O my Saviour, make me see
How dearly Thou has paid for me;
That, lost again, my life may prove,
As then in death, so now in love.
—Richard Crashaw, “Charitas Nimia; or, the Dear Bargain”
I am exhausted, that special kind of deprivation that can come only after being sick leads directly into getting a puppy. Two weeks ago, I could barely get up and found myself fasting more out of habit and lack of appetite than out of zeal. I embodied Lent then, or at least the funhouse mirror version, like some skeleton out of a fifteenth-century danse macabre. This time last week we adopted a three-month-old dog, who while cuter than the world is wide, also barks eight hours a night and has a penchant for leaving presents in his crate, sharing them with us by way of his paw-prints as he scampers about, like some coprophilic Johnny Appleseed. My students have a paper due this week. Half need extensions because they have theses to write; the other half need ZOOM meetings at all hours (thanks, COVID), fitted between practices, interviews, and other forms of contemporary collegiate fun. I do not know when or how I will sleep enough to make any of it work. And yet, deep down, I know that, in the mold of old Julian of Norwich, all shall be well.
I know this because it is Holy Week, or, as it sometimes gets labeled in the Byzantine tradition, “Great and Holy Week.” This Palm Sunday our parish priest got up and exclaimed (almost, in my sleep-deprived brain like a local variant Jerry Seinfeld or Rodney Dangerfield): “what’s so great about it, anyway? All the long liturgies and prayer services? The air of death? The somber chanting and all-night vigils?” His questions were rhetorical, but they led me down an avenue of reflection capable of penetrating even my layers of dense brain fog; it brought on less a sudden realization, an epiphany, or (God forbid) a mystical experience; rather, it resituated me, asked me to query where I was and what I was doing, made me conscious of where I stood. In short, father’s words made me think of my grandmother.
For the past two years, she has been in and out of hospitals and rehabs after basically perfect health for as long as I have known her (which, is, of course, my entire life). Now a woman of nearly 91, the steady flow of pandemic time has seen her go from the woman I knew to someone who looks much older, hair unpermed and gray, feet wrapped in hospital socks rather than white sneakers, bunion poking out. She has lost several toes and endured more surgeries than a Civil War infantryman shot twice in every limb. Doctors like to call her a “tank” or a “horse,” even as most external signs of her vitality fade away. She is my last grandparent; we visit her every Sunday after liturgy.
For many weeks, you might call this a kind of duty, not unlike the way some might think of a “Sunday obligation.” I always love seeing her, but it can be hard, and I can see how our pilgrimage drains her one week, perks her up the next. She saw my mother wither away to bone on a hospital bed not unlike her own, a parallel that, if not explicit, she comes back to again and again, shedding tears for a daughter passed before. These are memories I have long reconciled myself to, but I cannot stand seeing her sad on my mom’s behalf. To see weakness you once knew as strength cry for a loss you cannot recoup is the ultimate enfeeblement, a slow motion felling of a beloved childhood tree—tire swing, clubhouse, and all—but played week-in and week-out on repeat.
Kierkegaard (or, at any rate, one of his personae) once asked if love could be a duty—how, after all, can one be commanded to give freely of oneself with no expectation of return? Can bottomless humanity be coerced? What I learned in those weeks is that, if it cannot be impelled, it can be kindled, slowly, but surely, ember by ember—that is, until this past Palm Sunday.
What hit me then was the force of my grandmother’s strength in her very suffering and weakness, the vivacity with which she presents herself in spite of every imaginable human degradation. To not be able to go to the bathroom for oneself, to have one’s food intake monitored and controlled, to be poked and prodded, forced to stand on maimed feet for a moment or two, just to learn how to shuffle along with a walker at a snail’s pace—these are hardly indications of heartiness. All this after decades of independence (and the dependence of three children and over twice as many grandchildren). All this at the “end” of a life that may well be no more than the beginning of a final few chapters, the concluding sentences that encapsulate the whole shebang.
Yet, she walks the walk, one foot at a time, through a mucky, noxious present and into a totally uncertain future. Will she ever actually walk again? No one can say; as St. Augustine would have it, after all, it is really only the present than can be said to exist. Beginning her long life in rural Pennsylvania, one of thirteen kids born into Depression-era poverty, each step of hers has been a mystery (to me, yes, but also, to her). Grandma dropped out of school at 13, moved to New Jersey, sent money home from a job at White Castle, got married, had kids, and cleaned houses and kept the elderly and infirm company for the next 70 years. Those couple sentences make it all sound so brief and normal, like any human life could be captured and filed with a few keystrokes.
No such thing. She had pride in her work, a belief in the dignity of her labor and of all who choose to give of themselves. I remember getting locked out of her car in a Burger King parking lot (we went every Wednesday), us sitting there, killing the time in soft heat. I recall her making Sunday gravy for hordes of my cousin’s friends as they sat and talked about Jackass or football. I saw the pain she felt upon my mother’s death, the breaking down and sense of helplessness. None of that could have been known. And yet, it was endured; or rather, she endured.
This uncertainty, this need to merely persevere despite suffering is, of course, the stuff of life. But it is the stuff (that like all things around Easter) is distilled in the sacred race we now run (or walk)—these few days a year when we pass through the upper room and the garden, Pilate’s palace, Golgotha, and emptied tomb filled with promise. Each “lengthy service” is—to be cheeky about it—suffering enough, a duty, or obligation, if you will, a voluntary coercion in which love is taught or patiently awaited. More fundamentally, however, it is treading this path that reminds us of the strength we are given in our lowliness, the deified flesh that makes the lamb the shepherd, the convict the king, the poor, the over-filled.
On Good Friday, we walk the steps of Jesus, observing each individual torment as a reminder of how much God loves us, how deep the relationship is between the pains and injustices of this pus-filled, boring, hapless bodily existence and His promise that “Christ is all and in all” (Colossians 3:11). On Holy Week, we walk the way to and through that day of the Cross, staging in our churches and in our lives the very spectacle of patience and downtrodden hope that is this mortal coil. Plotinus is supposed to have asked why he could not be rid of such a body. We, in journeying, recognize the centrality of these bodies—defective, broken, uncertain, and otherwise—as necessary parts of whatever we are and whatever redemption holds for us.
The future is not yet here, and I do not know what is in store for my weekly visits or how many more sleepless nights will need to punctuate days about which I cannot complain. Our sufferings are so small and yet so large, each person a galaxy, each wound a world. I cannot say whether my grandmother will, when I see her next, be overjoyed, overburdened, or (likeliest of all) both. What I do know is that, like Christ falling or an old woman bedridden in pain and boredom, I will go on. I will sit before the icon of Christ in the tomb on Holy Saturday morning, will know the conviction of love in the long suffering of life (how else can one come to know it?).