A Fantasy Trip through the ‘Dark Night of the Spirit’
Imagine John and Martha as a married couple approaching their seventy fifth birthdays. They enjoy good physical health, have a solid marriage, are very involved in their church and their community, are proud of their grown children- all of whom seem to be doing well- and take particular delight in their grandchildren. They are also financially secure enough to enjoy a comfortable retirement. One day they approach their parish priest and ask for his guidance, and this is the story they share: ‘Father, we have been long-standing and faithful parishioners here, and you know us well. We’re retired; we’re really enjoying our grandchildren. In fact, John has just built a huge deck off of our living room so that we have more space for our family when they drop round. There are so many options still open to us, so many things we would still like to do in our lives. But…but… we have been praying together, and praying a lot over the story of Abraham and Sarah and how when they were old, done with their childbearing years, God called them to set out for an unknown place and how it took them ten years to get there and then, when they arrived there, with them now well over eighty years old, Sarah got pregnant in some new way, and how that, this gray-haired and impossible pregnancy, became their real gift to the world…Well, we have been praying over this for a long time and we feel called in this way, like Abraham and Sarah. We feel that God is calling us into the big, big unknown as he did them. We have mulled over this for a long time and this is our plan: What we want to do is to sell our house and, after buying two one-way airline tickets, give the rest of money to the food bank (because Jesus said to sell everything and give the money to the poor). The one-way tickets we would buy would be for Pakistan. We feel that God is calling us to spend the rest of our lives as missionaries to Islam in Pakistan. We picked Pakistan because there is so much tension today between Christians and Muslims, and there is a need for more understanding between us. Our plan is to go there with no money and to live simply with the poor there, and to die there. We presented this plan to our children, and they were beyond belief, stunned and horrified. They think we are insane and demanded that, among other things, we talk to you. So what do you think of this idea?’
The priest, unless he was John of the Cross, would most certainly side with the view of their children: ‘You’re crazy! This is dangerous fundamentalism! This is the ultimate in naivete!’ But being a trained pastoral minister, he would attempt to dissuade them and bring them and bring them to their senses through logic. His first objection would be this: ‘You shouldn’t do this. You are needed here! Your children, your grandchildren, the church, the community, we need you! There is still so much that you can do. You’re still young, still healthy. You may not do this!’ But John and Martha are ready for this objection, having already thought this through: ‘We appreciate your saying that, and it’s nice to be wanted. But radically, we are not needed. What we have to give we have already given through the last fifty years. We did the work, we provided for our kids, and we love them deeply. But in going to Pakistan and ending our lives in this way, we want to give our kids and grandkids something else, something deeper, something that can be given only in spirit. We have already given them what we can give them humanly. We are doing this for them! They will miss us and we will miss them terribly, but that’s the price for this. Besides, yes, we are healthy, but we are no longer young. Either or both of us could be struck down by cancer or a stroke or something else, and we would be gone in any case. In twenty years, we’ll both most likely be gone, so we may as well do this of our own volition, when we can make it mean something deep.’ Dissatisfied but undaunted, the priest would move on to his second argument: ‘And how do you intend to live in Pakistan, once you have given all your money away? How will you eat? Where will you live? What will you do if you get sick and need a hospital?’ But again, John and Martha are ready for those questions: ‘That’s the real point of this. If we took along credit cards and had return tickets tucked away in case of an emergency that would defeat the real purpose of this. We need to do this on blind trust. We won’t starve, we’ll live somehow, we’ll beg, we’ll live off peoples’ kindness. We know this sounds utterly naïve, but God will provide for us somehow! Don’t think that we haven’t thought of this, and don’t think that we aren’t scared. We’re very scared; we don’t even know what we are going to do immediately after we get off the plane. But that is the point of this!’
With that response staring at him, the priest plays his last card: ‘Besides, the whole thing is wrong from the top down. You know nothing about Pakistan, nothing about the Islamic religion. Moreover, the last thing we need in the church and the world today is a couple of naïve, misguided missionaries, thinking they can save the world! You will do more harm than good!’ John and Martha have also already thought about this: You’re right. We are naïve, and maybe we are misguided. We don’t know anything about Pakistan and Islam, other than some rather superficial things we’ve picked u by reading a couple of books. But again, that is the point. We are there as sheep. We’re not going there to preach or to convert anyone. We just want to live among the people there and try to understand and love them. Maybe we will get killed, but we hope not. We are not going there to save the world; it’s more ourselves and our kids and grandkids whom we are trying to save!’ Now imagine what would happen if neither their family nor the priest could talk them out of their plan and they indeed went to Pakistan, stayed there, and died there. What would be the reaction of their family ten years after their deaths: ‘Our parents were crazy!’? More likely the reaction would be: ‘We had extraordinary parents! They did this incredible faith thing when they retired! What an incredible witness they gave us! What an incredible memory we have of them!’ And if they could articulate this in more religious terms, they might phrase it like this: ‘What a freeing and life-giving spirit they left us! They gave us their deaths as a gift!’
This fantasy might seem pretty fanciful and far-fetched. Who would ever do something like this? John of the Cross would, I suspect, answer the question this way: You may as well risk this kind of radical journey, because if you do not do this of your own volition, it will be done to you. Sometime, and it will happen to us all, we will walk into a doctor’s office and be given a death sentence. Or death will catch us even more unexpectedly in a heart attack, stroke, or accident. At that moment, metaphorically, we will have been handed our one-way ticket to the greatest of all unknowns and, from this journey, there will be no coming back. Palliative care awaits us all, and palliative care is a one-way ticket. We can enter it on our own, on purpose, or we can wait to be eventually taken there against our will. Either way, we will now stand before the same choice that Jesus had to make in the Garden of Gethsemane: How am I going to give my death over? In freedom or in clinging? In graciousness or in bitterness? In anger or in forgiveness? The particular spirit that our death leaves behind, our final gift to the ones left behind, will be determined on how and what we choose in our dying.
[Extracted from pages 300-305, SACRED FIRE- A Vision For A Deeper Human And Christian Maturity by Ronald Rolheiser]