Francis of Assisi saw the world as the place G-d’s goodness was recognized. He was intentional about recognizing the relational aspects of all Being. That included his own body, which he called Brother Ass, and the end of life which all created beings face whom he called Sister Death. Francis recognized these as aspects of our own finite lives that all of us eventually must acknowledge.
Abusing Brother Ass
For most of his life, Francis sought to live a life of strict poverty, denying his body food and comfort, engaging in a self-denying asceticism that sometimes shocked even the beggars he served. Francis treated Brother Ass much as Italian peasants treated their donkeys, driving them with fear and thrashing them with whips. His desire to follow Jesus in all things including his suffering was consummated near the end of his life when he received the stigmata on his hands, feet and side like that of his Lord, which would continue to bleed until his death.
As Francis neared the end of his life, he voiced misgivings for his treatment of his body. His abuse of Brother Ass was a rather jarring inconsistency with an incarnational theology which saw the divine in all aspects of Creation and treated it with deep respect. Confessing to a fellow friar an uneasy conscience about the way he’d treated his body, the sage brother attending the ailing Francis asked him if his body had not served him obediently in everything he’d asked of it.
The saint admitted that it had been obedient in all things, “sparing itself nothing, rushing almost head-long to obedience; shirking no labor and refusing no discomfort.” The brother then asked Francis, “So, where is your generosity toward your body, Brother Francis?” At that point Francis repented and apologized to Brother Ass.
At the end of Francis’ life he would often refer to the coming of Sister Death. As Francis lay dying, naked on the earth as he had requested, having embraced Franciscan poverty to its furthest extreme right to the very end, he had the attending brothers add these lines to his magnificent Canticle of the Creatures in homage of Sister Death:
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Death, From whose embrace no mortal can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin! Happy those she finds doing your will! The second death can do them no harm.
Francis insisted that death was not alien to human experience, something of which to be terrified and to seek to escape through whatever means possible. Rather, death was simply another dimension of a human experience in which G-d was present in every aspect. Like every other aspect of the Creation in which the divine is mirrored and immanently present, Sister Death is to be respected and embraced.
Brother Ass Seeks His Due
I’ve thought about these two aspects of Franciscan theology a good bit the past couple of weeks. When I retired in September, I told myself and a handful of trusted friends that I had retired in part to engage in some badly needed healing. Truth is, my extrication of myself from my career in higher education was much more painful than I had anticipated. I incurred an awful lot of wounds in that process, particularly during the last two years at the university.
Letting go of the anger, the bitterness and woundedness has been an ongoing process in the three months since I finally left my former life in academia. I am grateful for the time I have had to pray, meditate, garden and wade through a lifetime of papers, art, photos, books and mementos which have accumulated in my office and library. I am just beginning this process but it is a bittersweet joy to engage this clearing away of those things which once were important but no longer serve a useful role in my life and making way for those things which will surely come to take their place. Indeed, this process is proving essential to the badly needed healing I had anticipated.
What I did not realize was that my healing would be physical as well as emotional and spiritual. I knew I had not taken very good care of Brother Ass during my lifetime as a driven lawyer, then seminarian, then graduate student, and finally college instructor. I worked long hours, often ate a poor diet, drank way too much and collapsed into bed too many nights well past the time I was guaranteed a good night’s sleep.
I was told by friends who have recently retired that I would experience a great sense of tiredness once I finally retired. That has come in spades. I find myself sleeping 9 hours regularly and sometimes taking naps in the afternoon. My physical labors come in spurts with enough energy to work 3-4 hours in a yard that is finally taking shape after such a long neglect. My attentiveness to the interior of my house lags behind but I have begun piling up books by topic on my library floor awaiting scanning and ordering on my shelves, and culling books which no longer form a part of my ongoing interests, soon headed for the Friends of the Library store.
Until I retired, I had always found reasons not to go to the doctors. My blood pressure medicine would run out and I would beg for refills and promise to come into the office “just as soon as I am finished with ___( insert urgent project du jour here). Dental appointments would be set and then reset as “something came up” each time.
And then, suddenly, my dance card began to empty, my calendar became increasingly bare. Now I had no excuses for not attending to the physical problems I had become expert at both avoiding and denying. Like Cinderella hearing the clock strike midnight, I was suddenly brought face to face with Brother Ass, having endured all the abuse I had heaped upon him over 62 years of hard living, suddenly demanding his due.
