Divine dances in humanity

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By Fran Salone-Pelletier, Religion Columnist

She calls herself, at least she is known as, “the divine Bette Midler.” Some would take umbrage at her audacity and seek a more self-deprecating nomenclature. Others would applaud her authenticity and find glee in her sense of true humility. She is divine, it is true. So are we. Divinity dances in our humanity. Sadly, we prefer a more sedate step with a bow and scrape to assert our lowliness. 

We don’t really want to matter so much to our creator. We are uneasy with a divine dance. We want to think it is only of consequence to us that our creator matters. However, our creator has opted to join with us, with all humanity and all creation, in a circle dance of love. It’s a dance where divinity is unveiled in matter, all that matters. Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM puts it this way: “The visible world is an active doorway to the invisible world, and the invisible world is much larger than the visible.” That’s what really makes a difference. 

Creation with all its creatures is the hiding place for the spirit of God. This is not a “new age” idea. It’s an age-old understanding It is a wondering vision that calls us to see beyond sight, to know beyond knowing, feel beyond feeling, think beyond thinking. It asks us always to take a second look, a renewed vision, of all that is and discover beauty we had previously “under-looked” even more than overlooked. We had not looked underneath the surface of things, of people, to unveil their hidden loveliness. 

Do what really matters in life. Take a chance on the proffered surprises. Do it and unveil the spirit within. Unveil it, first to ourselves, family, and friends. Uncover the wonder to the world. Discover a powerful reality. The world will be enlivened by what really matters. 

I read a compelling memoir, “When Breath Becomes Air.” It was written by Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon and writer. Research revealed a diverse and deep educational background resulting in this biographical description: “a B.A. and M.A. in English Literature and a B.A. in Human Biology; M.Phil in History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine. In 2007, Paul graduated cum laude from the Yale School of Medicine, winning the Lewis H. Nahum Prize for outstanding research and membership in the Alpha Omega Alpha medical honor society. Residency training in Neurological Surgery and a postdoctoral fellowship in neuroscience, during which he authored over 20 scientific publications and received the American Academy of Neurological Surgery’s highest award for research, a neurosurgeon who was also a neuroscientist.”

Amazement at the accomplishments was sharpened by a twist of fate. At the top of the heap and ready to enter a world of success and achievement, Kalanithi is unexpectedly diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. Now, the story really begins. He is faced with one, huge question and an even more enormous decision. 

He could, and did, take immediate steps. He made treatment choices and continued his medical career, but ultimately the pressing question begged response. He had to discover what really mattered. He had to decide if he would follow the path of divinity in his too rapidly diminishing human capabilities. He had to find, accept and embrace the inside-out enlivening movement of a divine spirit now alive in a diseased body. It would not be easy or simple.

It never is. The enormity of the invisible world is fearsome as well as bountiful. It carries us on and through hardships, yet it pains us in the process. Kalanithi did not anticipate diminishing returns on a life so full of promise. He did not count on enjoying a family, a beloved wife and daughter, for only a short time. He wanted some assurance, a calculated prognosis measured in months and years. Instead, he received a simple invitation: Do what really matters. 

Kalanithi mused, “Life isn’t about avoiding suffering. The defining characteristic of an organism is striving. Even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I’m still living. The tricky thing about terminal illness (and life, probably) is your values are constantly changing. You try to figure out what matters to you and then you keep figuring it out. How do you decide what to do with your life when you’re not sure how much life you have left?”

The heart and soul of matter infused with divinity is found in a core reality enunciated by Rohr. “All we need is right here and right now — in this world. This is the way to that. Time opens us up to the timeless; space opens us up to spacelessness, if we only take them for the clear doorways that they are.” 

I view them as sacredness on display. Yes, they are clear doorways, but only if we are willing to see them as entries to holiness. If we desecrate time and space, day and night, here and now by our blindness and lack of reverence, we lose what really matters in a maelstrom of denial. We live in one, sacred universe and we are all part of it, unless we opt out of what really matters.

So, Paul Kalanithi did what his heart led him to do: He lived each moment of each day until death took him. He wrote as much of his memoir as possible, entrusting the remainder to his wife. His book revealed the man he was. He gave and received, smiled and cried, felt hurt and offered help. He “saw others as persons to be served not problems to be solved. He took upon himself crosses others bore knowing that sometimes he would be crushed by the weight.”

What really mattered to Kalanithi, when all was said and done, was the forging and strengthening of human relationships. That’s what he wanted to do with each day he was given. He started with himself, loving himself in the ravages of cancer, forging a new identity with each loss and seeing it as gain. He realized that doctors need hope, too. He discovered his conviction in words, words that defined and described his reality. “This is not the end or even the beginning of the end. This is just the end of the beginning. 

He found what really mattered to him, tracing the steps of divinity’s circle dance in his humanity. And he felt better. So, can we — unless we refuse the invitation.


Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives [a trilogy of Scriptural meditations], lead chaplain at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer and grandmother of four. She can be reached at grammistfran@gmail.com.