Sunday, October 14, 2007

Suggested Foreword to Kent Gilges' "The Gift of LIfe"

This book is not so much about Elizabeth Nyanga Gilges who in 1994 at the age of eight months was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor that permitted her neither to hear, speak or talk. She died on March 11, 2004 at the age of 10 after having introduced her father and mother into a learning process of self giving whose content was the process itself. Hence, the book.

To read it is to experience the truth of St. Exupery’s renowned secret dictum: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” [1]

What is striking here is to find oneself caught up in emotion such that makes reading in public become all but impossible. I have used several passages in preaching retreats to various assemblages of both men and women, and I invariably find myself unable to continue because of the emotional charge that builds within me. Before Kent wrote the book, I became privy to a short blurb he had written for “The Family Gazette” that caught my eye. He said there: “At times, I have sensed in other people the belief that it would be better for Liz and me if Elie were to die soon. They feel she is a hardship, that it would make our lives easier, or more steady if she were gone, that it would strengthen our marriage by giving us more time together, less stress.

“I think these people are fools. I was right when I was a boy. Suffering is a gift…. Elie is the greatest gift we have ever been given. She makes our lives far richer, more contemplative, and full of joy than they ever would have been without her. She is a beloved – even essential --- addition to our home and will be as long as she is with us. Elie has given us an awareness of suffering’s noble beauty.”

Later, I became privy to the eulogy he had prepared in anticipation of Elie’s death. The interior emotion of the father invaded me as he recounted: “I have spoken this eulogy in cars, in the woods, in a boat. I have spoken it mainly when I was alone, out loud with tears streaming down my face. But I have also prepared it in my head at a party or as I sat with a crowd of friends at dinner, my thoughts drifting far beyond the conversation until I have had to stop my train of thought because I knew that within moments I would choke up and start crying and nobody would have any idea why.” He goes on to mention – for me – the profound point that this child was held for her entire life time. She was affirmed tactilly by a certain number of persons, and he names them one by one, commenting: “It amazes me that so many people have touched her, held her, rocked her. So much family. Dozens of the most caring nurses we could hope for. Many priests have held her and all have prayed for her continuously since her illness. She has been comforted and loved by more people in her few short years than many of us in a lifetime. And being held, being touched, has been her way of touching others in turn. We touched her physically. She touches us spiritually.” He then recounts their names, individually, one by one.

And then, the final commendation:

“I cannot point to many things that I have done which were wholly good, but caring for Elie is one. She was a burden, yes, but she was also a gift. And it is my great hope that if I ever make it to heaven and stand before God, I will be greeted there by a little girl with blond hair and a sweet smile who welcomes me and introduces me to God. And God will laugh and say, ‘Don’t worry. It wasn’t ever really as close a call as you thought. Anyone who cared for Elie got a free pass.’

“Goodbye my beautiful gift. God’s speed.”

At the actual moment of her death, Kent Gilges says: “Is Elie resting in peace? I guess I hope not. I hope that for the first time, a little girl who was never able to walk finally has the use of her legs and is running through fields filled with the yellow and blue flowers that adorned her pale brow as she lay in her coffin.”

It is difficult not to dig deeply in what is going on in the book and in the reader with the heart of a child. We are dealing with a knowing that is in the heart and the emotions. In an apparent contradiction to scientific objectivity that held up to crossing the threshold into quantum physics but that now is in shambles, the supreme objectivity – or realism – is achieved only by the deployment of the entire self in encounter with another self - even if that self is a severely handicapped little girl. Kent Gilges is a child peering into the persona of his beautiful daughter, and, resonating with her, tells us who she is by telling us who he is. It would be fitting to dedicate this book to the reader who may be a “Leon Werth when he was a little boy” just as Saint-Exupery dedicating “The Little Prince.”

One of the most stunning parts of the book is the chapter “A Day in the Life Of” that does the above in the bathtub: “I slept in late this morning. I’m only three and a half so I don’t know how to tell time, but the sun was already coming through the window and shining on my face when I finally woke up. The sun is one of my favorite things; I can’t see it, but I can feel warmth on my face…

“Tonight, Cheryl didn’t make me do exercises. Instead, mommy took me in the bath with her. I love the bath. Mommy and I get in together, and it is always very hot…. Mommy let me stretch out and float. My hands bob at the surface and mommy only has to hold up my head. She says I’m so fat that I float.

