Finding God “in Disorder and Imperfection”

My original reflection started off in a different direction.  It was about how quickly my imagination was engaged by Richard Rohr’s writing, which I’ve read for the first time through my recent class.

I have been told that I have a fixation for trying to see almost all things as both/and – or as a “collision of opposites”…  I am, in fact, a values conservative and a process liberal.  I believe in justice, truth, follow-through, honesty, personal and financial responsibility, faithful love, and humility – all deeply traditional values.  Yet, in my view, you need to be imaginative, radical, dialogical, and even countercultural to live these values with any depth. Whether in church life or politics, neither conservatives or liberals are doing this very well today.  Both are too dualistic – they do not think or see like the mystics.  [1]

I’d never heard anyone describe the importance of mysticism in quite that way before.  And he was speaking my language.  The collision of opposites, the both-and thinking that he spoke of reminded me of observations made by my seminary mid-course assessment team about how I described my life – as one-filled with tensions and paradox and places in between; I have been learning to own and consciously live into that reality since then.

On a recent afternoon, though, a chaplain resident walked into my office and something in our conversation about Sacraments and patients, a memory was triggered for me and it has led my reflection in a different direction.

I remember my first encounter with patient Patrick.  I remember it was late evening.  I remember the pager had been beeping itself into a frenzy.  I remember the room was dark and felt empty and lonely when I finally stepped in and began our conversation.

Patrick wasn’t even from around here.  He had come from out of town to bury a brother and got sick.  He suspected, I think, that his days were numbered when he came to the hospital.  That was the story of his family.  The men never lived past age their mid-40’s.  They all got cancer.  They all went through treatment.  They all died.  Now, with his brother gone, Patrick was the last man of his generation.  The only men left in his family were his two sons, both under 10.

I listened as he told his story.  I suggested the inherent unfairness of it all and joined him in his grief and sorrow.  I smiled as he spoke of his sons and felt how much he missed them.  He’d just wanted to talk with someone.  He hadn’t really known what else he wanted or needed, but he knew his heart was heavy and full.  There were moments when there were no words.  His aloneness and disconnection became palpable in the starts and stops and threads of his story.

I was surprised when I first began thinking about Communion in that room.  My theology was one of communal sacraments and missional Communion, one of liturgy, of repentance and celebration. The empty med-surg patient room and the situation seemed like none of those things.  And Patrick was Catholic.  Would he even want to receive Communion from me, a Presbyterian woman?  But it also seemed so right.  A remembrance of a warm meal and a connection to saints past, present, and future, a story that weaves us into God’s story and reminds us of a future hope – it seemed to be what he needed in that moment.  The thought grew louder and louder until I finally offered, feeling a little sheepish.  He accepted with a smile and we came up with a plan for me to procure the elements in the hospital cafeteria the next morning and to return, possibly with a nurse in tow to represent the greater body of Christ.

When I returned the next morning, Patrick was awake and ready.  I spoke the age-old words of invitation and institution, prayed the words of God’s story, and we shared a small, signifying meal with tears in our eyes.  I learned that Patrick left the hospital against medical advice a few hours later.  I imagine that he went home to be with his wife and children.  I imagine he went home to check in with his doctors, to find out for sure whether his own cancer had come back.  I imagine that he underwent treatment again for his cancer.  I imagine he’s died, leaving his two male children with the awful family legacy.

But I also imagine that Patrick and I, along with the nurse, “found God in disorder and imperfection,” as Rohr suggests, as countless saints before us did and countless others will after us.  I imagine that we took the journey and asked the substantial questions, breathed our prayers, and knew God’s presence that morning.  And I imagine that in our venture in deep sadness and hopeless inevitability we discovered hope and union with God and with God’s world.

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[1] Rohr, Richard.  The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2009) 10.

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