The Fullness of Time

Fiona Hall installation, Australian pavilion, Venice Biennale 2015

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent the Son, born of a woman … 

— The Letter of Paul to the Galatians (4:4)

In my six years of blogging, I have always posted a reflection on New Year’s Eve. The symbolic border between old and new prompts the big questions: Where have we been? Where are we going? If “Time is our choice of How to love and Why,”[i] are we using it well? Here are links to all my past posts dated December 31, followed by some thoughts at the end of a year like no other.  

The Angel of Possibility (2014)     Fresh starts nurture fresh hopes, but the turning of the year is of itself not enough to save us. The only sustainable new birth is rooted in the Nativity’s marriage of earth and heaven, finite and infinite, temporal and eternal, human and divine, and I am grateful that our passage into the New Year falls in the middle of the Christmas feast, enriched by faith’s larger hopes. We are not alone. As the Psalmist cries to the Holy One, “My times are in your hand; deliver me.” (Psalm 31:15)

Tick, Tock: Thoughts for New Year’s Eve (2015)     On the one night of the year when countless human beings devote collective awareness to the vanishing Now (at least for the last 10 seconds of the 12th month), time is on everyone’s mind. And though there may be little consensus on the theoretical nature of time, we are all immersed in its flow, or what Susan Sontag called “time’s relentless melt.” We feel keenly the effects of beginnings, transitions, losses and endings. At year’s end, we pause on the razor’s edge between old and new, memory and expectation, regret and hope. When we dance our welcome to the New, may that narrow boundary prove wide enough for our joyful steps.  

Foolishness and Hope on the Eve of 2017 (2016)      At the outset of our 4-year political and social nightmare, I beheld my country teetering on the brink of insanity and ruin. The New Year brought more dread than hope. It demanded a sturdier and steadier kind of moral resolve than the customary pledges of self-improvement. It required that we renounce despair. “We would do well,” I wrote, “not to be mesmerized by the abyss, but to focus on the greater power already and always at work amid the blind sufferings of history. God neither causes nor prevents those sufferings, but divine ingenuity always outwits them in the end.” 

At the Mercy of the Future (2017)      My title came from Didier Maleuvre: So long as one hopes, one puts oneself at the mercy of the future. 2017 was a painful year to be a person of hope, but I found consolation in Maleuvre’s study of ancient sculpture, contrasting the “readiness” of Greek statuary with the blank visages of Egyptian figures, who appear to expect nothing from the world, their minds closed to wonder, risk, or surprise. I myself am partial to the Greeks. “We are creatures of longing and hope,” I wrote, “and it is our fate to wade into the stream of time, come what may. But as the biblical God tells us at the beginning of every journey, Do not be afraid. I will go with you.”

On New Year’s Eve, My Inner Clown is Full of Hope (2018)     Midway through the Trumpian hell, I hear the voices of three poets tending the flame of hope. In “O Esperanza,” Catherine Barnett cites one of her teachers, the philosopher Richard Rorty: “Just before he died, Rory said his sense of the holy was bound up with the hope / that someday our remote descendants will live in a global civilization / in which love is pretty much the only law.” 

Farewell to a Decade. And then? (2019)     The strain of these evil times was taking its toll on everyone as the decade ended. I recalled how Thoreau ignored the outbreak of the Civil War in his voluminous journal while continuing to register the doings of nature in extensive detail. When asked how he could remain silent on such a momentous national subject, Thoreau said that refusing to let our attention be consumed by the hypnotic gaze of chaos “is just the most fatal, and indeed the only fatal weapon you can direct against evil.” In that same spirit, I wrote: “2020 promises an immense struggle requiring the best of us, and I am grateful for those who plan to welcome the New Year with their most prayerful attention, keeping their eye on the Light rather than being transfixed by the dark abyss of malevolence.”

Harold Lloyd, Safety Last (1923).

As for 2020, does anyone expect it to go quietly, to cease at midnight from doing further harm? Though we may find catharsis in shouting our “good riddances!” tonight, this year’s manifold ills will linger a while longer, and fresh starts will take time. Tomorrow morning the world will look much the same. “A change is gonna come,”[ii] but not in an instant. 

