A Dynamic God
Living an Unconventional
Catholic Faith

Nancy Mairs
(Beacon Press)
Only the disabled will be able to tell the world, fully, in depth, with rich conviction, of the gap between the plan and the deed. Nancy Mairs is one of the most eloquent with her reports of this dichotomy in our lives.

More than thirty-five years ago she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Twenty years ago she was walking with a cane. Now she is in a wheelchair full time, reports that "My life is a lesson in losses:"

    One thing after another has been wrenched from my life --- dancing, driving, walking, working --- and I have learned neither to yearn after them nor to dread further deprivation but to attend to what I have.<

It is, she reports, the difference between "forgetting them" and, utilizing the wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh, "letting go through mindfulness."

    In meditation, not by accident are the hands held loosely, palms up. In this position they cannot grasp, only cradle or release.

Mairs is prepared to die, but "this desire for an end turns out to be sharply different from the compulsion toward suicide that haunted me during the many years I was depressed."

    For one thing, I have become, as I predicted in one of my early essays, too crippled to kill myself.

This is the dramatic saving irony of the high-level quadriplegic, is it not? My body is a mess. Sometimes, I just want to get the hell out of it. Let's do it today, O. K? But without the use of shoulders or arms or hands, how can I get the razor to the wrists or the gun to the head. Should I be going to beg a friend or a nurse or some bum off the street to do the dirty work: "Listen, I have a problem, and I wonder if you would be willing to help me?"

Mairs tells us that now, in contrast to her early years, she wants to live forever. It has much to do, obviously, with her religion ... an astonishing mix of Catholicism, Buddhism, and a belief in the sancity of every human life. It is a faith created more by her and her friends than religious drama or historical dogma. She and a dozen or so others have cooked up an off-the-wall version of the Mother Church that would certainly curl the Pope's short hairs --- what with its attitudes on homosexuality, on female priests, on a relaxed ritual, on a deep affection for the historical Jesus.

Mairs calls herself a "Zen Catholic." She also uses the phrase, "pre-Christian," harking back to the earliest times, 2000 years ago when the emphasis was not on rules and regulations and "you-shall-not" but on an ecstatic fellowship of men and women, rich and poor, any and all welcomed (and loved) equally. In this fellowship, she says, "Jesus became less a rabbinical figure than a messianic or a mystical one."

In "Call to Action," Mairs' reformist Catholic group, the primary doctrines are drawn from the "Q sayings." These are writings out of the earliest days of Christianity, where there is "absolutely no mention" of adultery, baptism, demons, divorce, "just war," heaven, hell, marriage, restrictions on sexual behavior, salvation, Satan, sin, the trial of Jesus, the trinity, or the virgin birth. In structure and beliefs, it is a profoundly simple religion ... closer perhaps to the Quakers of Pennsylvania than to the institutional Roman Catholic Church in Rome.

§     §     §

Mairs has a degenerative disease that made her assume a few years ago "that I would go on living the way my friends and colleagues were living, just with more effort... Then I fell on my head. More than once."

    I gave up teaching. I sold my car. I sat down in a wheelchair for good. Even as I increased my efforts, my body was carrying me further and further away from the life I had intended to live.

"You can do anything you want if you just try hard enough" is the message that she (and the rest of us) get endlessly from the media, from the televangelists, sometimes from our best friends. But for Mairs,

    This turned out to be pure and rather cruel codswallop, suggesting as it does that if you fall short of a goal, you have only yourself to blame. After years of losing one competence after another, I can now do virtually nothing for myself except brush my teeth, and long experience taught me that I will lose that ability as well.

"From the beginning I figured that life with MS was going to be hard. I never knew it would be this hard." Yes, it's hard ... a pisser, a stinker, can even be a shitty mess. And yet we have to keep on. And we have to keep on our toes, to keep from falling on our heads. This morning I went to go from bed to wheelchair, as I do every morning, as I have done for the last twenty years. I forgot to lock both brakes on the wheelchair and slowly (painlessly, inevitably) found myself slipping down between bed and chair onto the chilly floor.

There was no way I could rise myself up, Lazarus-like ... or even drag myself up mid-way by yanking and pulling as I could do a couple of years ago, before all this aging business snuck into my life.

No one was around this morning --- I pride myself on my independence --- and since my bottom is poorly padded (the official word is "atrophy,") I dragged some pillows off the bed and stuffed them best I could under my glutes. To wait it out. Enrique usually doesn't get here until nine a.m. or so.

