At the End of Life, the Artist is Necessary

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the word “clinical” may denote “expressing no emotion or feelings” or “showing no character and warmth.” The sentence that is given to illustrate its meaning is this: “We were going to paint our kitchen white, but we decided that would look too clinical.”

Do you ever wonder why hospitals and doctor’s offices are so drab? Why does there seem to be so little attention paid to aesthetics? What impact does this have on doctors, nurses, patients, and visitors?

One day, Cecily Saunders, the British pioneer of modern-day hospice care, was “magnetically drawn” to an oil painting in a gallery window. She was so taken by it that she parked her car and entered the gallery moments before they were closing on the last day of the exhibition. Cecily Saunders moved eagerly from painting to painting. The blue Crucifixion had been the piece to catch her eye from the window, but the piece she impulsively chose to purchase was of ‘Christ Calming the Waters.’

The following day, she wrote the following to the artist, Marian Bohusz-Szyszko:

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Does your education fix your mind on eternal life?

In the chapter on Hope in Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis discusses the paradox that “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.”

I certainly observed this during my studies and travels throughout Europe during which I was continually struck that the most beautiful art and architecture was made by people who believed in the immortality of the soul whereas materialists always seemed to produce the most ugly and bland structures and stuff.

There is something about looking forward longingly to the world to come that makes us more effective in this world than we could possibly be otherwise.

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“You will not always have me.”

In the long gospel reading for Palm Sunday, we hear the story of the woman who anointed Jesus at Bethany.

Of the entire Sunday gospel reading from Mark, this section really struck me this year.

The woman anoints Jesus with a costly ointment from an alabaster jar that she bursts open in order to pour the ointment on his head.

The action provokes anger among observers over the ointment having been “wasted” instead of sold so that the money could be given to the poor.

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Kitchen Talks: Death & Dying

This evening, a friend of mine named Josh Nadeau hosted a “Kitchen Talks” event on death and dying and so, naturally, I had to attend.

Josh describes the broader initiative as follows:

Kitchen Talks is a series of events where people from different walks of life gather to discuss controversial topics. It was dreamed up in Saint Petersburg, Russia, where ‘kitchen talk’ refers to the conversations that, back in the Soviet Union, were too contentious to be had outside the home.

A generation ago, the kitchen was a safe space to discuss history, politics, sex, religion and everything else under the sun. We hope that our own “kitchen” provides an opportunity, and a safe space, to engage with the people and the ideas we don’t always encounter in our everyday lives. We strive not only to speak, but to facilitate an encounter that respects the fact that we all have different life experiences and come at important questions from different angles.

Our meetings involve introductions, discussions, large-group exercises, small group work, anonymous activities and more. We encourage all participants to join the conversation, but understand if some decide to listen more than to share. Our facilitators come with a prepared set of discussion questions and exercises, but often adjust their plans depending on the group and what participants are interested in discussing that day.

I was struck by Josh’s ability to offer compelling prompts to the diverse participants he convened. Everyone certainly diverged in terms of viewpoints, however it was a group that self-selected on the basis of having a willingness to listen respectfully to others and to affirm what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks called “the dignity of difference.”

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