A rediscovery of love

By Derek Olsen

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

I wasn’t focusing on the words of the Ash Wednesday liturgy as closely as I could have. Rather, I was trying to keep an energetic toddler from bouncing up and down the aisles of the cathedral, shrieking joyfully, at one of the more somber moments of the Christian year. We returned to the narthex after the imposition of ashes to color and have snacks. Then, after her sister and I joined in the Eucharistic prayer from there, we once again braved the central aisle, the sisters walking hand-in-hand. The smaller one was awed by the approach to the high altar where we communed, but the moment passed and we beat a hasty retreat to the parking lot before more gleeful yelps sounded, trailing collects as we went. With that, my Lent was off to a distracted start.

The whole family rose early on the morning of the First Sunday in Lent for we were all trekking out to the western edge of the diocese to hear my wife chant the Great Litany at her parish, one of our favorite Lenten traditions. My right foot hurt; I figured I’d kicked something in a nocturnal ramble. By Sunday evening, my foot was swollen a bit and there was a short dark mark on one edge I thought might be a bruise or a blood blister. Rising in the night for a drink, I found my foot would no longer support my weight. The next morning, my wife noticed that my foot had swollen to an angry red and was marked by a rash that headed up my leg. By the time we were seen at the urgent care clinic, the rash was up both legs. By the time I left the clinic by ambulance, the rash had spread to my chest and back, and my body was in sepsis—toxic shock—giving me a roughly 50-50 chance of survival.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The season of Lent calls us to do something that none of us likes to do willingly—to consider the fact of our mortality. Humans have never liked considering it, and I believe that modern American culture has taken this avoidance to a whole new level, insulating us whenever possible from the realities of life and death. St. Benedict’s monastic culture took the opposite approach and, as one of the ramifications of the monastic life as a perpetual Lent, Benedict exhorted his monastics to keep death daily before their eyes.

Me, I’m not so good at that. I find I prefer to focus on the acknowledgment and amendment of my sins in Lent and let the mortality issue slide. But this year, that was not an option: what I had mistaken for a minor foot trauma had been the bite of a poisonous brown recluse spider that had injected an aggressive bacterial infection into my bloodstream. I had not yet taken up the Lenten call to contemplate my death when I found myself staring into its very face.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Two and a half days in the intensive care unit of the local hospital as they struggled to stabilize my vitals and hold down my soaring fever followed by another five days on a medical floor as I received course after course of antibiotics gave me some hard time to think about what I had been through and what it all meant. Of course, I have no pat answers—and would be concerned if I did—but do have a couple of initial thoughts and reflections.

Every time I think about what has happened, my initial response is gratitude: I’m grateful that I was the one in the house that the spider found. Had it been either of my daughters, the story would have been shorter, more tragic, ending with a too-small coffin and that archetypical affront to the natural order: parents burying their child. Too, had the creature found my petite wife with the proclivity to ignore injuries and ailments to the last possible moment, I fear the story might have ended with another grave. So I am grateful. For though still sick, I live—and so too does the rest of my family.

I think the most important thing my brush with death granted me was a rediscovery of love—in an entirely practical sense. Thanks to flexible daycare arrangements, an understanding rector willing to give my wife time to be with me, and a few local friends who could take the girls overnight, my wife and I were able to spend much of my time in the hospital together—and I found that a treasure beyond compare. Instead of the insidious cycles of sniping and second-guessing, competing demands of work, housework, child care, and personal time that inevitably build up over eight and a half years of marriage, we simply rejoiced in each other’s presence. In the death-shadowed room the scales fell from my eyes and I encountered again the woman I love. And I marvel at how easy it is for the daily grind to efface the important—the truth of that love—by means of the merely urgent. Is that not death-in-life? To be surrounded with the promise and potential of love yet to get so trapped in our own games that we refuse to see and experience it?

Death has taught me of life, and reminded me of the love that lies at the heart of life. Now, I find myself wondering, having once lost this simple insight, how not to lose it again. Perhaps keeping death daily before my eyes is not an exercise in morbidity but a reminder that everyday I have the opportunity to choose love over pettiness, strife, and selfishness. I resolve to heed the words of the Preacher: “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life which God has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun.” (Eccl 9:9).

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

When I step outside of myself and examine my thoughts in connection with this brush with death, I find myself bemused. My encounter didn’t focus me on my sinfulness—although I’m certainly aware of that truth—nor on my immeasurable need for God’s grace—also entirely beyond dispute. Rather, I find that my experience with death has caused me to contemplate the importance of life and the simple joys that lie so close at hand—my wife, my daughters, and our wider family of friends. I am dust and I shall return to the dust. But for now, I am dust at dance within a shimmering, sunlit, cloud of dust, interacting with hundreds and thousands of other frail beings on the same trajectory as mine. St Augustine once reminded us that we are called to love all people but, since sheer volume makes the practical acts of love for all impossible, to care for those most closely bound to us by place, time, or opportunity. I have been reminded not to overlook those who dwell in the same house with me.

This Lent I continue to contemplate death and the facts of my own mortality. The spread of the infection into my bones reminds me that my apparent improvement may prove illusory and that I may again stare into death’s face sooner than I think. I continue to work on contemplating and getting in touch with my feelings surrounding these issues. But a primary task is to hold onto the gift that death has given me, the secret of her weakness, a weakness we shall celebrate come Easter: Love is stronger than death (Song 8:6) and the promise of the resurrection is that love, not death, will have the final word.

Derek Olsen is completing a Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. His full-time calling of keeping up with two adorable preschool girls and his wife, a priest in the Diocese of Atlanta, is complicated by his day-jobs as a database programmer and an adjunct professor at Emory’s Candler School of Theology. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X dad appear at Haligweorc. Haligweorc.

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