“You might wonder what I think about when I’m floating in the bathtub with my eyes closed. That’s the best part of the story. I think about God. I try to imagine what it will be like when God holds me. You see, since my eyes don’t work like everyone else’s, I see different things than most kids. Mommy and daddy think that when I tilt my head back and look at the ceiling, it has something to do with my brain not working. It doesn’t though. Up high above us, I see angels dancing. Sometimes they come down close and talk to me and sometimes they are very far away, but they always seem to be dancing. And when they talk to me, they tell me that God is waiting for a little while yet to see me, and that I have a very good reason for being here. They say that when I visit God, I will sit on His lap and talk to Him for a long time, and when I fall asleep, He’s going to give me to the angels to hold while I wait for mommy and daddy.

“I like to think about that in the bathtub because I think being held by God is a lot like being held by daddy, except better.”

* * * * * * * * * * *

But, who is this daddy who is inside this little girl’s head and heart? A father who has suffered and is terribly vulnerable to love and be loved. Louis Evely wrote:

“Do you know what it is to be a Father?
“To be a Father is precisely to suffer; to become a father is to become vulnerable. As long as one is young, one is hard, selfish, protected. No doubt, one has terrible blues, emotions, melancholies, but one holds one’s own pretty well, one withdraws easily, one suffers only for oneself. Our compassion for others is gratuitous, generous, superfluous.
“But when one becomes a father, or a mother, one suddenly sees oneself as vulnerable, in the most sensitive part of one’s being; one is completely powerless to defend oneself, one is no longer free, one is tied up. To become a father is to experience an infinite dependency on an infinitely small, frail, being, dependent on us and therefore omnipotent over our heart. Oh, we really depend on people who depend on us! The strong person who loves a weak person has put his happiness at his mercy. He depends on him henceforth. He is without any defense against him. To love a person is inevitably to depend on him, to give him power over us. God loved us freely; God have us power over him. God wanted to have need of us. The passion is the revelation of our terrible power over God. He surrendered himself to us, we had him at our disposal, we did with him what we wanted. On a plaque in Normandy one can read this cruel sentence: ‘It is always the one who loves the least who is the strongest.’ It is always he who is least in love who gets his way with the other, who keeps a cool head and stays in control of the situation. God, in regard to us, will always be the weakest, for he loves. God can be denied, forgotten; he cannot deny us, forget us. We can be without God. God cannot be without men.
[2] We can stop being sons; he cannot stop being a Father. ‘Man in revolt against God is like the bird in the storm which dashes itself against the cliff. But God, in his mercy, became flesh so that the violence of the impact might be endured by him and not by us.’ Thus, God will always be the weakest against us for he loves us. We are of Jacob’s race, we are the true Israel, he who fought against the angel all night and who deserved his name: ‘mighty against God.’”[3]

Prior to his election as pope, and while taking part in the Second Vatican Council, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla wrote his last dramatic work, “Reflections on fatherhood,” that sums up this work:

“And in the end You could put aside our world. You may let it crumble around us and, above all else, in us. And then it will transpire that YOU remain whole only in the SON, and He in You – whole with Him in YOUR LOVE, Father and Bridegroom

“And everything else will then turn out to be unimportant and inessential, except for this: father, child, and love.

“And then, looking at the simplest things, all of us will say: could we not have learned this long ago? Has this not always been embedded at the bottom of everything that is?”
[1964] [4]

[1] Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “The Little Prince” Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (1943) XXI, 70-71.
[2] This refers to God’s Erotic Love that is one with His Agape. See Benedict XVI’s “Deus Caritas Est,” #9-11. God’s Love not only gives Self but desires (spousally) to receive free love from created human persons.
[3] Louis Evely, “Suffering” op. cit.
[4] Karol Wojtyla, “Reflections on Fatherhood,” The Collected Plays and Writings on Theater University of California Press (1987) 368.


Tim Cronin said...

Fr Connor,
Hi. I would like to make a trip to New Jersey or New York and meet you or attend a conference of yours. How can I go about doing this? Your writings have been very formative for me.
God bless,

Martin said...

Fr. Bob,

Do you have this book of Gilges on "digital"?

Fr. Marty Miller