I just heard that Walter Wink died. A year ago, actually, which shows I'm a little out of the theological loop. He had a lot of good things to say, though I've disagreed with him on some important points (and wished those aspects hadn't been so influential among the younger generation). But what really caught my attention about his death was his struggle with dementia.
A couple years before he died, Wink was asked in an interview, "What has this season of dementia taught you?" He replied:
I always thought that I might be able to learn from the illness, but my sense in passing is that this has not been a big learning experience. I just don’t think we ought to give so much credit to the sheer role of chance. We ought not to give death so much credit for our spiritual growth.
That's a sad answer. I remember years ago thinking about Peter Maurin's slow descent into dementia. Like Wink, he was a theologian, a thinker. Dorothy Day wrote of Maurin, her close friend and co-worker:
He has nothing left, he is in utter and absolute poverty. The one thing he really enjoyed, exulted in, was his ability to think. When he said sadly "I cannot think," it was because that had been taken from him, literally. His mind would no longer work. He sits on the porch, a huge old hulk. His shoulders were always broad and bowed. He looks gnomelike, as thought he came from under the earth. He shambles about, one-sidedly as though he had had a stroke. His head hangs wearily as though he could not hold it up. His mouth, often twisted as though with pain, hangs open in an effort to understand what is going on around him. Most of the time he is in a lethargy, he does not try to listen, or to understand. ...The only thing he had left in his utter poverty which made Skid Row his home and the horse market his eating places and the old clothes room his haberdasher was his brilliant mind. Father McSorley considered him a genius. Fr. Parsons said that he was the best read man he ever met. Now he remembers nothing. "I cannot remember, I cannot think."That really scared me. Because I found my own identity primarily in my ability to think, and in ideas. To be stripped of that seemed to me to be sentenced to a living death.
But I also remember eventually finding some peace in the less intellectual aspects of my spiritual life, in the contemplative life. Because in contemplative spirituality, thinking is often pushed to the side, a hindrance rather than a help. What is sought is not ideas, but personal contact. Basking in God's presence rather than thinking about him. Finding our true being in God's being, in love, and abandoning everything that is not love.
From that perspective, losing my ability to think, losing all the ideas I had gathered, didn't seem so threatening. Even if I did lose my mind, my self would not be lost. Because love isn't the result of reasoning, love isn't a function of the brain, it is spiritual. I could still love. And I thought it may even be good for me (and perhaps others) to be stripped of those things in which we find false identities and be "reduced" to that which is truly our self. Our self as God sees us. A fearful and wonderful discovery.