An excerpt from a sermon preached at St. James Episcopal Church - Florence, Italy
October 29, 2017
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 • Matthew 22:34-46
One of the primary spiritual lessons I’m learning from a life interrupted by dementia is about love. At my ordination, Bishop Paul Moore said that all we needed to do was love them, especially the ones we don’t like. It was the best advice I was ever given.
Love is the primary test of what scripture defines as “being holy” – that is, living in right relationship with God, self, and others. If you want to be holy – as God is holy, as Jesus calls us to be holy – then you not only have to love God, you have to love others; and, in order to love others, you have to love yourself.
A lot of what I’ve been learning this past year is about self-love, loving the person I saw in that restroom mirror, the person whose face I didn’t recognize. I’m coming to realize that while I work hard to love others, especially those whom I don’t like, I’ve not been very good at loving those aspects of me that I don’t like. Sure, I have loved my strengths and talents. But guess what? With dementia, those strengths and talents are rapidly diminishing.
Jesus talks a lot about dying to oneself and being reborn, or losing life and finding it anew. Wisdom teacher Richard Rohr calls this process “falling upward” into the second half of life and discovering its fullness.
The first half of life is about building a container called identity and filling it with family, friends, education, career, hobbies and stuff. We also fill the first half of life container with our successes and failures, accomplishments and defeats.
The second half of life happens when the contents of our identity containers are spilled out and refined, and the container – worn, dirty, chipped and perhaps even broken and re-glued – is refilled. Now with all of its contraction and paradox, pain and joy, we hold our containers in what Rohr calls luminous gravitas, a bright sadness. It's when we become who we really are meant to be and start learning to love our real self.
One year after my diagnosis, I realize that I’m falling upward – into the fullness of life –
with dementia. When I deny the reality of the disease, grieve the lost aspects of my old identity, and resist the emerging aspects of the new me, I get tied up in knots. But when I accept what has died and celebrate what is being reborn, when I try to love the person that is emerging, I start discovering surprising gifts and strengths, a different kind of balance and a new way of living in the world.
One of the gifts that I’m discovering is an expanded sense of curiosity, empathy and patience. As I am learning to love myself with dementia, I am learning how to love others more, especially for those who have physical, mental or emotional challenges. And you can only love another when you’ve learned how to love the parts of yourself that you don’t like.