Participating in God’s Being by Wally Swist
Concerning people we know who have in old age lost all connection with who they once were yet remain intensely present (perhaps more-so than before) and plainly themselves despite memory loss. For me it means that consciousness is something in itself, distinct from memory and persons (consistent with [Louis] Lavelle’s”* proposition that we “participate” in God’s Being), and suggests that we possess a distinctive God-given essence independently of what has happened to us and what we know.
– Robert Alan Jones
I first read Louis Lavelle, the French Christian mystic philosopher recognized by such mid-20th century philosophers as Gilles Deluze, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Paul Ricoeur, 25 years ago in the late ’90s. In so doing, I was introduced to the translations of Robert Alan Jones, a preeminent scholar and translator of Lavelle. Recently, we exchanged email correspondence regarding dementia and memory loss, and what he wrote on one occasion affected me deeply in conjunction with the philosophy of Lavelle: “that we ‘participate’ in God’s Being,” especially those who suffer from dementia and memory loss.
This struck a bell inside me. As the caretaker for my partner Tevis, who is suffering from memory loss—what Dr. Amanda Mullen, a talented and wise memory-loss therapist, calls “brain change”—I can observe throughout each day how Tevis is more and more “participating in God’s Being.” Moreover, in my observations of this phenomenon, I also do so.
Tevis needs stability all day, every day. I adhere to a set schedule for meals, make sure we have worthwhile films she and I can view in the evenings, facilitate medical appointments and COVID boosters, acquire books at bookstores and libraries that will buoy her soul and raise her spirit, and attend to many other aspects of what I discern as the necessities of healthy living. I drive her to various destinations in Vermont, where she gains psychic nourishment and spiritual sustenance from the mountains, rolling hills, and the people themselves. Keeping the “happiness quotient” up is indicative to keeping her stressors down. Keeping her stressors down ensures more of an equilibrium in her physical balance and mental acuity.
Where does “participating in God’s Being” become involved in this? I see her becoming more fragile, and as I see her becoming more fragile, I observe more of an inner strength arise within her, a felicitous stoicism, even an inner radiance, despite needing to ask me countless times either what I just said or what day it is.
In “participating in God’s Being,” it is crucial that I stretch, increase my flexibility daily, if not hourly, so I can accommodate those times when memory loss occludes Tevis’s better humor and she enters into states that she doesn’t even remember but asks me about later: “What happened to me today? I know something happened, but I don’t remember what it was?” This takes not only great patience but also a degree of humility I wasn’t aware I had the ability to summon or to learn.
I think of Brother Lawrence, whose spiritual classic The Practice of the Presence of God I read one Eastertide a half century ago, and imagine him looking out at the leaves of the trees reappearing after a long winter through his monastery’s kitchen window. To borrow a phrase from the American poet James Wright’s poem “A Blessing,” Brother Lawrence “broke into blossom” and experienced an awakening about God. However, Brother Lawrence did not have a partner with memory loss coming through the kitchen at his most vulnerable moments while finishing dinner and asking questions, or moving boxes or a garden hose.
Stretching to find patience when we are busy or tired or multitasking isn’t necessarily a direct path to sainthood, but it does make one more resilient in attempting to provide more comfort and kindness to a partner who is suffering from memory loss, with acknowledged inflection of the word “suffering.” Sometimes Tevis will say, “No one knows what it is like to have memory loss.” She is right. I don’t know firsthand. I do observe, though, and intuit what it must be like to not be able to find a word but also not be able to remember what was just said, or to recall what the house looks like from the outside, or what color it is, or where to drive to get to the grocery store.
How does any of this qualify for “participating in God’s Being?” Being present is one way. Tevis is often present in the moment, and in this way actually more present in the eternal moment than most people. She is alerted to nuances and clouds and sun, wind and blowing leaves, the flights of birds and the stillness of fox and deer—not unlike a practiced naturalist or an inveterate nature poet. She also appears to be able to plumb the depths of what I might term “the happiness of the day.” She delights in finding a blue and white bowl in The Shop Around the Corner at the Red Lion Inn, in selecting The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life by David Brooks on the sale shelf at Stockbridge Library, in discovering an orange-headed Buddha carved out of resin in the Asian import store in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
More and more the everyday events of our lives take on more sanctity. Each moment counts, not because one of us may not remember it, but because in the evanescence of each moment we might actually experience more of a divinity in the living of life itself. This is not a sentimental notion. It is an experience which is expansive and is nearly always found in discovering what is large within what is small. “Participating in God’s Being” is an act of humility that translates itself into incremental acts of grace.
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How humility contributes to all of this is intrinsic to the whole practice of “participating in God’s Being.” I all too often feel that I can never do enough—mostly in response to Tevis’s needing so much, even when she doesn’t want my guidance or suggestions or assistance, or when she might be contrary and her memory loss is evident, like one of J. M. W. Turner’s dark cloudbanks moving overhead as a barge in a storm.
When we “participate in God’s Being,” it involves an active meditation. In an active meditation, as Tevis and I do every morning for 20 to 25 minutes after reading a passage from Eknath Easwaran’s Words to Live By, we focus on our breaths. She uses the mantra mentioned in Sondra Choquette’s Ask Your Guides, “I am” on the in-breath and “at peace” on the out-breath, and I use the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, / have mercy on Tevis.” I sit across from Tevis and pray for her. I consider these acts of humility: Memory loss is larger than I am. It is larger than Tevis. I’ve never had anything as large as memory loss to deal with. In active meditation we learn to let things go. In letting things go, I can become a better caregiver for Tevis, and we both can then be active participants “in God’s Being.”
