“At the heart of our potential for health and wholeness is the need for a fundamental quality of acceptance, an unconditional compassionate presence. Without this capacity either for ourselves or for others, even our spirituality can become harsh and uncompromising.” Rob Preece
A while ago I journeyed up winding roads to a funeral at a tiny church in the remote North Carolina mountains. I was less than fully eager to hear the eulogy about an old man who had never darkened that little church’s doors. Everyone who attended knew that the deceased had led a very hard life. Grown irritable and crusty and wildly opinionated about classes and races and sexes, as an elder, he was often in conflict with all others who were not-like-him, which was pretty much everyone.
I had long kept a bit of distance; it would have been hard for me to offer that eulogy. After he died, I googled “what not to include in a eulogy.” The list included “faults and shortcomings, old hurts and grudges, past arguments and disagreements, family rifts, crimes, poor decisions and disrespect of others.” Hmmm,” I wondered” what would there be to say?”
That country preacher, however, knew more than me. He offered the most beautiful eulogy I’ve ever heard; I can’t begin to reproduce it here. He talked softly about repeatedly visiting this man in his home throughout his final illness. He told stories of the man’s initial resistance and negativity. He reported that the man finally one morning had burst out at him in suspicious rage: “What are you doing here!? Why are you here?! What do you want from me?!!”
The preacher said that he looked at him squarely and replied simply: “Nothing. I want nothing. I just love you.”
Over quite a long time and many visits, the man, he said, slowly was able to believe him, to take in his care. He came to feel that he was seen; his heart softened. They had fun together, the preacher said; they laughed. They didn’t talk about Jesus so much as about whatever was growing in the garden and whether or not there would be rain over the weekend. For maybe one of the very few times in his life, the man relaxed into kind relationship and love.
I am so very happy to know that the man experienced that love to guide his passage into death and beyond. I spoke with the preacher after the service, to thank him for his presence and his reminder to me, to all of us. He seemed surprised; it was nothing special, he said, just his own delight in an opportunity to be present with the scars of suffering and to offer love.
“Nothing special…just delight in an opportunity to love…”
I was considering this the other day as I sat near my favorite tree, deep in the forests of Ivy Creek. She kindly reminded me that she, like me, like everyone, is also full of the scars of past suffering. She noted her curved trunk where she once didn’t get enough light and the many spots and blemishes where long past storms broke off otherwise healthy branches. She pointed to places where simple growth required her to let go of limbs for which there was no longer any room. She noted – correctly – that my emotions don’t rise up about it all, that my love for her is open and accepting; that I simply see and know and include all of these things without judgment or reactivity.
I am reminded that I have no image or expectation of how that tree “should” be. I see that I have no inclination to judge her for her wounds or her crookedness or for her many differences from her other woodland neighbors. I just love her as she is. I marvel at her resilience and her steady rhythms through the mysterious cycles of life and death and life again. I am grateful for the birds that she shelters and I duck under her curved branches as needed. When she dies, if I am still around, it will be easy to offer a eulogy for her goodness and for the infinite gifts that she offers to me and to all of the creatures of that mysterious forest.