Replacing my front tooth was my first project. The porcelain cap on the tooth had come off just after my return from Europe in June and I had gone four months needing a replacement. My former dentist had not been in the network of insurance covered providers and with retirement I no longer had the luxury of paying the difference. The new network dentist not only repaired my front tooth so I could smile again, it was a fraction of the cost quoted me by my former out of network dentist. One down.
Next was getting my aching knee some attention. About two years ago I wrapped my ankle around Oscar, my dachshund, and in an attempt to keep from stepping on him, swung my knee around quickly only to encounter the immovable object of a coffee table stacked with oversized books on Greek art, Celtic civilization and Cuba. The result was a torn meniscus that cannot be repaired and has sometimes proven debilitating.
I take several supplements that supposedly help the inflammation and, truth be told, I can tell the difference when I periodically stop taking them. A referral to a local orthopedic surgeon resulted in several cortisone injections into the knee and the news that I’d need a knee replacement soon. Unsatisfied with that diagnosis, I asked for a second opinion. My current specialist has provided a series of lubricating injections into the knee that thus far seems to be helping defer what may be an inevitable date with a surgeon’s knife. I am walking a couple of miles daily and working 3-4 hours in the yard without much pain. So far, so good.
I thought I was finished. But that was just the beginning.
My primary care doctor had recommended I get a colonoscopy five years ago. Knowing the pain and indignity such involved, I had found a host reasons to avoid that procedure. But with my empty calendar confronting me, I finally agreed to set the appointment.
Truth be told, I had every reason to have the procedure done. My father had had a close call about three decades ago with a colon cancer that had completely blocked his intestinal track and nearly killed him. I will never forget his physician calling my sister and I into a consulting room and telling us, “You need to know that your chances of getting colon cancer in your lifetime just went up 50%.” Adding to that a mother who had died of breast cancer, taking chances on my own diagnosis of cancer was not a game of Russian Roulette I need to be play.
For some reason, my PA had ordered both colonoscopy, which looks at one’s intestinal track, and endoscopy, which looks at one’s esophagus. The specialist prefaced his discussion of my results with the statement, “It’s a good thing you decided to come in when you did….” Gulp. Turns out my colonoscopy was clear. Good news and somewhat expected given my vegetarian diet. The endoscopy, however, revealed Barrett’s Syndrome, scar tissue from a history of acid reflux with the propensity to develop into a deadly form of cancer. Surprise!
It’s quite possible to have damaging acid reflux and not be aware of it. The doctor said the scar tissue had been caused about 20-25 years ago. This would have been right in the middle of my time as an attorney where my hard driving professional life and hard drinking private life could well have produced the acid backup into the esophagus to damage those cells.
I am now taking a medication to prevent further damage to the esophagus and my doctor is telling me that during my next endoscopy he can laser off the Barrett’s cells. When the laser burns heal, new esophageal cells will replace them. “You’ll have a brand new esophagus,” he said. At that point, any threat of cancer will be ended.
During my scope results appointment my internal medicine doctor inquired about my ear. I’d had a rash on the top inside of my left ear for a couple of years that periodically would go away completely but at other times becomes crusty and bloody. I had looked it up online and decided it was a form of seborrhea along with a patchy spot next to my right eye. My doctor was not convinced and referred me to a dermatologist.
The dermatologist took one look at the two spots and, like my internal specialist, began with “It’s a good thing you decided to come in when you did…” As it turns out, both spots were developing skin cancers. He removed both, sent them away for biopsy and scheduled me for Mohs surgery to remove the margins. That surgery is tomorrow.
So the bad news was that the dermatitis I had been battling with diet and ointments was actually skin cancer. The good news was that both were basal cells, stage 1. As the scheduling assistant told me when setting up my surgery date, “If you’ve got to have cancer, these are the best kinds to have.” Thanks, I think.
Blessings in Disguise
My thoughts go back to Francis as I consider how badly I have treated Brother Ass over my lifetime. Considering how dependably it has served me, even when being asked to be constantly overextended and pushed beyond its limits, I probably owe it a good bit more consideration than I have shown it. Unlike Francis, who died in his late 30s, blind and exhausted, I am getting a second chance to live in a manner which honors Brother Ass and demonstrates generosity and gratitude. I’m taking that seriously.
It’s ironic how events in your life which seem to be tragedies sometimes turn out to be blessings in disguise. My DUI accident in California prompted me to stop drinking for a year to reevaluate the way I used and abused alcohol. Without that wakeup call in California, I could have well been on my way to esophageal cancer if not alcoholism.
