I Must Decrease (And Why That’s Good News)

Seattle Midsummer twilight (10:05 p.m., June 22, 2017)

The 24th of June is, in the Christian calendar, the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist. In Europe, it’s also known as Midsummer Day, marking the critical moment when the longest days begin the six-month journey toward the longest nights. Even though we still have months before us of warm weather and brilliant sunshine, the light is now (imperceptibly at first) beginning to slip away minute by minute. Thus in the old days, on the night before Midsummer––called Midsummer Eve or Midsummer Night––bonfires were lit to encourage the waning sun, and people were on their guard against any supernatural mischief. As we know from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s a good night just to stay home. Whatever you do, don’t go into that magic forest!

The ancient traditions may seem obsolete, but are we free of the anxiety they represent? This turning point in the sun’s journey is a metaphor for our own mortality. We are temporal beings––creatures of time. For us, nothing lasts forever. The very moment that we reach the peak of the Summer Solstice, savoring what the poet Wallace Stevens called “arrested peace, / Joy of such permanence, right ignorance / Of change…”, the sense of having all the time in the world starts to seep away––imperceptibly at first, as we enjoy our fun in the sun and the long unhurried twilights. As Stevens goes on to say in his great Solstice poem, “Credences of Summer”: “This is the barrenness / Of the fertile thing that can attain no more.” After the perfect moment, then what?

In a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, Calvin is running around in a frenzy, shouting, “It’s July already! Oh no! Oh no! What happened to June? Summer vacation is slipping through our fingers like grains of sand! It’s going too fast! We’ve got to hoard our freedom and have more fun! Time rushes on! Help! Help!”

Meanwhile, his friend Hobbes the tiger is watching Calvin’s panic with studious detachment. Then he says to himself, “I don’t think I want to be here at the end of August.”

My Minnesota relatives still have the summer house my grandfather built on a bluff above Lake Pepin, a scenic stretch of the Mississippi River that becomes a lake two miles wide and thirty miles long. About fifteen years ago, in late June, I walked down to the beach from the house, passing through a grove of maple trees and birdsong. When I emerged from the woods onto the sandy lakeshore, I saw one of the great spectacles of Midwest summer: a storm of mayflies.

Thick black clouds of insects with transparent wings whirled in the air above me. Millions more covered the willows and cottonwoods, darkening the summer greenery with their densely packed masses. It was an explosion of pure fecundity: “The feast and fairy dance of life,” as one naturalist has described it.

But this dance is oh so brief. After incubating for two long years in the mud of the lake bottom, the mayflies grow wings, float up to the surface and rise into the air to mate. Within 24 hours of this eruption into ecstasy, they fall lifeless back to earth. Roads and bridges covered with their greasy remains are too slick for driving, and must be closed until a cleanup crew arrives.

Is this not a sped-up version of the human condition––here today, gone tomorrow? As they sang in medieval England, “Merry it is while summer lasts; but now draws near the wind’s cold blast.” The Bible was equally frank about our radically transient status: “All flesh is grass . . . The grass withers, the flower fades.”

Contemporary poet Mary Oliver delivers the same message, lightened by a dose of whimsey:

For years and years I struggled
just to love my life. And then

the butterfly
rose, weightless, in the wind.
“Don’t love your life
too much,” it said,

and vanished
into the world.[i]

For me, this mortal life is like the fireworks on the Fourth of July. So glorious and wondrous––and so quickly over. Every year my wife and I walk a mile down to the local harbor to watch the display, and when it’s done, as we make our way home in the darkness, I always feel the melancholy of endings. The pyrotechnics of July 4––the American version of Midsummer Night––have come and gone. Only two weeks old, summer is already beginning to slip through our fingers! This is the barrenness of the fertile thing that can attain no more.

John the Baptist knew how the story goes. He knew that his given moment on the stage was coming to an end. Remember what he said about Jesus? He must increase, I must decrease. My time is passing, but Jesus’ time is coming. Thus at the Nativity of John the Baptist the days start to decrease, while at the Nativity of Jesus the days start to increase.

