In the waning days of my high school career, my father’s alcoholism was in full flower. My parent’s marriage was flying apart at the seams. Adult attention was in short supply. God’s grace blew Jim and Sue into my life to fill the role of ad hocGod parents. Their solid example of chaos free living, and whole hearted devotion provided me with the spiritual calcium required for the proper formation of a newly forming skeletal structure of adult faith.
Time and the quotidian demands of life have a way of putting distance between people. It had been a good decade since I had seen Jim or Sue. When I heard that their four daughters would be attending the same Family Camp as my crew, I wondered if I would cross paths with Jim and Sue again. My answer arrived on the first day of camp.
After the adult session (the children of camp were attending their own sessions led by a staff of college volunteers), Jim and Sue arrived as guests. I quickly welcomed them into our small discussion group. As they walked over, I noticed that Sue appeared to be half walking and half dragging a leg behind her. As they settled into our conversation, I also observed that Sue’s face appeared distorted and expressionless.
When it came their time to share, Sue described the challenges she faced in living with Parkinson’s Disease. When I first met her in 1977, she had just buried her father who suffered through a long and horrific battle with Parkinson’s. Finding out that this disease had circled back around to find her, after having taken her father away thirty years ago, was a stout challenge to her spiritual and emotional equilibrium. I was about to learn that the things Sue taught me three decades ago were being tested in that new time zone.
Not much ever got past Sue’s perceptive abilities. “The main challenge these days is that I notice people’s reactions as they discover that my face twitches and stays frozen expressionless.” She continued. “As I get tired in the afternoon, my hands get tremors, and my arms move involuntarily. People get uncomfortable when they see me.” “My challenge is to accept their reactions, and to stay rooted in peace until they get used to my appearance and can begin feeling comfortable.”
This Sunday’s Gospel selection was Luke’s description of Jesus’ Transfiguration (9: 28b-36). The events of that story are well known. Jesus’ appearance was changed, and a handful of his disciples came to a greater understanding of who he really was.
I sat listening to this woman whose spiritual root system was well fed and watered over a whole lifetime. Like a little boy scrawling a mustache on a picture in a National Geographic magazine, Parkinson’s Disease had distorted Sue’s external appearance. But as I listened, like the disciples in this Sunday’s Gospel, I was transported beyond the shadows of her outer appearance. In an instant, I saw Sue as she appeared almost thirty years before with a full spectrum of facial expressions, and energy to give to almost any project. I remembered the things we would talk about as we attempted to gain a deeper understanding into this spiritual life we had both embraced.
As I looked at this seventy-year-old woman sitting next to me, I saw something shining out of that visage that was graceful, elegant, and strong. Sue was navigating the steep hills of Parkinson’s Disease with profound humility, good humor, generous hospitality, and a fierce determination. For seventy years she had been in training for this. Little-by-little over the years, Sue’s soul had been transfigured by a daily training regimen that included contemplative prayer, meditation, community, the Eucharist, and loving service.
Sue would live another fifteen years beyond that encounter. As one year gave way to another, Parkinsons Disease took more and more from Sue. Her voice was reduced to a whisper. Her whip-smart intelligence was dulled. Her capacity to move herself from one place to another was removed.
It was in her late seventies and early eighties that something new came into focus. Sue’s last gift to her husband and family was what she gave to them in her disability. Her husband, more accustomed to being served by her than serving (as was the custom for men in that generation) became herhelpmate. Her children stepped up and stepped in, as ifthey were the parents. The gifts they had received from her, they gave as a gift back to her.
Sue’s diminishment emphasized more clearly the enormity of what had grown in her soul and her family over the years. Her energy to direct retreats, lead pilgrims to the Holy Land, give talks, fight injustice, teach in a high school, and write articles, waned. Before her death, everything was eventually stripped from her. Simultaneously, the quiet witness of how she and her family lived out the Gospel in the midst of her disease process, and finally her death, was a profound ministry for those with eyes to see it. With a trembling chin, Sue’s husband, a physical mountain of a man, and larger for his service to her, said, “The last ten years were the best years of our marriage.”
On this, the Second Sunday of Lent, can you take stock of your training regimen? You and I are being transfigured a little at a time by the daily choices we make, and the way that we are living our lives today. Based upon how you are living your life today, what will your soul look like when you arrive at the challenges that life will one day place before you?