Philip was a Frenchman with a taste for old-school style and charm. Always tanned, he wore freshly pressed white shirts with matching white trousers and a dark blue sports jacket with a white handkerchief in the front pocket. Whenever I spoke with Philip, I felt like I had a brush with European royalty. The look, the way he walked, the tightly structured sentences, the smile—it all reminded me of the way C. S. Lewis described his schoolmaster, Oldie, in the book Surprised by Joy. Lewis said, “Oldie lived in a solitude of power, like a sea captain in the days of sail.”
One warm afternoon I joined Philip as he made his regular afternoon visit to see his wife of forty-seven years, Claire, who had dementia. When we entered Claire’s room, I was struck by how cruel it seemed that after nearly five decades together Philip had to reintroduce himself to his wife every time he saw her.
We sat and talked for a while amidst the sanitary smell of the room with the respirator clicking like a snare drum in the background.
Helen Keller, when describing what her life was like before her teacher, Anne Sullivan, came into her world, borrowed the words of the poet Lord Byron:
It was not night—it was not day,
. . .
But vacancy absorbing space,
And fixedness, without a place;
There were no stars—no earth—no time—
No check—no change—no good—no crime.7
I wondered if that was how Claire felt as she stared at the ceiling day after day: “Vacancy absorbing space . . . fixedness, without a place.”
Claire had a single oxygen tube running into her nose and held in place by a piece of gauze tape. In the middle of our forced conversation with Claire, the tape fell off. Philip immediately bent over Claire’s bed and began pressing the tape back onto her nose. Startled, Claire looked straight into his eyes and shouted, “Who the heck are you?”
I looked at both of them and tried not to react. Part of me wanted to cry. Here was the mother of his children, the person he lived for every day, and she couldn’t even recognize him six inches away. Another part of me felt guilty because I wanted to laugh, because when Claire yelled at Philip, she squinted strangely. It was a cruelly humorous moment, but I sat there, arms at my side, polite.
At that moment Philip looked over at me for a few seconds and then winked. I grinned. He chuckled. Claire chuckled. Then I joined in, and for a few moments none of us could hold back the laughter. We howled so loud and so hard that we began to cry. Claire and Philip looked into each other’s eyes and roared, and as I watched the two of them together my tears of laughter quickly turned into tears of wonder. I realized I was watching a miracle in progress. I could have been transported back to the time of Jesus and watched him heal a leper, and I wouldn’t have been any more astonished. Here was a man whose clay jar should have been shattered into millions of tiny pieces, but instead, somehow, some way, God miraculously held his life together.
One of the reasons I think God performs more perseverance miracles than instantaneous miracles is because their impact is longer. They stretch. Perseverance miracles aren’t flash-in-the-pan. When someone perseveres in the midst of unspeakable hardship, her presence and joy leaves no one untouched. It seeps into boardrooms and kitchens, bowling alleys and nursing stations, front porches and bus stops. Being a living miracle has a much more lasting effect over time on everyone you come in contact with than do miracles that come and go like the wind. That’s why, I think, if you give God the choice between instantly healing someone or giving him miraculous strength to live with joy, it’s clear which one God will choose and why. When you look at it this way, it’s a wonder God performs any instantaneous miracles at all.
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