Yet with the woes of sin and strife 
the world has suffered long;
Beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled 
two thousand years of wrong. [iii]

Lancelot Andrewes, a 17th-century English bishop, preached seventeen Christmas Day sermons before King James in the Chapel Royal. Preachers who struggle to come up with fresh Nativity sermons year after year must stand in awe of Andrewes’ inexhaustible richness of expression and range of thought. “He cuts and polishes a text, like a jeweler a diamond,” wrote a later editor of those sermons, “and the rays of truth from its heart of light flash from every facet.” [iv]

The bishop’s Christmas sermon of 1609 explored St. Paul’s verse (Galatians 4:4) about the “fullness of time.” For Andrewes, St. Paul’s phrase itself is full, generating a surplus of meanings and implications. It suggests a condition of completeness, where nothing essential is lacking. More specifically, it designates the pivotal moment of history’s ripening, producing the Incarnate Word, the crown of creation. But the fullness is not just a property of time. It is an attribute of God: the overflowing fullness of Divine Love pouring itself endlessly into the world. The birth of Christ, said Andrewes, entails “the full measure of [God’s] sending.” 

At the same time, there is a receptive dimension to the term, which Andrewes called “the fullness of the benefit we receive” from the Incarnation—not just redemption from sin but the means of union with God—and the joy which fills us in consequence. Fullness is not just divine gift; it is something that happens within us, a grace in which we participate. 

“And after our joyfulness or fullness of joy, our fullness of thanks or thankfulness is to ensue; for with that fullness we are to celebrate it likewise. Our minds first, and then our mouths, to be filled with blessing, and praise, and thanks to Him, that hath made our times not to fall into those empty ages of the world, but to fall within this “fullness of time,” which “so many Kings and Prophets desired to have lived in …”

Adoration of the Christ Child, follower of Jan Joest of Kalkar, c. 1515.

But the fullness comes and goes, ebbs and flows. What do we do in its absence? At the end of W. H. Auden’s Christmas Oratorio, For the Time Being, the poet laments the relative emptiness of time once the Vision fades:

To those who have seen 
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.

Once we have experienced “the stable where for once in our lives / Everything was a You and nothing was an It,” how can we go back to the way we were? How can we settle for anything less than “the fullness of time?”[v] We don’t. Instead, we make our longing an instrument of change, energizing us—by the grace of the Spirit—to manifest and embody the fullness in our own stories, whenever and however we can.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rimes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.[vi]

When we beat our gongs, bang our drums, and blow our whistles on the porch at midnight, I will recite these lines of Tennyson. But when we go back inside, I’ll put on Rachel Platten’s “Soldiers”—a rousing response to 2020’s time of trial—and we will dance to the fullness of time.

We’re at the end of the road
We’re all soldiers on our own
Trying to find our way back home
And at the end of the day
Nothing matters anyway
Just the love that we have made

So let’s let go of our mistakes
We’ve all got hearts that easily break

No matter how the light may fade
We’ll carry on, it’s how we’re raised
We might fall
But we won’t break
Yeah, we won’t break …

And now our hearts will beat, now they’ll beat as one
We made it through, and after all, came the sun
And now our hearts will beat, now our hearts will beat as one

— Rachel Platten, “Soldiers” [vii]


Happy New Year, dear Reader! Thank you for reading and sharing through this challenging year. “We made it through!” I am grateful for your thoughtful attention to things that matter. I wish you much joy, health, love and peace in the days to come. Great joy to the New!

[i] W. H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, ed. Alan Jacobs (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), 46.

[ii] Sam Cooke wrote his great song, “A Change is Gonna Come” (1964), in support of the Civil Rights movement.

[iii] Edmund H. Sears (1810-1876), “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”

[iv] The Editor is uncredited and the date, probably early 20th century, is not given in my reprinted volume of Lancelot Andrewes Seventeen Sermons on the Nativity (Collingwood, Victoria, Australia: Trieste Publishing, 2017). All the Andrewes citations are from Sermon IV (Dec. 25, 1609), pp. 44-62.

[v] For the Time Being, 64-65.

[vi] Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “In Memoriam.” Emphasis mine. The “fuller minstrel” is the Christ, embodying the fullness of our humanity united with divinity, singing Possibility into being.

[vii] Rachel Platten, “Soldiers” (2020). Platten recently explained her commitment to speaking out through her songs: “We need to use our art right now, because I truly believe beauty can save the world.”

Praying the Hours (5): Sext and None

This is the fifth in a series on the canonical hours, the ancient Christian practice for living a mindful day. The first, “Reclaiming My Time,” gives a general introduction, with a list of helpful resources for your own practice of prayer and meditation. This reflection considers Sext and None, the hours of midday and mid-afternoon.

