Saints in Small Packages

A story appeared in Microsoft’s internal company newsletter about Noah, the seven-year-old son of employee Gabriel Kelley, who has been fighting leukemia since he was five years old. The story is really one of Noah’s spirit, as even at his early age he’s not about to give into fate. In fact, he’s turned his condition into an opportunity to help others. By selling T-shirts he designed that say, “I scare cancer,” he’s been raising funds for three cancer care organizations in Denver, CO.

Cases of childhood diseases like Noah’s are usually cause for pity. The unspoken subtext behind most stories of young children with terminal diseases is “Oh, what a shame they won’t have a full life!” Or, “What did they do to deserve such a fate?” Or “God must be cruel!”, “What a tragic waste!”, and so on.

Yet how Noah is responding to his situation suggests another possibility: instead of “losing out” on life or somehow being thwarted from a full life of purpose, Noah may, in fact, be living his purpose already.

This possibility, I must say up front, is predicated on the concept of reincarnation: that one’s soul is the basic reality of one’s being and that the soul is born again and again, over time, into many different bodies. I will also say up front that, for me, this is no mere concept or belief but something I accept as fact from direct, personal experience. Even without that experience I’d accept it anyway because it makes sense out of so many apparently “tragic” stories. Instead of dwelling on thoughts of a cruel God or a cruel universe, such acceptance leads me to rather dwell on thoughts of love and beauty, of a harmony and joy that while sometimes difficult to see through the immediacy of suffering, is nevertheless very real and present.

Another story that really strikes this tone is one I heard some years ago on KIRO radio in Seattle. I don’t remember the details, but it was about an unborn child whom the doctors knew would not survive more than a day or two after birth. The parents nonetheless decided to bring the baby to term, and knowing the child’s fate they arranged to make its very short life very special: everyone in the extended family was invited (and came) to the birth, taking turns hold the tiny baby and shower upon him all the love they could before he was no longer sustain himself. In short, the parents and family gave this soul the special gift of a life that was 100% completely full of love and tenderness.

For years I’ve pondered what an extraordinary experience that must have been for the soul encased in that little baby’s body. Percentage-wise, is it not the kind of life that perhaps all of us long for? How wonderfully special it is to have such an incarnation, however short!

Now in reading Noah’s story, I’ve also been pondering this further possibility, that instead of these souls incarnating merely toreceive the love of others, they are—at least in some cases—incarnating with a deep purpose togive to others.

These souls, in other words, are not playing out some unfortunate tragedy as victims of fate or karma but are rather acting purposefully for the benefit of others. Sure, they have a fate that differs from what we normally expect, but it’s as if they have wholly embraced that fate—even chosen it—specifically for the tremendous power that such a shortened life has to transform others.

By living out so-called tragic roles, they awaken great compassion in the so-called fortunate adults who are, in fact, so caught up in selfish, material gain that they are the ones who really deserve the pity. Spiritually speaking, those adults are the ones who are truly suffering, whereas children like Noah are living on a level of selflessness that most of us would do well to emulate. They remind us that every moment of life is something to cherish, not to squander on our usual petty preoccupations. And like every great spiritual teacher, they remind us that a joyful, victorious life is one of service, not self-aggrandizement.

I see this especially in the case of the baby who only lived for a day—while yes, the family gave him a marvelous gift,his gift to the family was probably far greater. Reflect on it for a moment: what he gave to all of them was an opportunity to open their hearts more deeply than they’d probably ever done. In the process, I would expect that some members of his family experienced some deep healing. I’m also guessing (though I’ve not heard any follow-on stories) that the experience served to heal many broader difficulties in the family, helping its members reconcile old differences or hurts and in the process bringing the family together in ways that wallowing in shared pity never could.

This brings me to the title I’ve given this article. You see, there is another class of human beings that we recognize for their ability to awaken great love, compassion, and understanding in others, a type of human being that incarnates on our planet with such divine purposes in mind. We call them saints. I use this term in a broadest sense but without any intention of dilution of its real meaning. I use it to recognize those who have been officially canonized, yes, as well as those upon whom no church has seen fit to bestow a title and yet demonstrated a similar power to heal and uplift. (For example, Paramhansa Yogananda dedicated his spiritual classic, Autobiography of a Yogi, “To Luther Burbank, an American Saint.”)

By these measures, I see in souls like Noah—and the infant whose time on this earth was so scant—the wisdom of saints, in small bodies, acting right before our eyes. Yes, it is right for us to feel compassion for their circumstances, and even a little sadness for how little time they’ve been given for their particular sojourns. But more importantly, it’s right for us to also draw courage, strength, and inspiration from their examples to live our own lives with more purpose and higher consciousness, while we still have time!

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