Two Memories in Imitation of Christ

As I navigate the intermittent brutalities of mortal existence, I occasionally have cause to remember two experiences that tend to orient my outlook toward Christ. Neither is happy in the sense that saccharine is sweet (cloying then nauseous in rapid succession), but both are holy to me.

The first requires that I recall my missionary service of a couple decades back. A local churchmember asked my companion and me whether we would be willing to donate blood for her non-member father in anticipation of a significant surgery. She explained to us that she couldn’t imagine cleaner blood than that of missionaries, and I reflected with great pride that I was indeed not at risk for the blood-borne pathogens that impart minor peril to the recipient.[1] Though at some remove I felt like a jugular vein on display in some sort of vampire wine cellar (“yes, I’d like that Aryan-looking flask, the one in the white shirt and tie”), at the time I felt only pride that my conscientious avoidance of high-risk exposures meant that I could be relied on to give succor to the sick with my very life blood. In proud recognition of that fact, I regularly donated my blood during college, each time proud to check the boxes that indicated my blood was reliable. Perhaps a decade later I was a young physician when a vaguely similar opportunity arose (I am a “universal donor” on the basis of the relative paucity of cell-surface antigens on my red blood cells), I began to swell with pride until I realized with a catch of the diaphragm that my medical service had made me high risk as a blood donor.

I am often exposed to blood during the course of my work. Though I have no particular love of that occupational hazard, still I persist because I believe that God wants me to take certain risks to try to heal those in crisis. Though I do not believe for a moment that I personally merit a comparison to Christ, I realized that perhaps Christ’s experience of mortality could represent a wound that is illuminating in its similarity, a wound of purity lost through risks undertaken for the good of others. The loss of my ritual purity through my work to heal those in need has often struck me as emblematic of the ineluctable ironies–salvific paradoxes–of mortality.

The second is much less ritually fraught. Periodically over the years–the last time one year ago–I have been called to “mourn with those who mourn” (Mosiah 18:9). Once every several years it seems the overwhelming sadness experienced by someone I love will evoke in me the convulsing sobs of an ancient grief, one that overrides my normally circumspect affect and seems to shatter the illusion that my mind controls my body. The loss of a child, an unexpected life-threatening illness, severe depression, the loss of a sibling or parent–I have shared with people I love each of these mortal tragedies. Though I would wish that we were spared such experiences, intense sympathetic grief has become sacred to me, has harrowed my soul to allow the planting of the seeds of immortal love. Indeed, if the divine life is what we can anticipate after death, then we would do well to remember that Christ wept at Lazarus’s death (John 11:35) and God the Father wept in the presence of Enoch (Moses 7).

I do not believe that understanding the meaning of evil in our lives–what Christian theologians dress up as theodicy, “God’s righteousness”–is as simple as invoking divine pedagogical goals (as we LDS are sometimes caricaturized)–what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, no pain no gain, we suffer that we might learn, et cetera are slogans sometimes brutal in their simplification. No moral lesson seems able to justify the loss of a young mother to cancer, the loss of one’s independence and personality to traumatic brain injury or mental illness. There is truth, though, lurking somewhere beneath these platitudes about a higher purpose in suffering. When I weep with my afflicted beloveds, there is a moral clarity and purity that carves eternity into me and deepens the bonds I feel with others. I think that may be the life that Christ enjoins upon us, a life in which occasional evils, afflictions, and miseries endemic to mortality are interspersed with (and indeed causally associated with) tenderness and love, commitment and conviction. While I do not wish misery on anyone, least of all those I love, when the inevitable misery comes, I yearn to be counted with Christ at the bedside of the sufferer. And I thank God, not for the misery, but for the troubling intensity of my love that seems to deepen as I seek to obey that ancient American baptismal covenant to mourn with those who mourn.

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[1] The current risk of infection from the blood supply is probably on the order of 1 in 500,000 units (we no longer call them “pints,” the recent popularity of neo-Victorian vampire fables notwithstanding) of blood; it was rather higher in the 1980s.

Comments

  1. Suffering does tend to bring out moral clarity. We regain a sense of proper perspective and see more clearly what being of one heart and one mind really means.

    I also find it interesting to consider imitating Christ, and the hope we have of becoming like Him, in light of His suffering. Not as a moral platitude, I hope, but just thinking that suffering seems to be an essential characteristic of Deity. God weeps over us, Christ suffered for us – all because of the relationships they have with us imperfect beings.

    I don’t understand suffering, and the scale of it is overwhelming when I look around the world, and I wonder that I have been spared so much pain for so little reason as geography.

    I think that a true imitation of Christ involves entering into the suffering of others, feeling their pain, and striving to heal and to bind up their wounds, as He has done for all of us.

    Kind of a disjointed comment, but a very thought provoking post, Sam. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Profound post, Sam.

    I will never forget the PH Mtg lesson a few years ago in which we were discussing “things we’ve learned” – based off of a talk by some apostle. We went around the room sharing things we’d learned, and one good man whose young adult daughter had died unexpectedly said, very quietly:

    “I’ve learned that we draw closest to God during the times of our most wrenching tragedies. I’m grateful for that lesson, but I wish desperately I had not had to learn it the way I did.”

    I’ve often thought that, in our effort to define acceptable behaviour, we too often gut the heart of the Atonement – and miss the opportunity to mourn with those who mourn the most deeply and comfort those who stand in the most need of comfort.

  3. Thanks Sam. You have a gift for putting into words concepts sometimes I can feel and think I understand. but can’t explain.

  4. Antonio Parr says:

    Your post was profound. Thank you.

  5. Beautiful post Sam. You have a gift of bringing touches of humor into a post so profound, but without cynicism or irony. I think this is humor in it’s highest and most divine form, to help relieve suffering, to tenderly lighten the weight of something that is beyond human capacity to understand.

  6. Insightful, Sam.

    Topics such as this, remind me in some ways of John Paul’s apostolic letter, salvifici doloris.

  7. Wonderful sentiments, smb.

    I look forward to your fast-sunday posts. Thank you for taking the time to write them.

  8. Latter-day Guy says:

    This was beautiful — I’ll be thinking about this post for a long time. Thank you.

  9. The more I read about the atonement, the less impact talk about the role of Christ’s blood has on me. I remember when I was a teenager, the whole “bleed from every pore” thing was just about the only thing that could get to me. It still does get to me. But the thought of the Spirit (unjustly) completely departing from a perfect being and being left to feel an infinite heartbreak all alone seems so much more devastating now. Maybe that’s just because I live a cushy life where I don’t get into horrible bike accidents or stupidly jump off roofs anymore, but I feel like physical pain has nothing on the kinds of emotional torment that are possible.

  10. Fantastic. One of my favorite posts ever. Thank you.

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