Pro-life activist reflects on the meaning of death
By MARK PICKUP
Special to the WCR
I dreamt of sailing a grand tall ship. Gentle billows swelled beneath her massive hull. The wind began to pick up and filled the ship's enormous sails. Silently, the large ship started to move as though being pushed by an invisible hand.
The bow gently sliced through the water as we moved forward. The great ship's speed increased. Waves crashed against the bow sending bracing showers of salty spray over the deck drenching me. Seagulls alongside the ship squawked - as we banked into a westerly wind on to an unknown destination.
The wooden ship creaked and moaned as the gigantic boom pitched violently starboard and the wind-filled mainsail swung overhead across the deck.
Every fibre of my body felt alive - at least in my dream.
Reality is quite different: I live on the land-locked prairie in an advanced state of multiple sclerosis: The closest ocean is a thousand miles away.
My sailing dream came as I lay in bed drifting from consciousness, through the Land of Nod toward deep sleep. The dream was so real. I could smell, taste and hear the wind and sea.
Eventually a rude awakening came: My eyes flickered open to discover a body that is still half-lead, my electric wheelchair still waited beside my bed.
There was no tall ship, only the walls of my bedroom bathed in blue moonlight streaming through my window. Bed sheets rustled. Not sails.
The dream recurred over the next several months and I became suspicious there was something more than a desire to sail. It was a primal desire. But desire for what? It was spiritual desire, not physical desire or eroticism.
My desire had different layers, like the skins of an onion. On the surface was a desire to be free from degenerative disease, the contraptions of disability, frustration and grief.
At a deeper level was a yearning for the past - my own past. At the core of my ecstasy was a longing for something or somewhere else I sensed was just beyond me.
A ship that never arrives The dream has a generic quality: It does not reveal whether I am crippled or healthy, boy or man, or where the ship is headed. I am simply sitting in a ship observing and experiencing the sensations. All that was important in my life before becomes insignificant in comparison to the sensation of sailing. The ship in my dream is always seeking - yet never arriving.
But the strongest sensation of my dream is one of longing that transcends the sea, the salt, the wind and desires the Source of it all. It is the same fleeting desire or longing I experienced beginning in early childhood before disease, disability, sorrow or pain. It is the same longing that seems to follow humanity.
C.S. Lewis' wrote about transcendent desire in his wonderful little book Surprised by Joy. He later spoke about it as yearning for a "far off country" or paradise. Lewis delivered a sermon at the Oxford Church of St. Mary, which he called The Weight of Glory. He said, in part:
"I am trying to tear open the inconsolable secret in each one of you - the secret which hurts so much that you take revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name."
The scent of a flower Lewis likened this desire for paradise to the "echo of a tune we have yet to hear" or "the scent of a flower we have not yet found." For an incurably ill man like myself, these images strike a full chord. Suffering intensifies spiritual yearnings, desire, longing for that flower I cannot quite find; it lies somewhere just beyond the door of temporal reality.
But what lies just beyond temporal reality that fuels this near-constant yearning? It is certainly not a sailboat, seagulls or an ocean. If someone were to magically plop me into a sailing ship tomorrow, I think it would merely break my heart. It would fall short of the ecstasy I imagined; I would soon discover that the thrilling images of wind-filled sails and the sea were inadequate metaphors for something that transcends my mind or ability to even conceptualize. The yearning is for paradise.
Metaphors schmetafors! The images turn bitter if dwelt upon. They only point toward the ancient joys of heaven: They are not heaven. Nature is a poor reflection of paradise and ships are for mortals of little faith. I remain exiled with all Christians, spiritually drowsy, yearning, desiring in the Land of Nod. The longing, the romance, the desire for heaven's ecstasy cannot be satisfied in the natural world, only in the next.
I must not rush headlong or prematurely into eternity to seek the object of my desire - Christ - or escape the despair of life inside a diseased and withering carcass. That would presume upon God's mercy and divine plan: He is a God of light not darkness, the author of life not death.
Without light there is no life.
Freedom cannot be forced. Paradise rushes for no man's agenda, the joy of heaven cannot be pilfered. I am being prepared, refined in a fire, made fit for eternity. Foretastes must do for now.
The mystery of life is growth, not desire. The hope of life is Christ, not escape from sorrow or pain.
In fact, suffering, disability or pain can be a blessing. There is blessing in suffering, the sufferer must look for it and be open to what is being said by it.
Affliction is a treasure John Donne is best known for his immortal words about human interdependence: "No man is an island, entire of it self." The same meditation deals with the fruits of human affliction: "All mankind is of one Author, and one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; . . . God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice, but God's hand is in every translation. . . .
"For affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough, that is not matured, and ripened by it, and made fit for God."
Jesus calls humanity to lives of meekness, as he lived. Meekness is more than being mild and gentle. It is a temperament of the soul whereby we accept God's dealings with us as good (whatever that may involve) without resisting.
We accept, by faith in Christ that our trials and sufferings are making us fit for eternity and that we are somehow being prepared to assume our holy citizenship in the Celestial City.
Sometimes the fastest way home is the longest road. I wish that were not so.
I have been chronically ill with multiple sclerosis for more than 18 years. My life has degenerated from being a normal, able-bodied, athletic husband and father to spending most of my days in an electric wheelchair.
My next mailing address will probably be a nursing home. By most people's standard, life is over for me at the age of 49. Some people believe my life was over by age of 30 years when the MS was first diagnosed.
In the fiery furnace The sicker I become, the more evident Christ's presence becomes to me. Like the fourth figure in the fiery furnace with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, Christ is with me in the fire of MS: Unlike Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego the fire has ravaged my body (but not my soul).
Jesus sits with me even in the ashes of my misery and comforts me. He assures me there is a divine purpose to the fiery torments and that we shall walk away from scorching flames into the warm light of his kingdom.
He talks of water and wind that takes me away from the fire to where I do not yet know. The image is so real. I can hear the wind and feel the spray of water on my face.
Again, I am overcome by a transcendent longing. At last I understand that the ecstasy is inextricably linked to the divine attributes of God's love.
One day, there will be no more foretastes but the real banquet, no more wandering, no more longings from the Land of Nod. I will be home. I will see the object of my desire - Christ.
(Mark Pickup is incurably ill with chronic progressive multiple sclerosis.
His commentaries and articles have appeared in publications across North
America. He writes from his home in Beaumont.)
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