A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog about Doris, an elderly Friend who had a spiritual breakthrough in ICU and realized that she was "the luckiest woman in the universe" because she was alive, and because she was loved by God and by Friends. See http://laquaker.blogspot.com/2011/03/luckiest-person-in-universe.html
Like many of us, Doris lapses in and out of this amazing state of grace/enlightenment. Soon afterwards, she resisted the advice of her doctors and went home prematurely before her body was strong enough. In her cluttered, filthy apartment, she relapsed and had to return to the hospital. She is now coming to the realization that she may no longer be able to live independently and plans to move into a nursing home--a difficult decision for her, one she has resisted for a long time. But now that she has made this decision herself, she seems at peace.
Visiting her, I was struck once again by Doris' cheerfulness. Her toothless smile lit up the room when I greeted her and gave her a kiss. In spite of her tiny, shriveled body, she seemed larger-than-life and incredibly beautiful to me.
I was reminded of a story about two elderly Quaker women t who opened my mind and heart to one of the most profound truths revealed in Dante's Divine Comedy. Dante's guide to Paradise is of course Beatrice, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Her beauty of body and soul inspired his poetry and his spiritual journey through hell and purgatory, and even through the cleansing fires that lead to paradise. In paradise, Dante sees many scenes of incredible beauty and at one point he says to himself, "This is the most beautiful sight I've ever seen." No sooner does this thought enter his brain than he feels guilt. To think that anyone or anything is more beautiful than Beatrice violates the code of courtly love that Dante follows. He turns to Beatrice to apologize only to discover that she has grown more beautiful. He realizes that as one ascends towards God, everyone and everything seems more beautiful.
This passage opened up for me the meaning of Dante's Paradise, and indeed, of this Divine Comedy we call life. The Muslims also have it right when they say, "God loves beauty." It is through beauty that we are drawn to the Ultimate Good.
Well, that's a long prelude to my story about two elderly woman I dearly loved: Martha Dart and Edith Cooper of Claremont Meeting.
Edith and Martha were old Friends who both lived in India for a time with their husbands. Dick Cooper worked for the YMCA, and Leonard Dart was an academic. Their wives became close friends while their husband had jobs in India, and their friendship lasted for 40 years or more. Both were extraordinary women. Martha wrote a Pendle Hill pamphlet on Hinduism and Quakerism, and Edith was an artist. Both raised families and served the RSOF in many useful ways. They were both delightful Friends--warm, caring and often very funny.
I was visiting Edith in the hospital when Martha appeared. Like her friend Edith, Martha was quite elderly, in her 80s, and she needed a walker. She slowly made her way across the hospital room to her friend's bedside, and took Edith's hand tenderly in hers. Looking into her friend's eyes, Martha said words I will never forget.
"Friend Edith, thee seems so beautiful to me."
Martha's voice trembled with emotion and Edith's face was radiant. Tears welled up in my eyes. For a moment, I saw both of these woman as God sees them--eternally young and beautiful beyond what words can tell.
This is also the way that I see my friend Doris, and also dear Gene Hoffman of blessed memory. Let me close this blog with her story.
Gene passed away last summer and was my dearest friend and teacher. I had the privilege of editing her book of writings called "Compassionate Listening." I also had the honor of being the presiding clerk at her memorial meeting (see
My wife and I visited Gene many times over the past twenty years and thoroughly enjoyed her humor, her passion her peace, and her spiritual wisdom. I looked upon Gene as my spiritual mother.
Soon after Gene's book was published, she began to have serious lapses of memory. She called me several times each day to tell me how wonderful the book was. Soon it became apparent she had Altzheimer's. After a difficult struggles--like many gifted people, she didn't want to give up her independence--she was sent to a nursing home and spent the rest of her life there. Since Gene lived in Santa Barbara, we visited only a couple of times each year. Over the years witnessed the deterioration of her once brilliant mental faculties. When we visited, she clutched her book as a lifeline to her past and we often took trips with her down memory lane.
But after a few years, she could no longer remember us or her name, or even speak in coherent sentences. She lost her book and never seemed to miss it. As she mumbled senseless phrases, I leared how to "practice the art of listening beyond words"--a phrase from our Quaker Faith and Practice. I could feel what Gene was trying to say, and I would nod or smile or frown and she would respond with appropriate facial gestures when I "got it." Once I thanked her for teaching me how to listen in this compassionate way, and she smiled at me as if she understood perfectly.
Later, she stopped talking altogether and I would simply look into her radiant blue eyes and tell her how much I loved her--sometimes with words, sometimes just with a smile. She smiled back and we communed wordlessly with a deep, radiant love that cannot be put into words.
I love words and can't resist using them, but I know they are limited and ultimately unnecessary. As we grow closer to God, to Truth, to Love, we find that words aren't needed. We see the beauty in those we love, no matter what their age or condition. As we grow closer to God, to Truth, to the Source of Life, everything and everyone seems more beautiful.
Thank you, Martha, Edith, Gene, Doris, and of course, Kathleen, for showing me the beauty of the soul, the beauty that grows more beautiful as we grow closer to Thee, O God.