Sixteenth-century poet John Donne prayed: “Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening, into the house and gate of heaven . . . where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence but one equal music; no fears nor hopes but one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings but one equal eternity.”
After we die, he says, everything will be equal, no ups or downs, no judgment, no worries. This is our last awakening, to dwell in the house of “one equal eternity” where we have no fears or hopes (read “desires”) but “one equal possession.” But what does that mean?
It means that we will have everything we need. But how can we begin to live that kind of life now while we are still here on earth? There’s an old maxim that says “Everything you have is everything you need.” I might not want it, but it’s a spiritual practice to discover why I need it.
In our spiritual life, this runs deeper and it takes more effort to practice that belief. In the Gospel of Matthew (6:26), Jesus’ oft-quoted verse can give us a clue: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” So, it’s easy to live as the birds of the air, right? Wrong. We humans do not have the instincts to live as birds or any other wild animals that seemingly live off of God’s generosity for their daily bread.
Which brings me to this. A good friend’s husband has been seriously ill and I found myself asking her, “Let me know if there is anything you need.” As I said that, I realized that in my own experiences of crises or trauma, I did not know what I needed or wanted. When our family had a major house fire over 40 years ago, the people who asked were well-meaning but I could not answer them. The morning of the fire my neighbor Judy brought over a coat and offered to take our young children to her house for the day. It was the best gift, and I did not have to ask.
When I went through breast cancer on two occasions, again I did not really know what I wanted or needed but when co-worker Eric came to the hospital and sat in the window well of my room waiting for me to wake up, his presence was a godsend. When co-worker Sonja informed me that she was going to order dinner for me every Wednesday during the 14 weeks I had chemo (“you can’t say no!” she said), her generosity was most welcome. And when Brother Bob showed up at my door with a shopping bag of goodies (movies, gift cards, handmade soap and food), I felt loved.
Yes, God already provides what we need, even if we don’t recognize it. When confronted with a challenge of the heart, we shout, “I don’t need this!” But perhaps we do need that situation in order to grow more compassionate, patient or maybe more forgiving.
When a friend is in crisis, rather than giving them the responsibility of deciding what they need or want, it may be more helpful to say: “I’m going to bring you a meal that you can put in your freezer or eat right away. What day is best?” Or simply show up with a decorated bag with gift cards for take-out, drinks and/or food and a calendar with days you are free to visit.
Then they can, at least for a while, become the birds of the air who do not have to reap or sow because your God-sized hands and heart will provide for them.
(Kathy Berken is a spiritual director and retreat leader in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lived and worked at L’Arche in Clinton — The Arch from 1999-2009.)