From Seasons That Laugh or Weep: Musing on the Human Journey
At about 60 the male of the species faces a new transition: to late adulthood. I am powerfully reminded that I am moving from midterm: old age. For perhaps the first time I experience mortality. Oh, I always knew I was mortal; now I sense it. