I start most of my mornings by reading the words of the Desert Mothers and Fathers (The Apophthegmata Patrum for you nerds out there). I like to read sayings from two separate monks, any two, and then in the back of my mind I let these two sayings wrestle with each other whether or not they are related. Something about solitary life has intrigued me and the mysticism, wisdom, and desperation of the earliest Christian monks has held my gaze for years now. Somehow, I feel known when I read their words. I also think a great deal about how I might integrate their wisdom into my life. If I cannot be a monk, perhaps by studying their lives and words I can walk with them in my heart and mind; perhaps I can recognize them when I pass them on the street or when they ask me for money at an intersection. Perhaps.
John is 5 years older than me and he is dying. He needs a liver transplant to survive. Currently, he is not eligible for a liver transplant since he has not yet been sober for 6 months. It’s hard for me to grasp this truth. I met him a few weeks ago and I was immediately captured by his stillness. He lies so still in the bed that even his eyes barely move. When he speaks, his lips move only as much as necessary and his face never contorts, save for the occasional smile. To be the recipient of that smile is to be the recipient of a bountiful treasure. John is kind. He listens carefully and speaks slowly. He is deeply aware of himself and his internal life and he communicates his innermost thoughts and feelings with an ease that would make most people feel unsettled.
But I’m a chaplain. His candor only makes me grateful.
John’s family spent decades trying to figure out how to help him get sober. They carry those years on their shoulders now. His mother only dares to make eye contact with me sporadically. She always looks at me with kindness, but the gravity of the moment weighs extra heavy on her with so much weight on her shoulders. John’s dad stays busy. He runs errands, makes tea, buys candy and clothes, coordinates John’s meetings with various specialists… he never stops for long. His shoulders stay flexed, up around his ears. They both wonder aloud at times if they got it wrong. Should they have been more cruel? Should they have “cut him off?” Should they have acted otherwise? I always assure them that they are guilty only of loving John and that love is a messy business – especially when it’s drunk.
I had known John for a whole 5 minutes before he knew I was an alcoholic. “So how long you been sober? No way you’re a “normie.”” I recognized the language and asked him about his recovery journey. He’d been in and out of treatment with little success until this year when he finally committed himself to the process. He found what he needed in AA. He started working the steps, taking it one day at a time, and before he knew it he was living the life his family had always dreamed of for him. His marriage ended some time ago, but suddenly he was present for his children in a way he had never been. His friendships evolved but now people were looking up to him for what he was accomplishing. He started putting one foot in front of the other, moving forward – for the first time in his adult life – and his body started failing him.
His parents are Christian. They support him and they are so proud of him. They are heartbroken and hopeful. They each have moments when they entertain despair; when they let themselves think about the poetic injustice of getting their son back just in time to lose him forever. They know that this is far better than to never have gotten John back at all, but the sweetness of his character makes the threat to his life so much more bitter. He is their baby and they can see the boy he was in his eyes again. He is earnest and honest. He is self-sacrificing and generous. He is forgiving and attentive and he is mortal.
Last week was especially hard. John had to tell his two young children that he might not live through this hospitalization. He had to tell them that he might die and he decided to tell them why. I met separately with his parents midway through the week and we waded through the sacred waters of their hope and grief together. On Friday I found myself talking with John in his room with his parents and his childhood friend sitting quietly around us. It felt like an AA meeting. I was reminded of the first time I met John:
“So when did you first go to AA, Michael?” He inquired.
“I’ve never really been active in AA. I’ve been sober for 2.5 years, but I don’t think I’ve ever been to a meeting.” I replied honestly.
“But Michael, we are having a meeting right now.” He said warmly.
“My name is Michael,” I began, “and I am an alcoholic.”
“Hi, Michael.” John said. He smiled and I felt the familiar presence of the Holy Spirit.
John was different back then. That was before the scary numbers came back from his tests. That was before he had to talk with his children. That was before his kidneys joined the mutiny. Before the bleeding. That was when John was still fairly certain he’d be in and out of the hospital in a matter of days. The wind had been knocked out of him since then and he looked like he needed some dignity back.
I was suddenly moved with gratitude. I recognized just how lucky I was to be with John. Like the monks I read about who fled the cosmopolitan cities of their time for the desert, John had fled the only life he knew for sobriety. Like them, John found himself in oblivion. He had been lost, swallowed up, by his former life. He is alone now, surrounded by people whom he loves and who love him. I felt like the pilgrims who journeyed to Scetis to meet the Abbas and Ammas there, seeking “a word” from their elders. “Is this what hesychia looks like?” I wondered. John needed to see himself differently – he needed to remember the parts of himself that weren’t deflated or defeated. I wanted him to see, and be seen as the leader he is.
“John, I’m going to go soon so you can get back to your family, but I need your help.” I began.
“What do you need, Michael?” He spoke slowly but his eyes perked up.
“I need help with one of the steps.” I said honestly. I couldn’t believe I was about to be this honest – this vulnerable. But that is what the moment called for?
“Which step are you struggling with?”
“Making amends. I don’t want to talk to some of the people I hurt. I don’t want to ever make contact with them again.”
“Oh yes. Everyone struggles with this one. But you need to do it. So even if they are mean, you have to realize that is their choice. You have to do what’s right even if they don’t.” He said this with ease.
“I don’t think I’ve been forthcoming enough” I can’t believe I’m being this open, “it’s not that I’m afraid they’ll be mean to me – it’s that I’m not finished punishing them. I have never spoken to them since they hurt me and I don’t want to stop hurting them yet.”
I was suddenly aware of the others in the room. His parents don’t recognize his leadership in AA. They don’t understand it. They just want to take care of him and for them that means making him Christian. But John is already walking with the Holy Other. John is my Elder. This isn’t about them – I am about to receive a Word.
“Oh. Yes I see. Thank you so much for being honest, Michael. This isn’t about fear, this is about power. They don’t deserve the power you’re giving them. No one does. Why would you continue to give them power?” He said slowly and with a very kind smile.
“I’m not giving them power. I don’t think about them that much. I just don’t want to reach out and make what they did okay.” I could hear the immaturity in my voice. I could hear myself pleading with him for me to just magically be right.
“But that’s not how it works. Nothing will ever make what they did to you “okay.” But you know this step is crucial to your sobriety, right?” He is smiling with his whole face now. He’s got me.
“Yes.” I said sheepishly.
“And you are leaving this step unfinished because of them, is that right?” He reeled me in.
“Yes, that’s exactly right.”
“Then you are giving them the power over your sobriety and they don’t deserve it. They can’t be trusted with it, Michael. They can’t be trusted at all. Take your power back. Take your sobriety back. Make amends.” He spoke with authority.
“John, I recognize my Elders when I see them. This is the Wisdom I needed. Truly. I don’t know how to tell you how grateful I am for you.” I said honestly. His mother whimpered when I called him my Elder. John’s dad sat up straight and cried. John’s shoulders were squared and he had not stopped smiling.
“You already have. Come see me again, will you?”
“Of course. Peace, John.”