The one question remaining to ask in this essay might be a rhetorical one: What about divinity? How does divinity enter into our “participating in God’s Being”? Is it so simple? Or is it arcane?
Being present in the moment is a practice not unlike Brother Lawrence’s in The Practice of the Presence of God. He practiced being present every moment he labored in the monastery kitchen. Like any practice, practicing presence is work. Like any practice, the work is hard. However, Tevis is often very much living in the present moment since she doesn’t remember the past. There is a kind of divinity in this. In my attempting to be present for her, what I observe is her being present, a certain light illumining itself beneath her skin, a distinct childlike grace. If that isn’t a kind of experience of divinity, then I’m not sure what is. I also experience a humility in my assessment of what divinity might be. Am I just standing on the threshold of divinity, or am I being bathed in it but just am not of a significant level of soul to experience it fully?
What I have learned is that with as many stars as there are in the sky, there are as many possible spiritual breakthroughs. What I have learned is that I don’t believe there are any spiritual breakthroughs at all without humility. Our hearts open in humility, and I have always observed that Tevis has more heart than anyone I have ever known.
Although I can’t know for sure, I intuit that by being present in the moment, Tevis is also channeling divinity, and that by opening to humility she is actively “participating in God’s Being.” In such participation we partake of an active meditation which is living deeply in this world; we learn to let things go, to see them pass. In our practice, in our best moments and on our better days, Tevis will repeat on her in-breath, “I am,” and on her out-breath, “at peace”—or, as I do, “Lord, Jesus Christ, / have mercy on me.” Practicing presence places us at the very center of our lives and at the very opening of our hearts. This points to what Robert Alan Jones means when he writes that the autonomy of consciousness “suggests that we possess a distinctive God-given essence independently of what has happened to us and what we know,” especially in relation to his understanding of the work of Louis Lavelle. In “participating in God’s Being,” both in practice and as an active meditation, and to at least attempt to participate with humility, we find ourselves on the threshold of all of this being so.
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What humility I have learned in caretaking Tevis is to never take anything for granted. A lovely day can come crashing down in an instant, especially if I don’t perceive that her dementia is flaring. It is crucial for me to attempt to keep in perspective that this is not Tevis but her dementia.
We just took our mile, our three laps around the college track—we walk and don’t jog. I needed to go back in afterwards to prepare dinner. Tevis, though, wanted to continue to walk. Although I tried to coax her back in, we had a disagreement. She begins bullying me. She says I can’t control her. She often loses her balance now, and she often can’t remember the last thing she has done. She wants her own freedom, she says. She will walk where she wants to walk.
It is always best to keep to routine. I go back to the house, which is right across the street. I begin making dinner: slicing a red pepper for the roasted potatoes, washing the green beans, chopping salad greens and scoring cucumbers, tossing them along with green olives and Kalamatas and the last of this year’s garden tomatoes. I am somber. This is a taste of humility: in caring for a dementia sufferer, one can go from paradise to hell in an instant.
Tevis returns home. I start the green beans in olive oil and sea salt with crushed black pepper. We are quiet with each other, and I intuit and feel Tevis’s darkness simmering. This taste of humility is an unusual combination of bitter and sweet. The distinct bitter taste is due to my anxiety. However, there is also a certain sweetness to savor in that I have been resilient enough to deal with a challenging situation and that she is back home safely.
I understand that there is divinity in this too. The opening of the heart is never an easy thing, no matter who you are or how much spiritual practice you have engaged in. I pray we will have a peaceful dinner, watch the PBS Newshour, Masterpiece Theater, and go to sleep at our usual early hour. I already look forward to awakening at 5:00 a.m. to lay the table for breakfast and begin another day. Although what I look forward to the most is laying in bed for a while longer before I actually rise so that I can say several Hail Mary’s in the quiet darkness and imagine that my soul hovers somewhere there above me.
I ready myself for whatever it is I will need to do to “participate in God’s Being,” to make peace with myself and the shortcomings I may observe within as a caretaker for Tevis, and in doing so making peace with her by my praying for her. I pray that I might be worthy of whatever may transpire throughout the day, that we might both be graced to be resilient enough to accommodate whatever it is we might not expect, and whatever Tevis might do that she won’t even remember. ♦
Wally Swist’s recent books include Taking Residence (Shanti Arts, 2021), Evanescence: Selected Poems (Shanti Arts, 2020), and On Beauty: Essays, Reviews, Fiction, and Plays (Adelaide Books, 2018). His book A Bird Who Seems to Know Me: Poems Regarding Birds & Nature was the winner of the 2018 Ex Ophidia Press Poetry Prize and published in 2019. A Writer’s Statements on Beauty: New and Selected Essays and Reviews was published by Shanti Arts in April 2022.
*A translation of selected chapters of De l’Acte (Of the Act), Du temps et de l’éternité (Of Time and Eternity), and De l’âme humaine (Of the Human Soul), together with a lengthy introduction to Louis Lavelle’s work, can be found in The Act of Presence by Robert Jones. These are presented in full on the website of the Association Louis Lavelle under the section Traductions.
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