The temporarily-abled --- the other 90% of the world off there dancing somewhere --- has no idea how irrevocable this kind of slip is for us. Some of us have barely the power to floss our teeth, much less the strength to rise off the cold cold ground. I pulled myself around using the lower bars of the wheelchair, getting my back up against bed to lessen the inevitable ache of arthritis.

Somewhere, I seem to have found some of the elements of "patient wakefulness" that keeps Mairs and me and thousands of our brothers and sisters straggling along this uneasy route they call "living." A couple of hours on the chilly floor, I thought, on my bare bum, would be nothing new ... even perhaps a funny story for dinnertime (or for this review).

Gentle Enrique must have been listening to divine voices, or perhaps I am getting better at calling up the gods. He arrived forty-five minutes early, got me up, patted me down, got me dressed, brought me my morning coffee, made me feel less sad. I am now up here at the computer, writing as if all this were merely a small glitch in my life, although ... you and I know differently. For this slip is a sign, a sign of the times, as they say.

§     §     §

Some time back, I wrote a review of an earlier book by Nancy Mairs. I complained about her "icyness." I suspect in the interim that she may have learned to be kinder (to herself, to others). Or I have learned to be kinder to those whose words I am reading, people whose lives are not so different from my own.

Not so long ago, when Enrique or one of his brothers accidentally squashed my toe with their big clodhopper feet, or pulled my arm in the wrong direction getting me into my shirt, I was fit to be tied, gave vent with a vocabulary which could better be counted as the proper study of an old sailor. But being pissed off full-time takes a great deal of energy; it also leads to a high turnover in those we need to care for us. Since Enrique et al have been working with me for more than a decade, there has, perhaps, been a slow erosion of perpetual rage, changing to a part-time ... what should we call it? Acceptance of others? Acceptance of self? Acceptance of what the divines have handed out, will continue to hand out? Possibly giving a touch of self-forgiveness ... forgiveness for getting into this mess in the first place, (the one that I never planned, anyway).

This acceptance is a state that can creep upon one unawares. "There was a time --- most of my life, in fact," says Mairs, "when such a series of mishaps would have triggered hysterics, fury, perhaps even a major depressive episode. That time seems to have passed without much notice. Now I greet each fiasco coolly, quizzically, exasperation tempered by amusement."

"Ah, so that's what happens next," Mairs asks herself. She finds herself "simply letting each thing go."

    Possess nothing, experience has taught me, that you cannot bear to live without. Such resignation might signal melancholy, I suppose, but I recall reading somewhere that a depressive's difficulty lies in the inability to let go, not an easy relinquishment.

There is something else that one finds in Mairs' newest writings. It is best described as a faith in humanity, a committment, a reassuring need to do something about the world ... something, anything, rather than nothing. "No matter how tiny our offering, the very act of offering changes the world, if not ourselves."

There is a time when --- from age, from general weariness --- you and I may choose to stay indoors, where everything is known, easy; to not plunge into the world out there. Not Mairs. In her electric wheelchair, she is out in the streets, kicking against the pricks (to use the biblical expression). Her more recent volunteer adventures are described vividly in the last chapter, the best, for me, in the book: "Where God Lives."

These commitments take Mairs to weekly visits with Sharon, another MS lodged fort he rest of her days in "Su Casa." Then there are her regular journeys to see Eric King, a death-row inmate at Arizona State Prison. "Nothing in my religious upbringing," she reports, "prepared me for finding God in a man wearing an orange jumpsuit and locked in a wire cage, grinning in pure delight at the sight of me."

Finally, there is her weekly vigil. She arrives, dressed in black, at the corner of Speedway and Euclid. "Women in Black" have held vigils there since August 2001 At first, it was to protest Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Now, "the focus broadened to pleas for peace everywhere." A hundred women, in the cooking sun --- do you know what the summer is like in Tucson? --- making a regular, passionate demand for peace in our world.

One must, I think, regard Mairs not only with respect but with no little awe. Not because she has conquered a life-time of depression --- one doesn't "conquer" depression; nor does one "beat" a degenerative disease; one learns to make do with them.

Nor is it just that she is an articulate, sometimes dry, often witty writer, on subjects that should mean a great deal to you and to me.

Rather, I think we should honor her for her inability --- after all these years --- to stop caring for the world. Getting out there with ones belief does not "require superhuman skills," she writes. If you do it simply, wisely, elegantly, "With any luck, some people will follow your example. Many more will not. Don't worry. You can pray for but you cannot effect conversion in others. Attend to your own."

--- L. W. Milam
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH