My friend, Susan Niebur, passed away yesterday, after a five year battle with Inflammatory Breast Cancer, the deadly cancer that presents with no lump.
These are my words for Susan.
In 1st Corinthians, Chapter 13, verse 13, St. Paul writes, “And now abides faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Recently, I saw a commentary about this verse given by a priest who was, I think, recapitulating St. Thomas Aquinas’s explanation of it. The priest said that, when our earthly lives are done and we see God face to face, there is no longer any need for faith, because all of our questions have been answered and all of our searching for the Ultimate has come to a triumphant close. In the same way, there is no longer any need for hope, because when we see God, Creator of the Universe, face to face, all our hopes, even those we ourselves can barely acknowledge, are fulfilled. What then is left?
Love is left.
And when we see God, the Creator of the Universe, face to face, what we are seeing is Love distilled to its finest point. And, to the extent that we have loved in our lives, to the extent that we have habituated ourselves to this Love, then, to that extent, we participate in this Ultimate Love for all eternity. If this is true, and I know with all my heart and soul and intellect that it is, as I know Susan did, then at this very moment she is participating in this Love in a way that we can only dimly comprehend.
I think this is fitting, because if there is anything that characterized Susan Niebur, it is the love that she had for her husband, Curt, and their children, and all those who were privileged to know her in person and virtually. Susan was blessed with a mind both scientific and poetic. She could as easily explain how light is refracted by a prism, with the math to explain it, as she could write a sentence that carried such weight of meaning that it could transport her readers in profound ways. Ways that changed them. Ways that made our community a better place – indeed, ways that made, and are still making, the world a better place.
And yet, as the cancer that claimed Susan’s life progressed, those things were slowly stripped away, as important and as integral to her person as they were. And finally, things that we take for granted, like the ability to drive a car, to be in charge of our days, to walk from one room to another, were slowly taken from Susan. What remained?
Throughout the last several weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about Dante’s Divine Comedy. In this marvelous poem, Dante the poet travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, observing and relaying all that he sees there to his readers. In the final book of the poem, Il Paradiso, Dante moves in concentric circles (kind of like the solar system!) through the heavenly host, drawing ever closer to a final celestial vision. I remember that, when I first read Dante, I thought that Paradise was a real let-down after all the dynamism of the earlier two books, what with Sisyphus pushing the stone perpetually up the hill, illicit lovers burning with unrequited passion, Satan encased in ice up to his diabolical waist, and the myriad souls moving up the terraces of Purgatory, every fiber of their souls yearning to attain unity with God and drawing ever closer to Him as their earthly attachments and concerns fell away.
But as I have gotten older, it’s the final image of the Divine Comedy that comes back to me again and again. After his long and fantastic journey, Dante finally comes face to face with God Himself. And here, description does not suffice. He says, “Oh how poor our speech is and how feeble/for my conception! Compared to what I saw/to say its power is ‘little’ is to say too much./” And yet, he tries, imagining the Holy Trinity as three circles, the Father, the Son as reflected light, and the Holy Spirit as impassioned fire breathed out by them both. It is only with the help of a flash of Grace that he is able to understand the image of man inherent in the Son, the Incarnation. And he says, “For the great imagination here power failed;/But already my desire and will [in harmony]/were turning like a wheel moved evenly/by the Love that moves the Sun and the other stars.”
For me THIS is the entire point. The point of the Divine Comedy, the point of the Incarnation, the point of Creation, and, yes, the point of Susan Niebur’s life: Love – HER love, as a reflection and amplification, a reverberation, of the love of the Prime Mover. As my heart is breaking for Curt and the boys, for Susan’s family, for us all as we endure the loss of this great woman, I also am comforted by the sure knowledge that at this very moment, Susan is immersed in the Love that moves the Sun and the other stars.