Midday sun near the Summer Solstice (Eugene, Oregon: June 25, 2011)

Bumper to bumper, the days stream past the day-old baked goods store though sometimes a Sunday morning pulls in, driven by some old man who stops in the present for a moment to buy a little bag of yesterdays. But mostly the days, by the dozens, dry out and get thrown to the birds, sparrows and starlings to whom each hour is as tasty as the last.

— Ted Kooser, The Wheeling Year

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

— Philip Larkin, “The Whitsun Weddings”

Sext

The “sixth hour” after Prime is the midpoint of the solar day. At the highest point of its arc, the sun concludes its ascent by crossing the meridian, passing over from the sky’s eastern half (ante meridian) into its western half (post meridian). From there until sunset, it’s all downhill. 

As the summit of the solar journey, when all shadows shrink toward nothingness, noon shares the refulgence of the summer solstice: the sky’s luminosity is at the full, and time pauses to linger. “Here the sun, / Sleepless, inhales his proper air, and rests,” said Wallace Stevens, celebrating the annual moment of “arrested peace, / Joy of such permanence, right ignorance / Of change still possible.”[i] An earlier American poet, Emily Dickinson, celebrated noon as a daily symbol of fullness and ripeness. It was a momentary taste of eternity, a glorious timeout from the temporal flow. 

The soul has moments of Escape—
When bursting all the doors—
She dances like a Bomb, abroad,
And swings upon the Hours,

As do the Bee—delirious borne—
Long Dungeoned from his Rose—
Touch Liberty—then know no more,
But Noon, and Paradise— [ii]

The whimsical Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) recommends proper enjoyment of the midday pause. “Just as lunch was at the center of man’s temporal day, and man’s temporal day could be seen as an analogy for his spiritual life, so lunch should (a) be seen as the center of man’s spiritual life, and (b) be held in jolly nice restaurants.”[iii]

But midday can be more than a pleasant break in the action. However busy the day, monastic communities take time out to give thanks for the morning, reflect on its challenges and its gifts, and invite grace and wisdom for the afternoon. And so too may we uncloistered believers, immersed in the secular world, profitably recollect, reorient, and recommit in the middle of the day’s story. What is time for? What is this day for? What is it trying to tell me? What is it asking of me?  “We harvest what the morning sowed,” says a noonday hymn. “Now grant us undiminished strength / to stand and do what still remains.”[iv]

For the mystic, the noonday surplus of earthly light both images and ignites an inner fire. “Be ablaze with enthusiasm,” said Hildegard of Bingen. “Let us be an alive burning offering before the altar of God.”[v] And it was beneath the midday sun that St. Paul was brought to his knees by “a bright light from heaven” (Acts 22:6). To borrow another line from Emily Dickinson, I imagine Paul’s transformative glimpse of divinity to have been “As much of Noon as I could take / Between my finite eyes.”[vi]

But even in the brightest noon, there lurks the shadow of crisis, “the barrenness / Of the fertile thing that can attain no more.”[vii] Just as the sun’s zenith is the beginning of its descent into night, the soul at noon must reckon with its own temporality. Our escape into the “arrested peace” of Paradise is but a moment. Like the sun, we too must decline toward the Night. And the sense of an ending, the pressure of time running out, afflicts the present moment with doubt. Have I done my best with this day so far? Will I have time to complete the work I have been given to do? Does it matter?

In their meditations on the Canonical Hours, David Steindl-Rast and Sharon Lebell point out the spiritual duality of the noonday hour:

“Sext comes right in the middle of the day, in the middle of everything. It is the middle of our life each day, the time of opportunity and the time of crisis … At this turning point in time we decide the fate of our day, and cumulatively the fate of our lives. Do we renew our fervor and commitment, or do we let the forces of entropy drain our resolve?”[viii]

The Latin word for noon (meridiem) and its European derivatives (mezzogiornomediodiale midi) are simply descriptive: “the middle of the day.” But the English term, confusingly derived from None, the canonical hour for mid-afternoon (3 p.m.), holds negativity in its heart. As a palindrome, it reads “no” from either direction. This double no evokes refusal, but is it the refusal of time—noon as a taste of timeless eternity—or something more dire: refusal of the temporal flow of life itself?

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927).

