Three years ago we moved my parents into our house. They live in a small attached apartment so each of us our own space and privacy but immediate access if something happens. We eat supper together and every evening I go over and lift my Mom from her big easy chair into her wheelchair to take her to the supper table. As I push her from the living room she always looks around as if she is seeing the kitchen and dining room in their apartment for the first time in her life and always says, “Where am I?” We always say, “This is your house. This is where we all live together now.” She closes her eyes and nods.
I park her wheelchair at the same spot at the table that she has had for three years. She looks around at the room and asks “Where am I”. I say, “This is our house together now. This is our supper table.” She nods. During supper, she will stare at her great grand daughter who has lived with us for about 3 years. She’ll point to her and say, “Whose is that?” We say, “That’s Kenzy’s daughter, your great grandbaby. She’s named after you.” Mom looks puzzled and nods. A few minutes later she’ll stare at her again, look at us and shrug.
When we put her to bed, every doorway we go through opens to a new place for her. “Where am I?” she asks as we go down the hall. In the bathroom she asks, “Where am I?” And again in her bedroom, and again in her bed, and a half dozen times in the fifteen minutes it takes to change her. I turn out the nightlight and say “Goodnight, Mom. I love you, see you in the morning” and lean over to kiss her on the forehead. She closes her eyes and whispers, “Where am I?” I say, “you’re in your own bed in our house.” She nods and goes to sleep.
Mom got breast cancer a few years ago. The chemo was supposed to kill the cancer but it also killed part of her brain. Chemo-brain, they called it, the loss of short term memory. It’s a side effect of chemo and her memory may or may not come back the doctor said. It didn’t, and has gotten progressively worse. She remembers things from the distant past but cannot connect them to the present. We are blessed that she still remembers the basic family. We hope that, in God’s mercy, she passes away before she loses that too and is condemned to live in a small, fearful, dark unknown world in her head where nothing and no one is familiar or a comfort to her. I think I am beginning to understand why some Alzheimer’s victims become fearful, violent and angry when they lose their ability to remember where they are and to recognize their loved ones and family.
It seems to me that we suffer from something like spiritual dementia. Our spiritual gene pool from Adam predisposes us to both physical and soul sickness and death. We have spiritual cancer. Even apart from the teachings of Christianity, we all know we are spiritually sick. It does not take an ordination in a particular religion or a degree in philosophy to see the symptoms of our soul’s cancer within ourselves and in others. A few minutes on Facebook or a good long look in the mirror is all it takes to see the depths of ego, hatred, vanity, anger, lust, sloth, pride, envy, all the ways we fail in relationships that result in despair, despondency, guilt and shame. The thing that religions and philosophies differ on is, not the disease itself, but only on how we contracted the disease and how to cure it. We are all in pain and the things we choose to treat it with and the prescriptions we swallow sometimes create more problems. What is intended to be a cure can actually damage us. Our self prescribed or quack cures cause “sin-brain”, spiritual dementia, and we lose our sense of where we are and who it is that truly loves us.
So, I’ve been ruminating for a while about a couple of passages in the New Testament that speak of remembering. St. John says to the church at Ephesus, “You have left your first love. Remember, therefore from where you have fallen and do the deeds you did at first…” St. Paul recounts the Lord’s Supper in I Corinthians 11 in which Jesus says, “This is my body, do this in remembrance of Me”. These verses seem to say we have spiritual dementia. We have things we forget and things we need to be constantly reminded of.
We’ve left and forgotten our first love who is Christ, in whose image we are created. We have taken on our disease as another lover, we have embraced our cancer and nurtured it. We have fallen from Eden, from communion with God, from union with creation and all of heaven and earth. Ever since the Gates of Paradise were closed behind us we have looked at the world as a hauntingly strange and vaguely familiar place. Everyone we meet is like an encounter in a dark alley full of strangers in a strange land. Our souls ask, “Where am I?” and “Who are you?” And, I believe that it is in the Church that God answers us through the life of the Church.
I think the thing that taking care of my parents has helped be understand is that the sacraments and life of the Church are the true cure for the cancer of our fallen human person. The sacraments are, as Acts 2 says, “For the remission of sins”. The word remission is a medical term, and it is for, or “unto”, a movement toward, the remission of the effects of the cancer of sin. In baptism our cancer is cured but the consequences and effects of the cancer remain to be dealt with. Our baptism and chrismation restores the original image and sets aright our original union with all creation and our communion with God, but, like cancer going into remission, it does not reverse the ravages of the cancer on our human person. Baptism is the proclamation by God to us who have asked the Church, “where am I?”, “This is your home. This is where you live. This is where you are loved. This is truly who you are.” But the consequences of our cancer are still with us even after baptism. God has declared to us these things unequivocally, but we forget those things because our spiritual dementia is deeply embedded in our souls. The Church has never taught that baptism is an instant cure that wipes out all consequences of our disease. It is a new birth into a new life, but like all new births we must grow, mature, take our medicine, do our therapy, and live within the boundaries of the culture of our new family to grow into a complete human person.
So, the reality is, even after baptism, we all continue to struggle with our former spiritual dementia because the cancer may be cured but the symptoms remain. The fact that we continue to sin is our way of asking God, “Where am I?” And God has answered, “Do this in remembrance of Me.” Remember Me? I’m your first love. Remember Me? I’m from where you have fallen. Remember me and you will remember all things and no place and no one will be unfamiliar or frightening. The Eucharist is the medicine of immortality, it is the cure for spiritual dementia. It is God patiently and lovingly saying to us, “This is your home. This is where you live. This is where you are loved. This is who you are. I am taking care of you.” Over and over and over again.