I dreamt of sailing a grand tall ship. Initially, gentle billows swelled beneath her massive hull. Gradually the wind began to pick up and it filled the ship’s enormous sails. Silently the large ship started to move as though being pushed by an invisible hand. At first, the bow gently sliced through the water as we moved forward. The great ship’s speed increased, and soon a marvelous adventure was full speed ahead! Waves crashed against the bow, sending bracing showers of salty spray over the deck to drench me. Seagulls flew squawking alongside the ship—cheering the vessel on to its unknown destination as we banked into a westerly wind. The wooden ship creaked and moaned as the gigantic boom pitched violently starboard and the wind-filled mainsail swung overhead across the deck. Every fiber of my body felt alive—at least in my dream. Reality is quite different: I live on the land-locked prairie in an advanced state of multiple sclerosis; the closest ocean is a thousand miles away.
My sailing dream came as I lay in bed drifting from consciousness, through the Land of Nod toward deep sleep. The dream was so real! I could smell, taste and hear the wind and sea. Eventually a rude awakening came: My eyes flickered open to discover a body that was still half-lead, my electric wheelchair still waited beside my bed. There was no tall ship, only the walls of my bedroom bathed in blue moonlight streaming through my window. Bed sheets rustled, not sails.
In months to come, the dream started to recur and I became suspicious there was something more than a desire to sail. It was a primal desire. But desire for what? It was spiritual desire, not physical desire or eroticism. My desire had different layers, like the skins of an onion. On the surface was a desire to be free from degenerative disease, the contraptions of disability, frustration and grief. At a deeper level was a yearning for the past—my own past. Another layer deeper still was a desire for the ages, but even that was not the whole of it. At the core of my ecstasy was a longing for something or somewhere else I sensed was just beyond me.
The strongest sensation of my dream is one of longing that transcends the sea, the salt, the wind and desires the source of it all. It is the same fleeting desire or longing I experienced beginning in early childhood before disease, disability, sorrow or pain. It is the same longing that seems to follow humanity.
“At the core of my ecstasy was a longing for something or somewhere else I sensed was just beyond me.”
C.S. Lewis wrote about transcendent desire in his wonderful little book Surprised by Joy. Later he spoke about it as yearning for a “far off country” or Paradise. Lewis delivered a sermon at the Oxford Church of St. Mary, which he called “The Weight of Glory.” He said, in part:
I am trying to tear open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take revenge on it by calling it names like “nostalgia” and “romanticism” and “adolescence”; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name.
Lewis likened this desire for Paradise to the “echo of a tune we have yet to hear” or “the scent of a flower we have not yet found.” For an incurably ill man like myself, these images strike a full chord. Suffering intensifies spiritual yearnings, desire, longing for that flower I cannot quite find; it lies somewhere just beyond the door of temporal reality. But what lies just beyond temporal reality that fuels this near-constant yearning? It is certainly not a sailboat, seagulls or an ocean.
I must not rush headlong or prematurely into eternity to seek the object of my desire (Christ), or escape the despair of life inside a diseased and withering carcass. That would presume upon God’s mercy and Divine plan: He is a God of light not darkness, the Author of life, not death. Without light there is no life. Control of life is not mine to seize, plunging it into darkness—only God’s to give and take. Freedom cannot be forced! Paradise rushes for no man’s agenda; the joy of Heaven cannot be pilfered.
Obsessing over foretastes, sensations or vapors of the soul is counterproductive and only reveals spiritual immaturity seeking escapism from a miserable fate. The mystery of life is growth, not desire. The hope of life is Christ—not escape from sorrow or pain. In fact, suffering, disability or pain can be a blessing. There is blessing in suffering; the sufferer must look for it and be open to what is being said by it. In his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, John Donne remarks about human interdependence: “No man is an island, entire of itself.” The same meditation deals with the fruits of human affliction:
All mankind is of one Author, and one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; …God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice, but God’s hand is in every trans-lation…for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough, that is not matured, and ripened by it, and made fit for God.
I have been chronically ill with multiple sclerosis for more than 18 years. My life has degenerated from being a normal, able-bodied, athletic husband and father to spending most of my days in an electric wheelchair. My next mailing address will probably be a nursing home. By most people’s standard, life is over for me at the age of 49. Some people believe my life was over by age of 30 years when the MS was first diagnosed. Not true.
The sicker I become, the more evident Christ’s presence becomes to me. Jesus sits with me even in the ashes of my misery and comforts me. He assures me there is a divine purpose to the fiery torments and that we shall walk away from scorching flames into the warm light of His Kingdom. He talks of water and wind that takes me away from the fire to where I do not yet know. The image is so real—I can hear the wind and feel the spray of water on my face. Once again, I am overcome by a transcendent longing. At last I understand that the ecstasy is inextricably linked to the divine attributes of God’s love. One day there will be no more foretastes but the real banquet—no more wandering, no more longings from the Land of Nod. I will be home. I will see the Object of my desire—Christ.
SIDEBAR: A lad from the Land of Nod
Mark Pickup was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1984 at the age of 30. Instead of succumbing to his progressively debilitating disease, he has become a vigorous spokesman and activist against euthanasia, physician assisted suicide and embryonic stem cell research. He aggressively campaigns to foster the public’s respect and appreciation for the dignity and worth of all human life, and speaks up for the rights of the disabled and their inclusion in society. His social commentaries are widely published and he has received numerous awards in Canada and the United States recogniz-ing his work, and serves on various committees that study medical and ethical issues.