I wanted to share with you a recent experience I had at a retreat center. I went to the retreat center to take the day away from everything. I need time just to write. I did get in some writing, but what really touched me was a friendship I fostered over lunch. I have decided to share my experience with you in story form:
His eyes seemed gentle as they peered out at me through his sagging skin, worn by the years. He was frail but somehow seemed to exude strength. I found myself staring at this elderly man sitting across from me; he fascinated me.
“I have cancer of the blood,” he informed me as though he owed me an explanation. Perhaps he had noticed my staring.
“Oh, I am so sorry to hear that.” I stumbled over my words, taken back by his assertiont. I had met this elderly man only minutes before because I happened to sit down at the table next to him for lunch. I had signed up for a “stay away” at a retreat center to get some writing done. He had signed up for the day to find God.
I could tell by his facial features that he had been handsome as a young man. He reminded me of my grandfather in a way that brought comfort. He was gentle and spoke in hushed tones. I cocked my head to the side, prepared to listen. I had the distinct impression that this was a conversation I didn’t want to miss. He talked with me about the awe of children, the need to recycle, and the media’s negativity. We had no prior connection to each other except that we both came down to eat at the same time. He spoke to me as if we were intimately connected.
He leaned in close to my face and said, “You know I used to be afraid of the rapture.”
I am known for lacking transition in my conversations, but even to me this was an odd jump. I just nodded.
“I feared the rapture so much that I was afraid to speak of it,” he mumbled.
I nodded in complete understanding. I was raised in a highly religious family with a pervasive fear of cataclysmic events. Whenever it was really quiet outside, or my family members were not answering their phones, I assumed they had been raptured and I had not. Even long after I no longer considered myself religious the fear would creep in, as if a superstition I couldn’t shake.
He kept talking. “But since November1st, I am not afraid.”
I searched his face, wondering if I should be aware of the importance of this date.
“I’m sorry?” I asked, confused.
“That was the day two Pentecostal neighbor boys, 13 and 15 years old, came over. They said, ‘Ed we just want you to know you’ll still be alive for the rapture and then you’ll get to go up to heaven with us.’”
He kept returning to this story as though its repetition would help me draw a conclusion about its significance.
“Do you know what that means?” he finally asked. “It means there’s hope. Whenever the rapture is, sometime in 2012 or whenever, it means I’ll still be alive. My body must be healing itself!”
My mind flooded with news headlines of people who’ve died because they didn’t seek medical treatment for themselves of a loved on because they believed their faith would bring divine healing. Even still, I didn’t have the heart to disagree with him. Who was I to take away his hope? I was certain that if there was a heaven, this man would definitely go there; I just wasn’t convinced it was via the rapture.
I realized the exceptional arrogance it took on my part to dismiss his statements as the ramblings of a senile and misinformed man. Who was I to say that my lack of certainty was more important that his conviction? I realized that my truth and his truth could co-exist even if they were different. He wasn’t looking for my agreement. He just wanted to share his hope with someone—to vocalize it.
It was then that I could see that his repetition of the story was not for my benefit, but for his. He needed that hope to infiltrate the place where fear resided.
“I often find myself fearful,” I chimed in, offering him understanding.
“Me too,” he whispered, pointing to himself.
We sat then in the quiet comfort of each other’s humanity.
I took smaller and smaller bites of my food trying to prolong our meal together. I liked this man, he had a kindness that radiated from him.
“Lactose pills,” he smiled, holding one up. “If I take these now then I can have frozen yogurt,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “Doesn’t that sound divine? I think I will have mine with fresh berries. Blackberries are my favorite, but I think I am going to put raspberries on my yogurt this time instead.” There was a childlike excitement in his voice.
He smiled as if each bite of his meal provided some exceptional otherworldly experience. He had the kind of mindfulness with his eating that I have only read about. He explained to me, step by step, how he was going to go get a bowl, then some yogurt and then some berries. He relished each detail.
“I think I will get some frozen yogurt too,” I smiled.
When we were done with our yogurt indulgence, I found myself trying not to cry.
“Meeting you has blessed me,” I said gently.
“And you me,” he said, leaning toward me. He took my right hand in both of his and held it for a moment.
Seeing his dance between hope and fear gave me more clarity than seeing the contradiction in myself. Perhaps it isn’t contradictory, at all, to have fear and hope simultaneously. Perhaps it is simply human.
I walked out of the cafeteria acutely aware of the sound of each of my footsteps on the tile floor as I walked back to my room.
Mindfulness, I whispered to myself.