What is life? What is love?

October 23, 2016

Icon of Tenderness

Icon of Tenderness

One of the experiences that has changed my perspective on life has been my frequent visits to the nursing home where my mother has lived for the last 10 years. During these years, I have become friendly not only with the staff that cares for my mom, but have come to know many of the residents as well. I have seen and shared their better days as well as their weaker days. At this particular nursing home, there are residents who are younger with various disabilities as well as the elderly with innumerable cognitive and physical impairments. Since I see many of these residents at least once a week, I try to engage them in conversation.

One woman, who has been my mother’s roommate for a few years, is completely bedridden and has little control over many parts of her body, and yet has a brilliant mind and a well-developed sense of humor. I have enjoyed numerous lengthy conversations with her on a myriad of topics, including the two “forbidden” ones: politics and religion. Another resident wanders aimlessly through the hallways of the home, mumbling to herself and yet stops to give me a hug every time she sees me visiting with my mother. Another much younger resident is unable to move most of the muscles in her body, but revels in her ability to tell a joke and laugh out loudly.

All of these individuals define the meaning of life in a different way. For some, life means being able to recognize a caregiver who provides you sustenance. For some, life means still being relevant and noticed by someone who listens to you and values your opinion while overlooking your physical challenges. For others, life is simply measured by a hug, and the soft touch of a hand. For my mother, who at times does not recognize even her own son, life is measured by a calming voice and a smile from someone who calls out her name. While doctors are quite capable of measuring signs of life and even predicting the time someone has left to live, they are woefully incapable of measuring the quality of life and therefore the definition of what life is. That question has no definitive answer or measure.

When the brain stops working normally, but the heart desires and thrives – is that life?

When the heart is exceptionally weak, but the brain is strong and vibrant – is that life?

When the body is broken, but the desire to connect endures – is that life?

When a mother no longer recognizes her own son, but adores his stories and tenderness – is that life?

If life is defined differently by so many people in so many ways, can the same be applied to the definition of love?

One of the great joys of my priesthood was celebrating weddings. I performed marriages for people who were in their twenties, as well as for those who were well into their twilight years. Some were on their first marriages, and more than a few were on their second, or in one case, their third. There were couples who shared the same Orthodox faith and others of mixed faiths, different educational levels, and professions. What each couple wanted and committed to, with God, and the church community as witnesses, was to share their life with someone they loved and cared for, and who loved them and would care for them. Each would be a helpmate for the other, sharing their most intimate hopes, dreams, desires, while committing to stand by each other during the times of joy as well as the times of difficulties.  While each partner came to their marriage with different gifts, each came to the marriage while believing that they loved and would continue to love their chosen partner. However, each defined love in different ways and placed different aspects of their relationship in importance.

If the very definition of what life is can be varied and defined and interpreted in so many ways, can’t we apply the same standards to marriage, and include those of the same-sex? If God continues to sustain life, even when others doubt His judgment and definition of life, are we to judge when two adults of the same sex believe they are called to share their lives and marry each other?  I have been blessed to be with my husband for over a decade. We share the exact same joys, trials, delights and tribulations that married heterosexual couples share. I get angry when my husband does not put his dirty socks in the hamper, and he celebrates the slightest improvement in my computer skills. And we both work to pay off the mortgage and pray that a hurricane does not hit our home in Florida. The hymns[1] of martyrdom (self-sacrifice) and rejoicing that have been sung for centuries during the Dance of Isaiah as part of the Orthodox crowing ceremony were also chanted at our wedding. And we, like millions of other married heterosexual and homosexual couples, take the promises that we made and the obligations of marriage very seriously.

To be sure, I have questioned my mother’s quality of life and why God deems it necessary that she continues to struggle. But when I look into her eyes and see love, my questions are less relevant. When I question why God made me gay, I look into the eyes of my husband, and my questions are irrelevant.

[1] Rejoice, O Isaiah! A Virgin is with child, and shall bear a Son, Emmanuel, both God and man: and Orient is His name; Whom magnifying we call the Virgin blessed. O Holy Martyrs, who fought the good fight and have received your crowns: Entreat the Lord that he will have mercy on our souls.  Glory to Thee, O Christ-God, the Apostles’ boast, the Martyrs’ joy, whose preaching was the consubstantial Trinity.

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