In her poem, “A Clock stopped,” Dickinson sees a death image in the cessation of a ticking clock at exactly 12 p.m.—called “Degreeless noon” by the poet because the overlapping of hour and second hands, both pointing to XII, leaves no intervening angle between them. Their stilled hands no longer circle the hours. Their “dial life” is at an end. Does that signify eternity or oblivion? This question haunts many of Dickinson’s writings. The word “no” permeates this poem, not only in “noon” but also in “not,” “snow,” “nods,” and, most chillingly, “concernless No”—conveying the indifference of death and nothingness to human fate.[ix]

A Clock stopped – 
Not the Mantel’s –  
Geneva’s farthest skill 
Can’t put the puppet bowing –  
That just now dangled still –  

An awe came on the Trinket! 
The Figures hunched, with pain –  
Then quivered out of Decimals –  
Into Degreeless Noon –  

It will not stir for Doctors –  
This Pendulum of snow –  
This Shopman importunes it –  
While cool – concernless No –  

Nods from the Gilded pointers –  
Nods from the Seconds slim –  
Decades of Arrogance between 
The Dial life –  
And Him –

The word for midday occupies the exact middle of the poem: noon is the 38th word out of 75. And the poet makes it rhyme with pain. That’s a slant rhyme: the vowels disagree but the hard sound of the final consonants match. The pairing of noon and pain is unsettling, expressing the ambivalent nature of the hour—the solar zenith where the day begins its decline. Significantly, it was at this very moment that the Lord of life was nailed to the cross, as every noonday liturgy recalls.

Blessed Savior, at this hour you hung upon the cross, stretching out your loving arms: Grant that all the peoples of the earth may look to you and be saved; for your tender mercies’ sake. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer: Service for Noonday).[x]

Mortality is not noon’s only shadow. The Psalmist warns of “the sickness that lays waste at noonday” (Psalm 91:6). The Greek term for this malady is acēdia, variously translated as listlessness, restless boredom, discouragement, despondency. At its extreme is the suicidal ennui of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” who descends into total inaction with his perpetual refrain of refusal: “I prefer not to.” John Cassian (c. 350-435), whose 5th-century writings on desert spirituality would be a wellspring for later monastics, rendered acēdia in Latin as taedium cordis (“tedium of the heart”). The desert saints, who struggled with acēdia beneath the enervating Egyptian sun, gave it a more personal title: “the noonday demon.”

Desert Sext (Baja California, 12:05 p.m., October 1, 2005).

Cassian’s desert mentor, Evagrius Ponticus (c. 360-399), described acēdia as a chronic inability to be present:

“The eyes of the listless monk gaze out the window again and again, and his mind imagines visitors. A sound at the door, and he jumps up .… When he reads, the listless monk yawns plenty and easily falls asleep. He rubs his eyes and stretches his arms. His eyes wander from the book. He stares at the wall and then goes back to his reading for a little. He then wastes his time hanging on to the end of words, counts the pages, ascertains how the book is made, finds fault with the writing and the design. Finally he just shuts it and uses it as a pillow. Then he falls into a sleep not too deep, because hunger wakes his soul up and he begins to concern himself with that.”[xi]

I’ve met that noonday demon, and I suspect you have too. All the more needful, then, to transit the daily meridian with a prayer on our lips, and trust in our heart. “Today I place before you death and life,” says the Holy One. “Choose life!”[xii]

None

You sweep us away like a dream;
we fade away suddenly like the grass. (Psalm 90:5)

By mid-afternoon, lengthening shadows measure the lateness. With each day’s passing, we think about endings and rehearse our own finality. The daily theater of impermanence may provoke in us wistfulness or melancholy. But it can also teach the art of letting go. This day has bestowed its gifts and it blessings. We have received them as best we could. We are grateful. But we don’t hold on. We don’t worry about the morrow. We entrust ourselves to the Giver, without clinging to the gift. 

At None, the day’s labors are winding down. We might wish for more time, or more energy, to complete them gracefully, and we may not have the option to set them down unfinished. But if one has any choice in the matter, would it be better to honor the hour rather than the task? Late afternoon, the hour of None, calls us to work of a more inward kind. How can we make space for the questions, and the prayers which they prompt in us? 

What has this day taught me? What could I do differently tomorrow? What requires mending before the sun sets? What burdens can I lay down? Who needs my forgiveness? What must I forgive in myself? What am I grateful for? What precious moments did I forget to sanctify with my deepest attention? Where did I remember God?

