Encountering Angels and God's Beauty in Arkansas
Saturday, Jun. 10, 2017
Last week I spent mostly at the University of Arkansas for Medical Science Hospital, where my brother had a tumor removed from his leg. The surgery was successful, but the process was stressful for everyone involved.
I avoid hospitals whenever possible, and spending hours each day in a room with a convalescent ranks below cleaning toilets on my list of favorite things to do. I can barely handle my own emotions in the best of times; trying to provide support for my brother and our mother, who was also there, pushed me to the breaking point, and the strain was compounded by the fact that I had almost 100 pages of theology to read in preparation for a quiz that was due the day I flew home, not to mention the fact that I never did get a good night’s sleep the entire week because the air conditioner was in the same room as the bed, and if it was running the roar kept me awake, while if I turned it off then I sweated all night due to the heat and humidity. Opening the window wasn’t possible; it was sealed shut.
I have to say, Arkansas may be known as the Natural State, but some parts of its nature are easier to endure than others.
With all of that, I did seek comfort in the outdoors, and God provided as he always does: An Eastern kingbird entertained me one evening with short bursts of landings and take offs across the park as it caught its dinner of insects on the wing. Then, the next morning, I marveled at the creamy ivory beauty of magnolia blossoms in the early morning sun, and a killdeer chick running after its parent in the garden at the hospital looked like a streaked cotton ball on outsized legs.
What truly kept me sane, though, was the kindness of strangers, from the hospital staff who tended to my brother to the shuttle bus driver who recommended a restaurant that served comfort food.
You may say that the nurses and other attendants were only doing their job, and that suggesting a good restaurant was no big deal, but as the recipient of these small kindnesses I can tell you that the hospital workers went out of their way to be courteous, and that the shuttle bus driver didn’t just rattle off the name of his favorite eatery, he asked what kind of food we wanted, and then dropped us off at the restaurant door in the rain. Each of those small thoughtful acts eased my emotional tension back from the breaking point.
One day, when the strain threatened to overwhelm me, I stepped into the hospital chapel. The room is small and unadorned, furnished only with chairs and a lectern. At first I was surprised that not even a cross was present, but then I realized that the room served people of all faiths, so if they had a cross they would also have had to have the equivalent symbol for Jewish worship, and Islam, and what about the Amish who, as I understand it, hold their services in a room with unadorned walls?
Despite the lack of a crucifix, which would have marked the room as a place of worship for those of my faith, I had no doubt that it was a holy space. The Divine – whether called God or YHWH or Allah or Jehovah or any of the other names by which we humans recognize our creator – was present, and I was thankful that the hospital had set aside a place where we could reach out to the All Powerful.
Surveying the room, I was reminded of my theology lesson for the week, which was about the Catholic Church’s Patristic Fathers. These wise men recognized that other religions and philosophies have value. To quote St. Hilary, “The rays of the Word are ready to shine wherever the windows of the soul are opened,” and (adding my own opinion) it would be the height of hubris to believe that God speaks only to Catholics.
One tenet common to all major religions is that we are called to help others in need. My mother exemplified this by comforting a weeping woman – a complete stranger – who was dealing with her own family crisis. When I entered the chapel where they were sitting, the woman thanked Mom for listening and called Mom her angel.
I understood what she meant. My mother is wonderful, but for me, the angels in Arkansas were all of those who offered a kind word or deed for me and my family. I owe them a debt I cannot repay, except to try to offer kind deeds and compassion to others whenever the opportunity presents itself.
I have always thought angels were for impossible deeds, but this experience has taught me that for those who are struggling, a show of kindness in the small things has as much force as a grand gesture; perhaps more, because it binds us together as pilgrims on the road to eternal life.
Marie Mischel is editor of the Intermountain Catholic.