These days I’ve been thinking a lot about the physical decline of the body. This may be because I’ve been presiding at a more than usual number of funerals at this time of year, and in speaking to the families in preparation for the funeral mass, have heard their stories of the last days of their loved ones. These were for them days of anguish and helplessness in the face of the weakening and suffering of parents who were once strong and vibrant adults. The distressing and challenging effects of dementia on both patient and child are particularly sad to hear about. As chaplain at Hammersmith, I witnessed the heartache of families and the frustration and anguish of those residents who suffered the ravaging effects of dementia.
I’m also becoming keenly aware of my own aging, and wondering what happened to my fluidity of limb and boundless energy of not so recent days. And all of this makes one feel that decline, decay and death, is the fateful lot of the living. You may become cynical and give in to despair, or you may live in the past while envying the young their youth. But a deeper reflecting on the inevitable diminishment that is built into our human reality may lead you to a gentle acceptance and a willing surrender to the reality of aging and eventual death. Understanding the hidden meaning beneath the process of the birth, growth, maturity, decline and death of the human body allows us to not only gracefully accept this fate, but to embrace it in all its mystery.
While we know that many do not age gracefully and are overcome with bitterness and regret the older they get, and that the hurts and disappointments of life have so wounded them that their old age is not peaceful, and they are a challenge to be with, we also know those few who become beautiful in their spirits the older they get. Though our bodies, and necessarily our brains succumb to the aging process and are no longer as functional as they once were, there is a deep place within each of us, untouched by the ravages of time, not subject to decay and death. This is our deepest and truest self; the very centre of our being from which flows our love, creativity, imagination and spiritual energy. It is the wellspring and source of who we are and it is where the Holy Spirit lives and moves within us. Our bodies and our brains are the physical and functional expression of this deeper inner self we know as ‘me’ or ‘I’ when we think of who we really are at our core. There is no direct and mutually determining relationship between ‘me’ and my body in this sense, even though my physical body is inescapably also ‘me’. It’s important to understand this distinction when it comes to understanding our aging bodies and brains, especially in the cases of dementia or alzheimers.
A way of understanding the relationship between the mind (wherein dwells your true self) and the brain (your physical being) is by thinking about the way a radio receives signals from a transmitter. In much the same way a radio in good working order receives the strong clear signal from the transmission station, the physical body and the brain receives from the inner spiritual self a continuous strong and clear signal, enabling it to function and interact in the physical world. If, however, the radio is in some way impaired or damaged, then it does not receive the signal as well as it should and the transmission comes across as distorted or intermittent or filled with static. This does not mean that there is no signal or that the signal is weak, merely that the receiving radio, due to its impairment is unable to receive and play back the contents of the signal which is still coming from its source at the transmitter. Likewise, if our brains are impaired through illness or damage, this does not mean that we ourselves, in our inner souls are ill or damaged, just that the brain is no longer capable of responding and processing as it once was. Our true inner self, the spiritual mind is still strong and well; and in fact is growing and deepening in the spiritual realm. St. Paul reminds us not to despair but to trust in the reality of our spiritual being when he says in his second letter to the Corinthians: Therefore, we are not discouraged. Although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed, day-by-day.
The reality of this inner spiritual self is the source of all that is good and noble and beautiful and true that emerges from the depths of the human person. From the well-spring of the soul flows the more profound intellectual, creative and emotional impulses of the person. This source of so much energy and insight cannot simply fade and disappear into nothingness. The most creative and beautiful energies of the human person coalesce in the capacity to love unconditionally and infinitely; and this most profound capacity in the person, while emerging from the individual spirit, has its source in a reality beyond the individual, though it is the individual who instantiates and makes it a reality in their life in this world. This source is God, who is love and in whose image we are created. He holds all things in being and infuses all these things with the divine energy, making them beautiful and noble, dynamic and creative, and destined to find fulfilment in the true reality beyond this world.
I would like to end with some beautiful words from Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk; words which have always filled me with a sense of awe and gratitude at the deep mystery of each human person:
At the centre of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak, God’s name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely . . . . I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.