Shadows deepen at None (York Minster, UK: October 21, 2015).

The light of a waning afternoon is the sweetest kind. It is warmer and softer, purged of glare and harshness, suffused with fondness. It invites stillness, contemplation, tranquility, rest. It makes the world glow for weary eyes. It is honey for the soul. In these latter days, most of us lack tower bells to announce a pause for mindfulness, or muezzins in minarets calling us to prayer. But afternoon light remains omnipresent, inviting us all to sink into the mystery of the moment, wherever we may be.

W. H. Auden wrote a cycle of poems on the canonical hours: Horae Canonicae. As the poems take us through the diurnal passage from Prime to Compline, we soon realize the poet is talking about Good Friday. The poem for None—the hour when Christ died—imagines the waning of that most singular day.

It is barely three,
Mid-afternoon, yet the blood
Of our sacrifice is already 
Dry on the grass; we are not prepared 
For silence so sudden and so soon; 
The day is too hot, too bright, too still,
Too ever, the dead remains too nothing.
What shall we do until nightfall?

These lines register something of my own feelings over a lifetime of Good Fridays, when I exit the church at None into “silence so sudden and so soon.” How does one move on from the death of God? What shall we do until nightfall?

Soon cool tramontana will stir the leaves, 
The shops will re-open at four,
The empty blue bus in the empty pink square
Fill up and depart: we have time 
To misrepresent, excuse, deny,
Mythify, use this event,
While, under a hotel bed, in prison,
Down wrong turnings, its meaning 
Waits for our lives …[xiii]

I think every disappearing afternoon shares something of this mood. Most days, the doings will be far less dramatic or significant, but there still remains a sense of aftermath, of carrying on under the influence of events now past, trying to make sense of them—or not—while somewhere up ahead, a fuller accounting “waits for our lives.” In any case, every day changes us, and discerning how is part of our prayer life. 

But if the weight of Auden’s subject seems too much to carry with you into the average evening, let me leave you with a poem by William Stafford, a gem of self-compassion for the late afternoon:

Nobody cares if you stop here.  You can
look for hours, gaze out over the forest.
And the sounds are yours too—take away
how the wind either whispers or begins to
get ambitious.  If you let the silence of
afternoon pool around you, that serenity
may last a long time, and you can take it
along.  A slant sun, mornings or evenings,
will deepen the canyons, and you can carry away
that purple, how it gathers and fades for hours.
This whole world is yours, you know.  You can
breathe it and think about it and dream it after this
wherever you go.  It’s all right.  Nobody cares.[xiv]



[i] Wallace Stevens, “Credences of Summer,” Collected Poetry and Prose (New York: The Library of America, 1997), 323.

[ii] Emily Dickinson, “The Soul has Bandaged moments”— F360 (1862) 512.

[iii] Douglas Adams, Life, the Universe, and Everything (1980), cited in Mark Barrett, OSB, Crossing: Reclaiming the Landscape of Our Lives (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2008), 9.

[iv] Charles P. Price, “The fleeting day is nearly gone,” Episcopal Hymnal 1982, # 23.

[v] Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), cited in Macrina Wiederkehr, Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully Through the Hours of the Day (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2008), 111.

[vi] Emily Dickinson, “Before I got my eye put out”— F 336 (1862) 327.

[vii] Wallace Stevens, “Credences of Summer.”

[viii] Brother David Steindl-Rast & Sharon Lebell, Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey Through the Hours of the Day (Brooklyn, NY: Ulysses Press, 2001).

[ix] Emily Dickinson, “A Clock stopped” — F259 (1861) 287.

[x] Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 107.

[xi] Evagrius Ponticus, On the Eight Spirits of Evil, cited in William Harmless, S.J., Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 204), 326.

[xii] Deuteronomy 30:19.

[xiii] W. H. Auden, “Nones,” Horae Canonicae, in Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976).

[xiv] William Stafford, “Nobody Cares,” Crossing Unmarked Snow (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1998).

May my heart’s truth still be sung

Seattle Times, July 16, 1995 (50th anniversary of the first atomic bomb).

Strange things happen in life––a ticket here, a ticket there, and twenty, thirty, forty years later the destination.

–– William McPherson, Testing the Current

Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

–– W. H. Auden, For the Time Being

Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection.

