… I’ve worked as a hospital chaplain, and I'd like to pass this question by you. If we feel trapped inside a terminal illness is there any value in that experience of confinement for our human development? What is the path to engaging faith in this moment? How do we do it? Is this a moment that spirituality can meet in a way that other things might not? Miriam
Thanks for your question. By way of initial response may I tell a story?
I read about two brothers in the US who made a living, as did previous generations of their family, by capturing feral horses, taming them and selling them. A story came down in the family about their grandfather and granduncle who once came across such a horse sinking in quicksand. They hauled him out, fully expecting him to lash out frantically as soon as he was free. Instead they were surprised to find him completely tame. They knew he was not one they had already tamed, and they could not explain his behaviour. All they could do was tell the story.
The present generation of brothers decided to reconstruct the conditions and see what would happen. Instead of quicksand they used grain. When they had driven a wild horse into the capture corral they opened an overhead sluice and grain slowly filled the space, immobilising the horse. They were careful to do everything slowly and gently, keeping their distance at first, giving the horse time to get used to their presence. The process of taming that used to take three weeks now took no more than fifteen minutes.
Someone who heard that story began to wonder if it could have an application to human beings in some situations. She found that tightly hugging and immobilising an autistic child for a few minutes had a strangely positive effect on the child.
We can well wonder if it might have further applications. We all need some kind of taming in the course of our life. The rearing of any child, I suppose, is a kind of taming. But children generally are content to co-operate with it: they accept boundaries, and it is often noted that they even look for boundaries. If they are not handled wisely at that stage, something feral remains in them into adulthood. I know a prison warden who is impressed, in a puzzled way, by the good effect that prison has on some prisoners (not all). Total freedom is an unbearable burden, and like children some of those prisoners welcome the security of limitations, even while complaining about them. “See how soundly captured criminals sleep,” noted Nietzsche.
But even if we haven't yet had the distinction of being prisoners, we can still think about prisons, their great variety, how some are good and some bad, and whether our sentence is a life tariff or something shorter…. The ego, we know, is the worst prison imaginable. It doesn’t improve its inmates, who are called egoists; and even when they are given every opportunity to escape they cling to its walls; in fact they are so attached that they bring it around with them wherever they go. You know who I am talking about: every human being.
To be trapped inside a terminal illness is a kind of imprisonment. Can we imagine that such a ‘prison’ could have redeeming features?
To be trapped is to be trapped in the present, to have no escape into the past or the future. There are many testimonies that this can bring a person to a deep experience. I'm struck by the way this appears in the gospels. When Jesus was put to death, his disciples returned to their former way of life: they tried to go back to fishing. But ‘they caught nothing that night’ (Jn 21:3). The past had ceased to work for them. Neither did they seem to have a future, because Jesus was dead. There was nowhere they could go. They were prisoners. Tragedy and failure drove them into the present. It was in that cataclysmic Now that they experienced the presence of Jesus. ‘It is the Lord’, Peter cried out.
The experience of those first disciples is a paradigm for disciples of all time. We would gladly float along the surface, surveying the sea of belief, commenting on its length and breadth. We have to be blocked in every direction before we go into depth. We can be quite comfortable with two dimensions; we have to be driven into the third. It is no trouble to see Jesus and ourselves in 2D. In 2D his life is so long ago that he is at the edge of our visual field, almost out of view. He wouldn't mind, we think, if we in our time postponed a few things – St Augustine’s ‘not yet’. But the third dimension knows nothing about distant times or places; it knows nothing but here and now.
Sooner or later life ensures that I am desperate. My ‘prison’ may be a serious illness, or bereavement, or addiction, or physical incapacity, or emotional fragility, or worry about the people I love, or the state of the world…. “People who have not suffered, what do they know?” said Henry Suso in the 14th century. In every age and in every place, people of faith have known this imprisonment, and they have found God in that third dimension. Remembering her dead children, Peig Sayers prayed: "Well I know your holy help, because I was often held by sorrow with no escape."
Until the time of desperation imposes itself, the mind is a flighty horse: strong, nervous, given to sudden moments of panic, but happiest when it is doing nothing in particular, just prancing around with its mane flying. It leaps into the future for no reason in particular, beyond restlessness; it gallops into the past for safety. It needs taming, it needs to be immobilised. When the feral horse was immobilised and brought to the end of its resources it discovered that there was nothing to fear. The mind is that horse, timid and dangerous by turns, wanting to be anywhere but here.
Terminal illness is the ultimate prison: it is death row. On a practical level, how can that terrible plight become an opening to depth, to deeper spirituality? Through an experience of meditation, I suspect. No doubt you have experienced this yourself in your years as a hospital chaplain. As you know, many Zen groups have an outreach to prisoners. There’s an affinity between meditation and terminal illness. In meditation, like terminal illness, the mind can no longer shy away from the present. Everything becomes here and now. If the dying person is lucky enough to be accompanied by someone who is not frightened to be with them, they will surely find peace, and with it, the Prince of Peace.