John the Baptist is rightly remembered as the voice in the wilderness, announcing that the Lord is come (let every heart prepare him room!) As his father Zechariah foretold when John was only eight days old, the Baptist was born to be “the prophet of the Most High…. to give knowledge of salvation to [God’s] people by the forgiveness of their sins.” In paintings, John is often seen pointing away from himself, toward Jesus, the “dawn from on high” who gives “light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.”

Leonardo da Vinci, John the Baptist (1513-16)

John gave us expectant hearts. But he offered us another great gift as well. He taught us the art of letting go. Jesus must increase, I must decrease. That’s what he said, and what he did. It’s what we all do. As the old shape note hymn says with such brutal honesy, “Passing away, we are passing away.”

All flesh is grass––a melancholy thought at the dawn of summer. But wait; there’s more, and it’s good news. Though the grass withers and the flower fades, Isaiah tells us, the word of God will stand forever (Isaiah 40:8). And what is this “word?” Jesus is the word, the speaking of divine reality in human be-ing. And that divine reality, which we are made to mirror, is all about self-diffusive, self-forgetting love. God is a Trinity of persons, giving themselves over to one another in an eternal circulation of gifts offered and gifts received.

So the great secret at the heart of existence, the word that stands forever, is that it’s all about letting go instead of holding on. Jesus made that perfectly clear in his death and resurrection. And John the Baptist, who was martyred before he could see that first Easter Day, intuited this truth even before it was fully revealed.

He must increase, I must decrease. Less of me, more of Christ. More of God. And the Christian life is all about making that truth our daily practice, as individuals and as communities of faith. We learn to let go of things which are passing away––and of the stories which are no longer true for us––and to remain open and grateful for the new gifts we are about to receive. Welcome every gift, but hold on to nothing but God, who is not only the Giver of every gift, but is also the only gift worth having.

God is not a thing, an object, a commodity to be possessed. God is a dance we do. We become most truly ourselves only to the degree by which we participate in, and surrender to, the choreography of that dance: the eternal giving and receiving of self-diffusive love. Letting go, not holding on, is what completes us.

As Mary Oliver reminds us,

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.[ii]

 

 

Related post:

Sacraments of Summer

 

[i] Mary Oliver, “One or Two Things,” New and Collected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 122.

[ii] ibid., 178

Fathers, we must part

Joe Golowka at 93

Joe Golowka at 93

Still, if it is a dream, let us indulge it a moment longer. Let us believe that some things last,
and some places and some people are not touched by change.

– Virginia Woolf[i]

When anyone spends nearly a hundred years on this earth, their departure hardly feels untimely. But it leaves a hole which is hard to get used to. They were always there––and now they’re not. When my mentor and fatherly friend Joe Golowka died in his sleep around dawn yesterday, a month before his ninety-ninth birthday, I knew it was coming. But I still felt the shock of sudden absence.

I first met Joe six years after losing my father. Heart attack, 62 years old. Fatherless in my twenties, I needed considerably more mentoring, and Joe supplied it with gentleness and warmth. His family welcomed me as one of their own, and I cherish many happy memories of hanging out at their house for barbecues, swimming and cheering on the Dodgers and Lakers. I had a priestly role in two family baptisms and a wedding, and the whole clan drove a thousand miles to celebrate my own marriage. Whenever I visit them, I don’t need to knock before entering.

Joe enjoyed many things, but his love for the California mountains was our closest bond. He started teenage backpacking adventures in the Sierra for the Episcopal dioceses of Los Angeles and San Diego, and we first met in 1972 when he recruited me to be chaplain for his annual excursions. I possessed a little backpacking experience at the time, and had been training my eyes and heart for nature by reading Thoreau and John Muir. But Joe soon became my best teacher in the physical and spiritual dimensions of wilderness walking.

He gave a master class in the art of paying attention. Don’t race down the trail. Take your time. Stop and look. Wait patiently for nature to show itself. Get down on the ground, climb a tree, try a different angle. From the tiniest orchid to the grandest sunset, he wouldn’t let you miss anything of what John Muir called “these vast, calm, measureless mountain days … opening a thousand windows to show us God.”[ii] Joe’s voice––Don’t forget to look!––still keeps me company when I hike alone. And hundreds of his other trail companions would tell you the same.

