Last Sunday, I visited a friend of a friend, who was in hospice with terminal cancer. I’d spent maybe half a dozen times with Brian and my friend Lois, joyfully eating late afternoon snacks, drinking white wine, and talking about the great questions of life. Brian was in seminary for some of that time, contemplating some of the wild cats of modern Christian theology – I remember a long conversation about John Shelby Spong, a favorite of my friend, who’s argued that Christianity needs to radically change or it may just die off. It was always interesting to participate in these cross-religious dialogues, to consider Jesus as an outsider, and to have outsiders consider Zen and Buddhism with me.
During the visit, it was clear that Brian was fading. He tried to talk to us, but really couldn’t muster the strength to say anything coherently. I remember looking into his eyes, and saying “I miss our talks” and I’m almost sure he tried to say to me “Maybe we’ll have another.”
We never got another chance. He died Thursday. Not even 60 years old, Brian still left a mark on the world by staying on his path, and doggedly pursuing the mysteries of this life. Even with cancer ravaging his body, he continued his seminary studies until he was unable to stand any longer. More than anything, it’s his almost musical passion for pursuing the divine that I’ll remember most.
Something about that last visit with Brian brought to mind the relatively unknown early 20th century painter Ciurlionis. Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis was a Lithuanian painter and composer who, despite living only 35 years, composed nearly 250 pieces of music and completed almost 300 paintings. A contemporary of folks like Kandinsky and Franz Marc, Ciurlionis was highly inspired by both spirituality and nature. His paintings are frequently bursting with intensity, while also almost being so liminal as to slide into abstraction. They are, like Brian on the final day, hovering between this life and the beyond. Of here, and yet not. Able to powerfully speak to us, even though the paint is crumbling.
I remember once singing a Jewish meal blessing with Brian and Lois before dinner. Brian was interested in the meaning of every word. How reverence could come from even the most simple of syllables.
Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam hamotzi lehem min ha’aretz.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.
With a bladder that only functioned through catheterization, he knew – as I have come to know – that what lasts in this world is also fleeting. There is no way to hold on forever. Nor is there a need to.
I miss our talks Brian. But they live on. Differently. As do I.
Friendship by Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis @ Wikimedia