in-home care, locating a reputable and affordable residential facility when that time comes, managing troublesome symptoms and behaviors. I am no expert on these practical matters; others are often better able to assist. The community of the Church and of clinical and social service professionals is needed.

But, in addition to these practical struggles, there is frequently the emotional and spiritual battle against hopelessness as the condition deteriorates day by day: the loss of autonomy, the sense of futility, the long goodbye, a sense of guilt. There is the issue of meaning: what significance does a life in physical and/or mental decline have — my own life or that of a loved one? Is it worth living any longer? Where is God in the midst of this? These are theological questions, and the wisdom of the Church — not my wisdom, but the wisdom of the Church — speaks to them, offering hope in decline.

This is the wisdom of the Church: that outward disability or decline — physical and/or mental — may actually be the context for great inward, spiritual growth; it certainly does not hinder such growth.

For the Christian, this is akin to the mystery of Holy Saturday. There was real loss on Good Friday; Jesus had been crucified and his body was lying dead in a tomb, the ultimate expression of human entropy. Yet, in spirit, he was trampling down Death by death, breaking the bonds of hell, setting the prisoners free, and preparing for a glorious resurrection: all hidden, all unseen except through the eyes of faith. Here is the question that presents us: Can we believe that a similar hidden mystery is unfolding in the life of a loved one with advancing dementia or in the spirit of a comatose patient or in the inner recesses of a severely mentally handicapped person? Can we be convinced that this is true even in the absence of any visible evidence? I am convinced; it is a matter of faith attested to clearly in Scripture.

In several of his books, Henri Nouwen recounts how the severely physically and mentally disabled residents of Daybreak, a L’Arche community founded by Jean Vanier, became his spiritual mentors. Nouwen saw, with the eyes of faith, what many could not see: that the Spirit is not hindered by human frailty, and that great saints who are in continual, hidden Communion with God may also be bedridden and need their diapers changed.

How can we understand this? Baptism — as is so often the case — is the place to start.

Baptism: Body, Mind, and Spirit
When the church baptizes an infant, it acknowledge that a relationship with God doesn’t depend necessarily on the state of one’s body or mind; baptism is an outward and visible sign, in word and water, of an inward and spiritual grace. It is primarily and essentially an act of God in which we receive his grace. An infant is capable of only the most basic bodily functions and lacks language necessary for complex mental processing. But from the moment of baptism the new child of God has an intimate relationship with the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit, even though that relationship may not be experienced by the body and almost certainly isn’t perceived by the mind. It is a relationship between God’s Spirit and the human spirit (cf Article XXVII. Of Baptism).

This is one of the most important proclamations of infant baptism; God is at work, beyond our understanding, relating to us and transforming us.

Ideally, the body and mind grow to participate more fully in this relationship throughout life, but not always. Developmental difficulty, accident, or illness may limit physical and mental participation. But these do not hinder the essential spiritual relationship, which is hidden and ongoing, and which transcends both body and mind.

Inner and Outer Self
This sacramental understanding has important pastoral implications not just for infant baptism, but also for those in advanced states of physical or mental decline and for their families. It offers a way forward into and through the difficult questions that face every pastoral caregiver — whether priest, family member, or friend — in every nursing home, rehab unit, Alzheimer’s facility, and hospice room. It offers the Gospel amidst physical and/or mental decline, the Gospel which is good news not just for the world to come but for the world here and now. Paul expresses it this way:

16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (2 Cor 4:16-18, ESV throughout).

When the outer self — body and mind — is wasting away, the good news concerns the inner self — the spirit — which is being renewed day by day. When the human mind is too diminished to engage the world, the Christian hope — and by hope I do not mean wish or pipe dream, but rather the firm conviction of faith — the Christian hope is that our spirit prays – and the Holy Spirit prays – though the mind is unfruitful:

Romans 8:26–27 (ESV): Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

We can see only the body, which might be functionally disabled by injury, ravaged with disease or lying in a coma. We can sense that the mind is no longer clear. Ever since Descartes’ cogito ergo sum — I think, therefore I am — we have tended to falsely equate the person with the mind – a mind that might be cognitively idle or perhaps wandering in long forgotten or even imagined pathways. But in the midst of impaired bodies and minds, our sacramental faith assures us that the spirit is alive and engaged with God in mysterious and holy ways to which we are not privy. Though often hidden from external witnesses, the Holy Spirit ministers to the human spirit, prayer ascends, worship proceeds, and inner renewal is a reality. So even this state of diminished physical and mental life is holy and precious. All of life, from conception to natural death is holy and precious because the Spirit is at work in ways we cannot always perceive and, at best, can only dimly imagine.

An Example from Scripture
We can see the distinction between the inner and outer person in Luke’s account of the Visitation.

39 In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, 40 and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, 42 and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Lk 1:39-45).

