Diving Bell and Butterfly

[This story is dedicated to my great uncle Dubba, who left medical school to answer “yes” to a voice he heard in a movie theater one nigh. He became a Benedictine monk. He took the name Brother Marion and lived for over 50 years in the idyllic St. Joseph’s Abbey of Convent, Louisiana. Dubba eventually suffered a massive stroke prior to his death, and the last time I sat with him at the Abbey, he told me about his life’s calling and recited the very words from his favorite poem that provide the answer to the question posed in the title of this story.]

Three events in a single 24 hour period gave me a great gift, or “key,” that I would like to share.

Imagine your being a paraplegic or a quadriplegic. How would this try your patience and your faith as you had to eat and talk without being able to move your limbs? And what if it was worse than that? Perhaps you have heard about the now famous book and movie The Diving Bell and the Butterfly written by Jean-Dominique Bauby, a “locked in” victim of a massive stroke. Bauby had been the editor-in-chief of Elle magazine. As have been my own patients with “locked-in” syndrome, he is absolutely lucid but completely unable to move except for his left eye blink. Once this is realized, he is able to carry out his previously arranged book deal contract via dictating each letter of every word with a certain number of ‘eye blinks.’

The first of the 3 events was that my sister decided to share Diving Bell with me for an upcoming trip she knew I was taking. I found it astounding what Bauby tells us as we are allowed to “see” through his eyes. At the end of the book, I read with a deep sense of emptiness his parting thoughts and his ultimate question. I shudder to think what I would feel like if left to wonder the question he posed. Come along and let me share this story with you…

Walking into our den the morning I was to depart on my trip, the second confluence of events took hold. I heard our 14-year-old daughter, Taylor, playing piano and singing as she worked out the kinks of “The Call” by Regina Spektor, which is the marvelous soundtrack from the latest movie of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. I heard Taylor’s strong voice (biased father) belt out, “It started out as a feeling, which then grew into a hope, which then turned into a quiet thought, which then turned into a quiet Word, and then that Word grew louder and louder ‘till it was a battle cry, “I’ll come back…when you…call Me. No need to say goodbye.”

Indeed, there is no need to say goodbye to Him at all. If we take Lewis’s message in the Narnia tales and their background biblical inspiration, then the omnipresence of Christ in our lives must remain the source of our smile and resilient joy at never (ever) being left alone. And yet, we all know that we come up against this feeling regularly. This brings me to the next event.

Shortly after I watched Taylor play “The Call,” I started my sojourn to Helsinki, Finland. In the past, I would have felt lonely on such a trip, but these days I keep prayer as my constant companion and welcome His presence alongside me in planes and airports and distant lands. As I sat having a warm buttery croissant in the Amsterdam airport, amongst so many bustling partners in life from multitudes of countries, I focused on the daily readings in the Magnificat. There I found the third piece of my life’s lesson, a treasure in a meditation for the day from Father Francis Martin, who is director of Christian/Jewish Relations at the JP II Cultural Center in Washington D.C. In this missive Father Martin recounts a famous story apparently used in monastic teachings to advance depth in prayer life. The story goes like this:

 A young man goes to his master and says, “I want to find God.” “All right,” says the old man as he takes him down to the water. “Put your head under the water.” Once submerged, the old man dunks the young man’s head further under the water until he struggles and then finally lets him up as he gasps for a breath. Addressing the look of surprise on the young man’s face, the old man explains, “When you want to find God the way you just wanted that breath, then you’ll find him.”

Do we seek God consistently with such passion and desire? Once found, can such a desire be maintained? I have been told not, yet in St. Faustina’s Revelations of the Divine Mercy diary, she demonstrates such passion daily for the Eucharist, feeling utterly empty and “starving” without His daily bread. As Christians, we must nurture the same hunger through prayer that the monastic lesson above demonstrates. Think of Jesus’ presence in our prayer life (constantly as mentioned in II Thes 5:16-19) as our next gulp of air. None of this need be or appear to be self-righteous or holier-than-thou, as this would be offensive to others. Rather, we should help others of all faiths with devotion through small, ordinary gestures and reminders throughout the day and in all circumstances. (And by the way, I need to be reminded of this lesson more than most.)

On the flight from Amsterdam to Helsinki, I returned to Jean-Dominique’s story (which has no surprise ending, by the way). As he closes The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, it is apparent that the diving bell represents the perils of his heavily weighted circumstances in life, so deep within an ocean of grief, and the butterfly a visual for his intact, vibrant mind. He is next to the woman who has diligently followed his eye blinks for the past few months in order to transcribe the book. Jean-Dominique peers into her purse with his lone left eye (the right lid is literally sewn shut) and sees keys to her car and hotel room. Pensive, he wonders (recorded by her through his blinks), “Does the cosmos contain a key for opening my diving bell?”

In no way would I ever presume to judge Jean-Dominque’s faith, which he did not reveal specifically in the book. Indeed, he may have been talking about a key to physical paralysis, though one gets the sense he sought much more. To Bauby’s question, I draw on the final lines Uncle Dubba’s favorite poem Hound of Heaven by Francis Thompson, and I can hear his wise voice crackle: “Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest, I am He Whom thou seekest! Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.”

It would be a perilously lonely and deeply lost feeling for anyone without such a “key” on a spiritual level. Thankfully, just about 2,000 years ago, we were given the Key to the cosmos that will unlock all of our “diving bells,” no matter what they may be. We all have our burdens, some physical and some mental. But to each of these “diving bells,” we have one master Key provided in the Trinity, to which we never have to say goodbye.

Bringing these three events together for me within one 24 hour period was a gift of much grace by the Lord. My prayer for you, and for all of us, is that the very thought of our Lord brings you to tears of wonderful thanks for all that you have been given in life. All of the beautiful and not so beautiful aspects of our lives, none of which we deserve in the first place, make up the tone of our call to Heaven. We should pray that our very next breath depends on the realization that Jesus Christ’s goodness is so remarkable in our eyes that we are suffocating in its absence. I pray that we can maintain this same degree of closeness to Him through “all the sham and drudgery” (Desiderata) of this world. If we do, then we will be lucky enough to have transient moments of clarity that bring us to the tears.

Ad majorem Dei gloriam ─ E. Wesley Ely, MD, MPH (wes.ely@vanderbilt.edu)

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