“There is in all visible things, a hidden wholeness.”
This is a story about Catherine. George, too, but mostly about Catherine. And love.
Catherine and George were residents in the same “memory care” unit where my mother lived in her final years. I often chatted with George; we talked easily together about the weather and baseball and I can’t remember what else. I avoided Catherine; she seemed always vacant, lost in her own deep fog as she rambled on in endless and incoherent complaints.
One day, Catherine and George were sitting together on a couch near my mom’s room as I returned from the dining hall. “Where are you going?” my friend George asked as he jumped up to stand with me. I edged away, explaining that Mom was sick in bed that day and I needed to get back to be with her. “I’ll go with you,” George replied. I carefully explained that that wouldn’t work because Mom, possibly infectious, had to stay alone in bed in her room. “I’ll go with you,” George insisted. I explained again. George was relentless: “I’ll go with you.”
I puzzled. “Tell you what, George,” I managed to reply, “I’ll go with you!” That worked. We ambled off together down the hall and parked ourselves in the comfy chairs in the living room for a sweet and amiable chat about something or other. After a while I excused myself and left George, now happy and satisfied. I walked back toward Mom’s room.
Catherine was still in the same place, still as apparently lost as ever in her sleepy, private world. As I came near, however, she awoke. She looked up at me with bright, clear eyes and she spoke. “That was very kind,” she said, “That was very kind.” Unknown to me, Catherine had taken in the energy of my exchange with George. She had felt his need and had seen and sensed my response. Though her mind didn’t work so well, she knew kindness when she heard and saw and felt it. And then she offered it back to me: “That was very kind.”
My mistaken perception: I had taken her wounded and unpleasant superficial form to be the full reality, believing that my own view was real in some tangible and permanent way. But “only love is real” sings Carole King. So did the Buddha. And Jesus.
The poet David Whyte writes about this. He was fascinated, he says, by the fearsome faces he found guarding the entrances to the most holy sites in Asia. He learned that they were carved from flawed wood and placed there to challenge those who would enter any sacred place to “step through:” out of mundane and superficial perceptions, stories, fears, doubts and behaviors into the depths that lie beyond the visible.
His poem* invites us to give ourselves to our own deepest life:
If only our own faces
would allow the invisible carver’s hand
to bring the deep grain of love to the surface.
If only we knew
as the carver knew, how the flaws
in the wood led his searching chisel to the very core,
we would smile, too
and not need faces immobilized
by fear and the weight of things undone.
It is the heart of my spiritual practice: finding and resting in the serenity and vibrant love, compassion and equanimity that is alive within any of my life’s storms. My own conditioning slips eternally to focus attention, not on what is real but on the surface of particular events and behaviors that touch on my senses as pleasant or unpleasant. Over and over, I forget.
Nevertheless, I glimpse occasionally a capacity to let go of my preoccupations with those superficial thoughts and objects. I return to rest awareness in the indestructible wholeness that is, for every one of us – without exception – our very deepest being.
Catherine reminded me and guided me in. Thank you.
*from “The Faces at Braga”