Friday, December 12, 2008

Comprehending the incomprehensible

It should be no surprise to my 'loyal' readers that I've spent the week with my mother and siblings.  We've all been going steady, to tell the truth.  And there have been some funny moments.  Most of them have to do with Mom and her incomprehensible sentences.  For a long time, she's had trouble pulling the word she needs from the lexicon in her brain.  In the beginning, she called such stalls "senior moments" but as those word hiccups became more prevalent, it was clear that language was the area of the brain most severely attacked by this dementing disease.  I've had messages on my answering machine in the spring that said, "I won't be home for Thanksgiving, so you have to pick me up at 10."  Listening to such messages, we've shaken our heads, uncertain what she might not be home for, and how she expected us to drive from our home, 7 hours away from her, to pick her up...for whatever it was she was thinking about.  More recently, trying to decipher what she meant when she began to speak of 'that' and 'this' was tricky.  I could just imagine her pointing to something in her apartment she was certain I could see.

But this week, it's become clear that the deterioration of her language has excelerated.  She can talk in long paragraphs complete with elaborate hand gestures (a favorite one is cupping her hands around an invisible circle, another slicing the air in elongated strokes), all of which is designed, in her brain to help us understand her words, and none of which actually accomplish that task.  She tried very hard the other day to tell a nurse about something very important as I sat in the corner, watching.  They were clearly stymied in their attempts to discover what she meant, assuming she was talking about something related to their work.  Finally, as she made a large swoosh in the air, I said, "Oh, you're talking about banana sandwiches."  Mom clapped her hands in glee. "Yes!" she said. The nurses who were trying to move her from bed to wheelchair looked at me in amazement.  "How did you get banana sandwich out of that?" one asked.  I was only because she'd told me the same story months ago when she could still talk.

Another time (and this may have been my favorite moment so far!), she asked, in perfect seriousness, "Where's the whore?"  A physical therapist answered without missing a beat, "I don't think we have any working here."  And that night, my sister and brother listened to her talk at length about 'the king and, that's not right.  Just the king."  She is perfectly content to ramble for long moments, even when we are conversing with others in the room, without missing a beat.  And she barely notices our sidebar conversations with each other, "She seems more lucid today," or "Do you understand what she means?"  This morning, after awakening with a headache, I felt more punchy than usual, and was having a hard time containing my giggles, especially when Mom began singing the Hallelujah Chorus with her hands held over her head clapping after every 'Hallelujah!'.  Then she told us something, and from the corner of my eye, I saw my siblings all nodding in unison, making appropriate assenting noises, though I know not one of us had a clue what we were agreeing with.  Finally, I burst out laughing, which made Mom look at me quizzically.  "I'm just so happy," I told her through my chuckles.  That released something in my siblings, and pretty soon we were all practically crying.  Then I grew sober thinking of how hard it is to be in relationship with her as her speech becomes more incomprehensible.

We take for granted the ability to communicate, and the ability to understand what is communicated to us.  If we speak a common language with someone, we assume we will follow what that person is telling us.  It is not often that we are as lost as we've felt with Mom these last few days.  But 2000+ years ago, when Jesus began His adult public ministry, the words that came out of His mouth were sometimes strange and mysterious.  The Sermon on the Mount is an example. "Blessed are the poor in Spirit..."  "Blessed are the meek..." "Blessed are the pure in heart..." Now there's not a single word in the Beatitudes that was actually new to those who sat in front of the young man from Nazareth.  But somehow, every sentence was something original, something unexpected, with a twist.  Calling people salt and light, encouraging them not to hide their light or let their salt lose its flavor.  What on earth could He be talking about?  I bet they wondered. 

I have always agreed with Ecclesiastes that there is nothing new under the sun, that creation begins and ends with God, and what we do when we create is always beneath that.  Perhaps we rearrange words, give them a new order, but new concepts, new ideas?  These spring from God, and only God.  And in the Incarnation, in the Human flesh of Immanuel, something new--really truly new-- came out of His mouth.   Jesus spoke words, emphasized things that no naturalized citizen of this planet ever had.  I know that we, who have read the gospels, heard the stories, are used to such things, are familiar with such phrases as, "I Am the Light of the world," "I Am the Gate and the Shepherd."  "I Am the Way, the Truth and the Life."  And--think of this!--"I Am the Resurrection."  But to His first listeners, the personification of such abstract ideas, would have struck them hard.  First of all, He actually used the words that those around Him recognized as God's Name.  And this is a big deal.  "Tell them 'I Am' has sent you," God told Moses at the burning bush when Moses asked who was speaking, who was calling Moses to lead His people.  God's name is "I Am that I Am."  When Jesus says "I Am the bread of Life," He's invoking God's name as His own.  In all 7 "I Am's", it's like He's saying, "I--I Am--Am the True Vine."  This is absolutely startling and new.  Jesus knew who He was, and all the way through His ministry, gave clues for His listeners of both His identity and His purpose. 

Unfortunately, we're all a little hard of hearing and more than a little dim.  Like my siblings and I with Mom.  Like humans trying to understand the deep things of God. 

I'm grateful to live when I do, grateful to understand Jesus' words because I have centuries of saints to help me.  But sometimes I dream of those words when they were new, and original and barely understood, spoken in the human voice of our God.  So this day, this week, this Season, my goal is to hear those words with open ears, to listen for the newness of what He intends through them.  May we all comprehend a little more clearly the incomprehensible--that the Word became flesh.  That our God became a man.  That these words have something to new to say to us, if we can just open our ears and listen.

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