––– Collect for the first Sunday in July, Book of Common Prayer

 

Today I turned 75. I’ve seen it coming for a long time, but I’m still surprised! I took my first breath early in the evening of July 16, 1944, at the Hospital of the Good Samaritan in Los Angeles. Twenty-two years later, four days before my birthday, my father would take his last breath in the same place.

Every birth date collects an assortment of associations and memories. My favorite film noir, Double Indemnity, begins with a doomed Fred MacMurray speaking into a Dictaphone, beginning with the date: “July 16, 1938” (the film was released in 1944, and co-star Barbara Stanwyck’s birthday was July 16). On my 7th birthday, Catcher in the Rye was published. I saw Paris for the first time when I turned 17. On my 29th  birthday, Alexander Butterfield revealed to the Senate Watergate Committee the existence of the Nixon tapes.

My hometown paper on my 25th birthday.

When I turned one year old, the first atomic bomb was exploded in New Mexico. On my 25th birthday, Apollo 11 blasted off for the moon. And on my 50th, a comet crashed into Jupiter, creating the largest explosion ever witnessed in the solar system.

If those explosive bursts of heat and light were some kind of sequence (1…25…50…), what was in store for 75? Apocalypse? Thankfully, on this 50th anniversary of the moon launch, the iconic phenomenon proved both gentle and fitting. No great event, no big bang. But not a whimper either. What happened tonight was this: a full moon rose in silence over a collapsed volcano (whose supposed similarity to the moon’s surface had provided a valuable training ground for the lunar astronauts). The tranquil orb shed its luminous blessing, the close of a perfect day. O gracious Light!

Rising moon above Newberry Crater, Oregon, July 16, 2019.

From 1956 to 1962, I attended an Episcopal boys’ school in Los Angeles. In my class of sixty-five, three of my best friends had, like me, been born in July of 1944. After sharing a formative passage through adolescence and being collectively imprinted––or cursed––with the high expectations fostered by a privileged education, we maintained our bonds into adulthood. In the month of our thirtieth birthdays, we gathered at a California beach house for a weekend of celebration and memory. Toward the end, there was a midnight toast. “Hey Jude” came on the stereo as we lifted our glasses to past and future selves. Take a sad song and make it better. We were not yet where we wanted to be, but we still feasted on dreams and a sense of promise. In ten years, we pledged, our forty-year-old selves would gather again to trade stories of the journey.

O may my heart’s truth
Still be sung
On this high hill in a year’s turning.

Dylan Thomas wrote these hopeful words when he turned thirty. But it doesn’t always work that way. A year after our glad toasts by the sea, on the last day before our birthday month, one of the four committed suicide. We three who remained gathered to sing him home in our old school chapel. We could only guess at the pain that took him from us.

When Jon died, I was deep in the mountain wilderness of the Sierra Nevada. Just before sunrise he came to me in a dream, assuring me that he was all right. I awoke and looked at my watch––6:00 am. It was, I learned later, the hour of his death.

A week after his funeral, on the day of my 31birthday, I rose early to take a long walk in the hills above Los Angeles, where pockets of wildness and quiet still thrive in the heart of the teeming metropolis. Jon and I had both been runners in high school, and we loved training together in these hills. Our school was situated along their lower slope, so it only took a few minutes of running to leave the cityscape behind.

As I walked these same hills so soon after his death, Jon was very much in my thoughts, and one particular workout came to mind. Just behind the school chapel, a 150-yard stretch of road climbed steeply to a crest. During our senior year, in a pouring rain, Jon and I challenged each other to run a series of all-out sprints up this grade, one after another, until we both collapsed, utterly exhausted and sick to our stomachs.

We made it back to the gym to recover. Jon stretched out on a bench and closed his eyes. He lay there a long time, not saying a word. When he finally spoke, he said he’d had it with running. He was going to quit the team. The feeling soon passed, and he would go on to win the southern California half-mile championship in a time of 1:53.1. But I remember feeling genuine alarm in the presence of his momentary despair. It was like a black hole, sucking up all the light around it. Jon was made for running, and his powerful spirit made the rest of us faster. To see that spirit falter, if only for a moment, was unsettling, like witnessing a saint’s crisis of faith and wondering about the fragile poise of your own soul.

