Last Sunday, I got to do one of my favorite things which only happens a few times a year: I gave communion to a member of our parish community who has Downs Syndrome. Though a faithful attender, with such a large parish, the stars and communion lines don’t often align that I get this honor; it’s always the best moment of the morning for me because, unlike every other member of the congregation, this friend grips my fingers for a solid four or five seconds when I place the wafer in their hands, and looks at me straight in the eyes.
Our tangle of fingers and met gazes are the essence of communion. Jesus meets me in this parishioner’s body. This precious person, living with Downs, is a conduit of God’s grace to me; what a gift to be given–I cherish it, knowing that there are many more people with just as precious gifts to be offered, living with various levels of validity in our society (or not even given the opportunity to live in this broken society that would be so blessed by their presence).
“Now the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all.” (1 Cor. 12:7)
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This counter-cultural value placed on every life reminds me of the story this week of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old with terminal brain cancer who is planning her death for November 1st, using Oregon’s option for assisted suicide as a way for her to “die with dignity.” I read about it first on one of my favorite blogs, Cup of Jo, and I was devastated by Joanna’s closing comment, “I’m so moved.”
In response, another piece has been circling the internets, by another young woman, named Kara, also living with terminal brain cancer. She writes an open letter to Brittany, asking her to consider another path–to not choose death now. This path is one that I believe is brimming with dignity (it’s the one Kara has chosen for herself), though it is also full of dependence, weakness, and pain.
Close friends of mine just welcomed their first child–another time of life full of dependence, weakness, and pain. I imagine they’re spending their lives with dirty diapers, spilled milk, big black circles under their eyes, and a mewling infant–where’s the dignity in that?
When we’re faced with circumstances in our lives that threaten our control, we can shut down and batten down the hatches and strong-arm control out of the rock-and-hard-place, or we can open ourselves up to the circumstances that throw us out of control; we can open our arms, we can kneel–or even fall on the earth if we need to, we can continue to breathe deeply and let the circumstances change us. We can let ourselves be made into something new–something with a different kind of dignity (which doesn’t depend on an illusion of control and independence), the kind of dignity that may be full of spilled milk (or spilled-other-bodily-fluids), and stinky diapers (whether at the beginning or end of life), and sleepless nights (tending the fragile light of life in another person’s body).
Dignity doesn’t have to do with being independent, or avoiding any way in which you might burden someone else. Dignity has to do with openness, peace, and love without regard for circumstances. Indeed, dependency is a beautiful form of dignity–knowing that your essence is not mangled by being out of control of your body, or by pain which you suffer, but that the essence of each human being is the Image of God, which cancer, and age, and infirmity can never hope to touch.