Similarly, prior to the train wreck that prompted my departure from the university, I would always have found excuses not to go to the doctors. I would have ignored signs of ill health even as the rash on my ear periodically bled and my aching knee required up to four ibuprofen at a time just to be bearable, a regimen which is not good for one’s kidneys or blood pressure.
Indeed, my primary concern prior to retirement was hypertension. Ironically, within two months of retirement, my blood pressure was down 20 points to normal. I lost nine pounds. My medication has been decreased and the doctor is considering taking me off medication entirely if the current trend continues. Amazing what time to walk, sleep and the ability to regulate your diet and consistently take your medication and supplements can do for a body! And what might that say about the way most of us live to work?
Greeting Sister Death
While Brother Ass has been my focus the past three months, I also have thought a good bit about Sister Death. The word cancer causes a chill to run down most 21st Western spines with good reason. Memories of my father’s close brush with death and my mother’s agonizing years of chemotherapy and radiation immediately came to mind when the dermatologist began with “It’s a good thing you came in today…” Indeed, a cousin my age had died at 24 from a melanoma that spread so rapidly that he went from healthy jock playing in a local baseball league to dead in just 18 months from diagnosis.
I cannot say that I am unafraid of dying. Death is the great unknown and the fear of annihilation of whatever essence of me there might be rumbles around in the background of whatever equanimous understandings I might ultimately verbalize about dying. Social theorist Ernest Brecker described it well when he said, “The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is the mainspring of human activity—activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man.”
Yet like Francis, I do see Sister Death as part of the compact that every living being has made as a condition of existence. Like Francis, I hold to a belief that death is not so much an extinction as a consummation of life. And as Franciscan theologians have long taught, I believe that all Being comes from G-d, finds its ground of Being in G-d and ultimately returns to G-d. When the time comes, I pray to be able to joyfully embrace Sister Death.
Of course, I cannot rationally explain that. I also cannot avoid Brecker’s assessment that this might well be rationalization on my part. But I have had a number of experiences of what I would call the holy throughout my life that suggest to me that something more lies beyond the world we experience and attempt to control through our reason, quantification and technology. While the latter are the currency of post-Enlightenment understandings of truth, I have long known that there are limits to those understandings. Indeed, my life is a testament to both that currency and its limitations.
My immediate concerns are not that I will die soon. My Barrett’s is inactive and unlikely to develop into cancer even without further treatment, particularly given my lifestyle and dietary changes. My skin cancer could recur but I will walk out of the 6-8 hours of Mohs surgery cancer free. As most of my doctors have said to me, I not only do not look my age (most guess I’m in my 40s) - the beneficiary of youthful looking genes from both parents - I’m also in pretty good health for a 62 year old. For that I am deeply grateful.
What I am concerned about is trying to ascertain what the remainder of my life is going to be about and how to live into whatever purpose that life might have. While I’m not totally convinced that each of us has a single purpose we come into life to meet, I do believe that purposeless existence is essentially a waste of the gift of life.
I have seen this first year of retirement as a badly needed sabbatical with time to lick my wounds and heal emotionally, spiritually and physically. But I have also seen it as a time of discernment. At 62 I’m not free to pick up and leave for a new calling as in the past. And, truth be told, I’m not even sure where I need to apply my energies at this point.
My departure from teaching left me with a very bitter taste in my mouth for the endeavor to which I have devoted most of my life. While I miss my students and the public scholarship events that once excited me, I don’t want to teach classes or present public scholarship just to have something to do or in pursuit of the pittance these events pay. And I still feel the need to exorcise the demons of years of learning and experience that demand to be expressed in some kind of published writing, the writing of these blog posts being a first step in that process.
So I still don’t know what I want to do with my retirement. I want to invest my remaining time and energy in something that will actually mean something and hopefully can make the world a little better place. But nothing has really captured my imagination thus far. It is not surprising that I write these words at the start of the Advent season which began Sunday. Like Advent, this season of my own life is a time of watching and waiting.
When Sister Death comes, I want to embrace her warmly, leaving behind all regrets for a life not well lived. I want to hear “Well done, good and faithful servant,” whether that comes from G_d or simply from within my own heart. I’m in no rush to meet Sister Death. But I am praying that when she does finally come, I will be ready to embrace her.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)