On what turned out to be the last day of my mother’s life, when Alzheimer’s Syndrome was ending her body’s ability to breathe independently, nursing staff called me early in the morning to say she was not keeping food down.
As I said hello to her, Mom looked up at me with that fierce eagle eye we’d come to know during her last years. The look was challenging yet had a glint of longing in it. She may no longer have known who I was, yet she clearly knew we were bound in a primal loving relationship.
I sat beside her and put my hand against her cheek. She sighed, closed her eyes, and leaned her head against my hand.
In her blog post, “Suffering…End of Suffering,” T. Hamboyan Harrison writes,
Suffering doesn’t come from having emotions; it comes from feeling that the emotion you’re having isn’t right, from judging that emotion and labeling it. Just as one can be in physical pain and not be suffering, so one can be in the throng of despair and also not be suffering.
This statement voices with precision the understanding which my decades of weaving together Christian, Pagan and Buddhist threads have brought me.
Though an intimate Friend of Jesus from early childhood, I never was comfortable with institutional Christianity’s notion that pain, sickness and death were punishments, or that strong enough faith could cure us of these mortal ills. I saw no divine justice—certainly no divine love—in such a regime.
During my “coming-out” decade, calling myself a faggot and a witch was my self-teasing way of naming my embrace of the body and of nature as divine, not fallen. I came to understand that mortality is simply a circumstance of being alive, not an evil intrusion upon it. If there is evil, it lies in what human beings do to themselves and to each other in order to deny or delay mortality.
I wandered into Buddhism as many would-be hippies did, enticed by the Western misconception that this path was about escaping unhappiness and gaining spiritual “powers.” It was decades before I reread Katsuki Sekida’s Zen Training and realized, “Oh, it’s just about sitting.”
I am convinced that Jesus brought us a very simple message, one hinted at by Suzuki Roshi in a story told by Pema Chödrön: This difficulty will be with you for the rest of your life. Therefore, always practice maitri (“unconditional lovingkindness”) toward yourselves and toward all beings.
“Sin” is merely our misguided efforts to dodge mortality—in trivial, more or less harmless ways, as well as in horrific and brutal ones. Yet mortality is merely mortality.
I longed for my mother not to die. Yet her mortality was not something to cure. It was something to heal. She and I and my spouse and siblings and others who loved her led each other gently toward that moment when her body would cease to breathe.
The pain and the loss and the grief are real, and they revisit us on occasion.
The suffering is healed—whenever we allow it—by that touch of divine love, that maitri, which we have been given the grace to share with each other.
And so it is.
I have published this post simultaneously on my personal blog, The Empty Path.