Last night I learned about the Isenheim Altarpiece, a depiction of Christ on the cross painted by Matthias Grunewald not long after the Black Plagues. Painted in a hospital chapel, Christ is covered by pox-like, communicable disease sores inflicting many at the time. The artist thought that our suffering could possibly make more sense united with Christ’s. Perhaps those suffering would feel that He took these wounds on also, and suffered. If Christians are called to imitate Christ, then self-sacrifice and suffering, offered to him and for others, might bring more sense to what seems so very senseless.
If given a choice…would it help us to endure suffering? I often think allegorically, in visualized concepts, and through story. This came to me yesterday:
As though awakening from a dream, she gained consciousness. Something was different–novel, unique. All around her was bright yet she felt no need to squint. There was music in the air, something like birds or wind chimes. All was filled with a great yellow-gold shimmering light. A pastoral field lay before her and it seemed that every blade of grass, every flower shone of it’s own source. Beautiful. Puzzling.
“Come with me,” a kind voice resonated from a familiar face beside her, like a lifelong companion. Each moment in time was no longer strung together but compounded, melded, and each brought clarity as well as more question. “Am I dreaming?”
The comforting companion led her forward, gesturing toward a greater light. “You will choose…though most are not offered to do so.”
A choice? The realization was dawning…something very great, or grave, had happened.
Flooding into her consciousness came a rush of memory. As though an instant, an enormous download, her entire life was seen distinctly and simultaneously–young, old, joys, sorrows, playing as a little girl in the grass, marrying her husband, receiving her first soft kitten and the scent of it(!), the babies, the surgeries, losing her father, crying over the struggles of her teen, the wedding of her oldest daughter. Happy memories as well as sad, the latter of which were acknowledged as such, yet the pit-of-stomach pain was absent. All simply was. And the realization of “was” in past tense brought the dawn of understanding of her death. She felt–joy.
This great download of her life, even the sorrowful times could be seen not in all their complexity and meaning; no, they were seen as gift.
Far ahead she saw the others. They were blissfully perfect and in communion with one another. They were illuminated with light and though unrecognizable she knew that her Mom and Dad, her grandparents, and friends were among the souls. She felt pulled to them with a magnetism that held no fear.
The companion halted her at the entrance to this place, this bright tunnel that led to paradise. It was in her very soul that that she knew this to be where we are all drawn, when all becomes complete, makes sense, and returns us full circle to what we were intended all along. The circle itself was the gift–and no perfectly drawn circle, anyone’s. Twists, faults, pain, suffering intermingled with happy events. Her circle could now be completed. It felt so perfect, and yet…
“Choose.” Her companion looked on her lovingly, patiently, and expectantly.
She thought for a fraction of a second, “Why?’ Why go back for more pain, more suffering? To disability and the grief which would surely come from continued loss. To all that she saw and remembered clearly, there would be more. Why go back?
In the same moment of the question came answers: “More gift,” “for others,” “for your children and grandchildren,” “for more work that only you can accomplish, though you will not see it nor understand it at the time.”
“Can you trust in Me?” The companion was now recognizable. “Either way, I love you dearly. There are things I can accomplish through you.”
In this place, this absence of time as we know it, she saw the glory of the heavens when Mary responded “Yes” to Gabriel’s question, and she realized that Mary understood that her choice might entail difficulty and suffering she could not fully comprehend. But Mary responded affirmatively, wanting what her creator asked of her more than what she wanted of her own life. Her future was unseen, her God unseen, but He asked and she responded, “Yes.”
The Lord spoke again, “Will you go back for a little while longer, for My glory? For others?”
The last few years of her life had been filled with increasing pain. She had cried out many times to Him to save her from it, and here He was asking if she would go back. There was no wrong in going forward. No sense of guilt in it. The sensation of being pulled forward to the light had not lessened.
“Will you accept more gift before you are here with us always?”
She felt the love of her children, of her husband. She knew that they must be grieving. It was not with anxiety that she felt it, as she knew fully that the Lord would comfort them. But she could hear their prayers. They were calling her back. If this was a choice offered not to every soul, then God had reasons. The companion spoke once more, “I will always be with you, even in the confusion, and in the grief and difficulties ahead. But there will be joy such as you have never fully known. Trust in Me.”
“I do trust you. Yes, Lord.”
In that moment came a joyous sound from ahead of her, almost deafening; in the same instant a weight returned in her chest, and all of the sensations of physical reality. There was pain again. Noise. But there was also calm–a peace which truly passed all understanding.
She would endure. Farther ahead would be that miraculous place; she knew this with all certainty. Yet for a little while longer, there was this earthly life, this gift. More to the circle, to the necklace of life which held jagged edges yet also shining pearls. She would continue adding to that necklace, her circle of life. She would continue not for herself, but for God’s work. To finish stringing all of the pearls. To love.