My gray matter is deteriorating like a sand castle beneath a rising tide. Can't find my keys. Left my glasses on the counter in some store a few days ago and can't remember where I was. "Would you like a cup of coffee?" the waitress asks at a café I frequent. "No thanks," I reply, and focus again on my laptop computer. "That coffee ready yet?" I call out a few minutes later, a little irritated that it still hasn't appeared.

Am I losing it? I suspect the waitress thinks so, but she just won't say it to my face. I'd likely forget anyway.

More and more, I can't tell you what I preached on--not last week but this morning. Did I ever answer that letter that's been staring at me for weeks from the corner of my cluttered desk? "Who went off with my address book?!?"

I walked into the drugstore the other day and couldn't remember "gingko biloba."

So far, it may be simple absent-mindedness. But these episodes do call up a fear of "losing it," a fear of detaching from life, reality, friends, and family.

Long ago, I learned that God often leads us through trials and tribulations so we become more sensitive and more understanding of the similar trials borne by other people.

Maybe this is what's happening. Maybe I have to take all this as both a call and a preparation to minister to those whose deteriorating minds leave them vulnerable, isolated, and desperately lonely. Sufferers of the pitiless Alzheimer's disease, for example, or trauma victims, or just the average old folks whose short-term memory is as gone as my glasses.

Isolation, fear, anxiety, loneliness, confusion. These are some of the emotions a dulling mind calls up within us. What if I reach the point where I can't pray? What if I lose the sense of God, of His presence and His love? Does that happen? Can God allow it to happen? Is that the demonic outcome of Alzheimer's?

Or is there always, even there in the depths of senility, an awareness of God's presence? Is that abyss perhaps like the shadowy region of Sheol, where God is nevertheless present, eager to convey His care, understanding, and love? "If I make my bed in Sheol," the psalmist declared, "Thou art there!" Will God be there when our mental acuity isn't?

Icons or sacred images of the Orthodox tradition suggest a comforting reply to that kind of question. In many of them, especially those that depict events in the life of Jesus--His birth, baptism, transfiguration, and, finally, His resurrection--the scene is set in a black hole, carved into the heart of creation. The Christ-child, the light of the world, is born into the darkness of a cavern. The waters of the Jordan in which He is baptized take on the form of a shadowy abyss. A dark hole appears at His feet as He is transfigured on Mount Thabor. And before He rises into glory, He descends into the somber depths of hell, to raise with Himself those who have languished in the shadow of death.

That hole means something. It means in part, at least, that Christ also descends into the black hole of our forgetfulness when it has intensified into a pathology. For those who have lost not just car keys, but their conscious minds, He descends into their loneliness, their abandonment, and their lostness. He is, after all, "Emmanuel": "God with us."

For the time being, my losing it is all relative. In fact, I just lose things, not "it." Not yet, anyway. As for those who have lost "it" or are in the process of doing so, I can nonetheless identify to some very small degree with their distress. In hospitals, retirement homes, and in their own living rooms, I've encountered real victims of "forgetfulness." The greatest tragedy in their lives, and their greatest source of suffering, is not that they have forgotten things. It's the painful realization that others have forgotten them.

There are so many elderly people today who seem oblivious to the world around them, who appear to others to be simply "out of touch." We can visit them, hold their hand, and try to make conversation. But all too soon, we get up to go, thinking to ourselves that there's something more important, more worthwhile to do elsewhere. Yet the look on their face pleads, "Keep in touch...."

I'm not at that point yet; far from it. But maybe I will be, some day. I'll need both God and visitors to make it through each day. When visitors like you come, maybe I'll realize you're visiting because you feel you have to. You're holding my hand and making conversation because it's all you know to do. When you get up to leave, I'll look at you; and that look may say what I can no longer formulate in words: "Pray for me. And please, please: do keep in touch."

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