After my birthday walk, I put this recollection in a letter to an east coast friend. But I prefaced it with a report of what I had seen around me on that particular day––not darkness and death, but the beauty of a summer morning in the hills of home:

“The intensely blue panicles of a ceanothus shrub arched across the path like an enchanted boundary, a gate back to Eden. Near a jocular little stream, a California thrasher poked its long, curved bill into the debris beneath an oak tree. A solitary yellow leaf, suspended by a long spider’s thread against a background of dark mist, spun ecstatically in a ray of sunlight. The path unfolded before me like a narrative––meandering through the hush of sheltering thickets, emerging onto a golden slope of drying grasses, climbing upward into the enfolding blankness of a beclouded ridge, dipping downward to become a gentle country lane, purple-strewn with eucalyptus leaves, and finally spilling out into the alluvial plain of houses, lawns and swimming pools.”

It was as if an essential part of my response to loss and grief was to pay close attention to the gifts of one summer day, offered so generously to my receptive heart. To pay attention as if my own life depended on it.

“How shall the heart be reconciled / to its feast of losses?” asked the poet Stanley Kunitz, who lived to an even 100 years. The longer you live, the more the losses mount up––but also the beauties, the graces, the affectionate motions of the heart. I like what another poet, Vera Pavlova, says about this:

If there is something to desire,
there will be something to regret.
If there is something to regret,
there will be something to recall.
If there is something to recall,
there was nothing to regret.[i]

In one of Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes cartoons, the boy gets a letter from his past self. It reads: “Dear future Calvin, I wrote this several days before you will receive it. You’ve done things I haven’t done. You’ve seen things I haven’t seen. You know things I don’t know. You lucky dog! Your pal, Calvin.”

Calvin sniffles a bit and says, “I feel so sorry for myself two days ago.” To which his tiger friend, Hobbes, responds, “Poor him. He wasn’t you.”

Stanley Kunitz could sympathize. “I have walked through many lives,” he wrote, “some of them my own, / and I am not who I was . . .” So who am I now? Hmm. But ever since my baptism in November of 1944, the more critical question has always been, Whose am I?. As we say at the end of every mortal life, “whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s possession.” Is it possible to live in the light of that truth, come what may?

After my mother died in 2010, I found a prayer she had written on the flyleaf of her Daily Office book. It’s something she would have said almost every day: “God, whatever . . . Thanks.”

On my twenty-first birthday, my father, a priest, celebrated eucharist in our living room with my mother and me. Afterward, he presented me with a letter he had composed for the occasion. “Happiness is not found in security,” he reminded me, “nor can it be bought with money, but it is a holy mystery that is a gift from God, found only in serving Him.”

When I turned 40, my sister Marilyn sent me a list of questions.

What would you like to accomplish in your work? In your personal life?
How long do you think you will live?
What would you like to begin?
What would you like to end?
Name a physical risk you’d like to take.
Name an emotional risk you’d like to take.
Of what might you be afraid?
What do you want to mend?
What song describes your life at 40?
What writer touches you deeply at 40?
What would you like to create for yourself? For the world?
What are 3 things you are most satisfied with so far in your life?

These remain searching questions for me today, despite the somewhat eroded sense of future produced by thirty-five additional birthdays. I’ll start to ponder my answers tomorrow (God willing). Meanwhile, what Stanley Kunitz says, that is what I say:

Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.[ii]

Twenty-five years ago, on my 50th birthday, I made a 9-mile pilgrimage through English countryside to an old church cemetery in the Lake District. Arriving just after sunset, I laid a pair of California wildflowers on the grave of William Wordsworth. A waxing crescent moon hung suspended over a nearby hill. Shining very close to it was Jupiter, where the comet was making its cosmic crash. But here on earth, in this quiet churchyard, nothing but peace. I had pressed the two flowers––California poppy and Farewell-to-Spring––in my copy of Wordsworth’s Prelude, whose buoyant embrace of the human journey––rejecting the melancholy “wandering steps and slow” at the end of Paradise Lost––I claimed for myself at the beginning of my sixth decade. In these latter days, I do so again:

The earth is all before me. With a heart
Joyous, nor scared at its own liberty,
I look about; and should the chosen guide
Be nothing better than a wandering cloud,
I cannot miss my way. I breathe again!

Laying wildflowers on Wordsworth’s grave on my 50th birthday.

 

 

Related post: Grace Me Guide

[i] Vera Pavlova, “Four Poems,” translated from the Russian by Steven Seymour, The New Yorker, July 30, 2007, 37.

[ii] Stanley Kunitz excerpts are from “The Layers,” The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz(New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2002). Poetry Foundation link: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/54897/the-layers