Monday, January 21, 2013

Channels of Grace

An address at a Nursing Dedication ceremony (19 January 2013, Bethel College, IN)
This day, this ceremony, marks a pivotal moment in your educational journey. It’s a resting place, an oasis of sorts, after having made it through—having survived, in other words—your first clinical rotation, and now you are well into the next stage of your preparation for a future in nursing.

Before you know it, we will all be gathering here again, in this very room, for Pinning—an event that will coincide with your graduation from Bethel, and the commencement of your nursing career. Between now and then, however, you will remain a nursing student—just a nursing student, some of you might be tempted to say. Not a real nurse—just a student.

With that in mind, I’d like to tell you a little story—a story I just came across recently, and one that involves a nursing student—a nursing student who was, I believe, a channel of grace.

Henri Matisse (1869-1954)
This is the French artist Henri Matisse—perhaps you’ve heard of him. Matisse did most of his work in the first half of the 20th century, and is considered one of the forerunners, even a father, of what we call Modern Art. 

His innovative style, especially with regards to his simple designs and exuberant use of color, continues to influence art and graphic art, even today.

Here’s an example. It’s a still life, but there’s movement, and the rich blue is like a sea, a rolling sea—or like a water balloon burst.

Still Life with Blue Tablecloth (1909)

Or another, The Dessert, one of his most famous paintings, where red is the dominant feature—almost a shout, or a trumpet blast—with green in the corner adding a muted accompaniment.

The Dessert: Harmony in Red (1908)

You can see that Matisse’s creations were sumptuous, lively, sensual—some a bit too sensual to be included in a talk like this—and bursting with life. He clearly was acquainted with joy, but it was a joy that was tempered by a spiritual restlessness and yearning.

Although raised in the church, Matisse rejected faith as an adult. And yet, unlike many in his circle who were hostile to religion, Matisse instead simply became indifferent. “I don't know whether I believe in God or not,” he wrote. “I think, really, I'm some sort of Buddhist.” Worse than atheism, don’t you think?—as if, when it came to God, Matisse was grunting a flippant, “Whatever!”

But, even if the artist was done with God, God wasn’t done with the artist. And the great thing was that God chose to reach out to Matisse through a humble, unassuming student nurse—just a nursing student, as they say, one just like you.

The student’s name was Monique Bourgeois, and she served Matisse as a home health aide of sorts for several months during his recovery from cancer. Bourgeois was not interested in modern art, and so was not fazed by her patient’s fame. Instead, she went about her duties with competence and compassion—attributes that all nurse educators seek to instill in their students.

But with Bourgeois, there was something more, something different—a frank openness and simplicity, perhaps a kindness and generosity, that went beyond her professional duties. She was, in fact, a devout Christian, and I’m guessing that her deep faith was reflected in her care in such a way that Matisse couldn’t avoid it or deny it. It was too real, too present.

Whether the student nurse and the artist talked about matters of faith during the convalescence, we don’t know. But we do know that when Bourgeois later decided that she wanted to become a nun, Matisse vigorously objected. From his point of view, Matisse saw no value in a life totally dedicated to God, and he didn’t want his friend to throw her life away.

Nevertheless, Bourgeois persisted and entered the Dominican order, taking the name Sr. Jacques-Marie—and here’s the startling thing, here’s the kicker: As a result of her choice to heed God’s call, the young nun’s friendship with Matisse—far from fading away or ending abruptly—instead, transformed and intensified.

Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence
The artist stayed in contact with Sr. Jacques-Marie, and when he discovered that her convent required a new chapel, he took on the job himself, throwing himself into the work. The result? Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence—or simply the Matisse chapel, considered by the artist himself as his crowning achievement, his masterpiece.

Design, inside and out, furnishings, liturgical objects, religious art, even vestments—Matisse saw to every detail. Aesthetic considerations were, of course, a priority, and his use of color and light, line and space are beautifully harmonized throughout the small enclosure. It’s quiet, airy, and calm—almost ethereal.

But even above aesthetics, even above the art, Matisse attended most of all to the use for which the chapel would be dedicated—namely, prayer. And even today, public access to the chapel is very restricted in order to protect the sisters’ ability to use it as it was intended to be used—a place for worship and praise of God.

Vence Chapel interior
So, the utterly secular artist, at the end of his life, poured his talent and passion into creating a profoundly religious environment—something that many found surprising, even shocking. And the question naturally arises: Why?

I think the outlines of an answer are clear: The artist desired to honor his friend—the nursing student turned nun—and the life she had embraced, but not only her. Matisse was also honoring, perhaps reluctantly, or even unconsciously, the One who called her to that life.

Matisse seemed to have been rattled by Bourgeois—something about her was different, even holy in an understated way—and it bothered him. It bothered him so much that the aging, agnostic artist was moved to create a “spiritual space,” as he called it, and one that his friend, the nun, as well as many others, declared to be inspired by God.

So, what’s my point? Am I suggesting that you should all take care of aging artists and share your faith with them? Better yet, am I suggesting that you all join the convent?

Matisse with Sr. Jacques-Marie (1921-2005)
Far from it. What I am suggesting is that you can be—you are—channels of God’s grace right now—even now, while you’re still “just” student nurses! Like Monique Bourgeois, you can and will have a profound impact on the lives of those you care for—you’ve seen it already in your first clinical rotation; we’ve seen it, and the residents you cared for last semester saw it, too!

All the skills you’ve learned, all the knowledge you’ve gained, all the critical thinking you’ve been practicing—it’s all good, all essential, of course. But what sets you apart—what makes a Bethel student nurse (and a Bethel graduate) different is beyond all that.

And you know what it is: It’s love. And not just any love. It’s sacrificial love—love expressed in service.

It is, in fact, the love of Christ—and it’s not optional for us, as the Evangelist John relates in this scene from the Last Supper:
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel. Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded.

“For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you,” he told them. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
Go then, just nursing students. Go, be good nurses, but also be good lovers—as He showed us, as He commanded us—and be channels of his grace.