The baby in Elizabeth’s womb is John, who will be known as the Baptist or the Forerunner of our Lord, and who, even from before birth, heralds the Lord. Notice that even in the womb — before cognitive thought has developed, before language, before a full range of emotions — John recognizes Jesus and responds with a leap (body) and with joy (emotions/mind). How is this possible? It is the action of the Holy Spirit revealing truth to both John’s and Elizabeth’s spirits. Especially in John’s case, this is an example of spiritual knowledge (revelation) received independently of body and spirit — given directly from the Holy Spirit to the human spirit. John would later grow in both body and mind and use both in the service of the Lord. But, from the very beginning, his spirit exercised his vocation of heralding the Lord. His spirit recognized his Lord even from before birth.

What does this mean for one in decline, or for those who care for loved ones in decline? It means that we have every reason to hope and to believe that even in the midst of increasing bodily frailty and cognitive loss, God is still present and at work with the person’s spirit. We may — rightly — mourn the decline of body and mind, but we need not and should not doubt that the spirit is being nourished by God and transformed into the likeness of Christ. What we see with our eyes is only the outer part of the person, the part which may be in decline. But the inner part of the person, the spirit, may be moving from one degree of glory to another.

This is our Christian hope in the midst of bodily and mental decline: precisely that the inner self, the spirit, is being renewed day by day though the transient body and mind are fading away for the moment. At the resurrection there will be a new body, imperishable and immortal, enlivened by the spirit transformed by God’s grace into the likeness of Christ.

In the meantime we hold fast to and rejoice in this word from St. Paul:

Romans 8:35–39 (ESV): 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

What can separate us from the from the love of Christ? Shall advancing age, increasing limitations, physical or mental decline? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

Personal Note: Preparing for the Harvest
As a priest, I visit memory care facilities to provide pastoral care to parishioners experiencing the advancing symptoms of dementia. I remember taking Holy Communion to such a dear saint. Before the Eucharist we simply visited for awhile talking about anything and nothing at all. Sometimes my sister was lucid, and sometimes she was not. During our talk she was in many different places and times. As much as I enjoyed our visit, I mourned that the part of her that I could know and relate to — body and soul — was declining. But I rejoiced that God was at work in her spirit, that she communed directly with her Creator and Redeemer, unhindered by failing body and soul, that her life still had eternal meaning and purpose even in the midst of outward decline. Approaching that mystery is like standing on holy ground.

When I prepared the hospital tray table as altar and began to celebrate Holy Eucharist, my dear sister became fully present in body, soul, and spirit. She boldly said the Lord’s Prayer. She said the priests’ words along with me because she had heard them so often and knew them so well. She held out her hands to receive the Body of Christ and eagerly drank from the small chalice containing his Blood of the new covenant. She made the sign of the cross. She could do these things because she had done them for years, for the whole of her long life.

I have seen this in other circumstances, when a group from our parish holds a service in a local residential care facility, for example. Residents in advanced stages of dementia and largely non-verbal nevertheless sing the old hymns with us and say the familiar Scriptures with us (e.g. John 3:16, Psalm 23) or at least recognize them and acknowledge them with a smile or a nod.

These saints are reaping in their old age what they sowed in their youth. They are harvesting in the midst of decline what they planted in their strength.

The Preacher, the son of David, instructs us (Eccles 12:1-8):

1 Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them” (Eccles 12:1).

Some degree of diminishment of body and mind will come to us all, if we live long enough. How may we prepare for it, so that we receive it, too, as God’s grace? By spending a life remembering our Creator: engaging with such spiritual disciplines as worship, prayer, study and reflection upon Scripture will yield an abundant inner harvest even in the midst of outer decline.

A Note for Caregivers
What are the implications for pastoral care — from priest, family, or friends — in the midst of decline? We must act on and model what we believe. We must treat the saint in decline as a saint, as someone who is in deep and ongoing spiritual relationship with God, regardless of the outward state of mind or body. We must respect what God is doing at every stage in life, and we must do what we can, also. We can pray for and with our brother or sister. We can sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. We can read Scripture aloud even if others assure us that our brother cannot hear us or no longer understands what is said. We must share Christ’s body and blood with our sister, if she is able to receive them. And, as much as anything, we must simply show up to witness, to marvel at, and to honor the glorious, sometimes hidden, work of God in the lives of his saints; the ministry of presence is a powerful witness to the Gospel. And we must not despair at what has been lost, but instead rejoice in the unseen work that God is still doing to perfect the saint in front of us.

Fall and Renewal
Physical and mental decline are truly signs of the fall. Yet, even in the midst of such decline, the one baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is inwardly nourished and spiritually renewed in hidden and holy ways. This is our hope and our faith.

Let us pray.

Most loving Father, you will us to give thanks for all things, to dread nothing but the loss of you, and to cast all our care on the One who cares for us. Preserve us from faithless fears and worldly anxieties, and grant that no clouds of this mortal life may hide from us the light of that love which is immortal, and which you have manifested unto us in your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN, and as Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of the South.
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