There is a Zen story about a monk who was meditating by the window of his mountain cabin when a thief broke in. The monk did not react, but just kept on meditating. His eyes were not on the thief, but on the full moon passing between the pines. The thief took what little there was, then slipped back into the night. “Poor fellow,” said the monk. “I wish I could have given him this beautiful moon.” Joe was like that monk. He gave us the moon, and so much more.

In 2003, I planned an eight-day solo hike in the eastern Sierra. Since I would finish many miles south of my starting point, I needed to leave my car at the hike’s terminus (the bottom of a 9-mile, 6000’ descent to high desert from 12,000’ Taboose Pass), and then get myself 17 miles up the highway to the trailhead at Big Pine Creek. As it happened, Joe was on a fishing trip in the area, and he offered to provide my shuttle ride.

In his mid-eighties at the time, Joe had reluctantly given up mountain hiking a few years before. But during his fishing trips in the Owens Valley east of the Sierra, he would sometimes visit his favorite trails, walking a short stretch to bid them farewell. So when I began my walk, Joe kept me company for the first mile, until we reached a bridge below a grand cascade. We stood on the bridge for a while, leaning on the railing in wordless contemplation of the roaring falls. Then we crossed to the other side, where the trail began a steep ascent into a forest of incense cedar and Jeffrey pine. Joe had gone as far as he could. He looked down at the trail for a moment, and offered his regrets. “I wish I could come with you”, he said. It wasn’t just me he was addressing, but the trail itself. How hard to surrender something you love so much.

To live in this world you must be able to do three things, says Mary Oliver.

to love what is mortal;
to hold it against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.[iii]

Nine days ago, my wife’s father, Art, died peacefully in hospice at his home, surrounded by his children and grandchildren. When his body began to give out last fall, he did not talk much about what lay ahead, but once his last days arrived, he seemed to know exactly what to do. His attention began to shift from this world to the next as he went inward, responding less and less to the empirical world in which he had lived and moved for 87 years. He was letting go. Going home.

I’ve almost gained my heavenly home,
My spirit loudly sings.
Behold, they come, the holy ones,
I hear the sound of wings.[iv]

In Art’s last hours, his family laid hands on him as I said the Last Rites: Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world . . . Then my wife Karen, wearing a stole she had just brought back from a Holy Land pilgrimage, anointed her father with oil. As evening fell he breathed his last, and departed in peace.

It is no denial of grief to mark the holiness of such a dying. Absent the tragedy of an untimely death, or the anguish of a painful one, we may glimpse even through our tears what a solemn and beautiful mystery it is to pass from the temporal to the eternal.

Jerusalem, my happy home,
When shall I come to thee?
When shall my sorrows have an end,
Thy joys when shall I see?[v]

Jeffrey pines, Sierra Nevada

Jeffrey pines, Sierra Nevada

When Joe and I parted at that Big Pine Creek trailhead, he blessed me with an affectionate hug, and I began my long climb. As I trudged upward, he called out after me, giving the same admonition I’d first heard in his gruff voice thirty years earlier: “Don’t stare at the trail! Your feet can see the trail just fine. Look around, see everything, enjoy everything.” Then he turned and started back toward the trailhead. I stopped to watch until he disappeared into the trees.

In the space of eight winter days, I have lost two fathers. Joe’s departure was like Art’s––peaceful, in his own bed, surrounded by family. When I got the news by phone, it was snowing outside. Suddenly the power went off and the call dropped. It felt like Joe’s final message to me: Hey Jim, get off the phone and go outside. This snowfall is too beautiful to miss!

 

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Virginia Woolf, The Second Common Reader (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1960)

[ii] John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988), Chapter 2, June 23, 1869, p. 35

[iii] “In Blackwater Woods,” Mary Oliver: New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 178

[iv] “Angel Band,” text by Jefferson Hascall (1860), tune by William Batchelder Bradbury (1862). This is one of the songs we sang at Art’s bedside.

[v] c. 16th century, The Episcopal Hymnal 1982 (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1982), #620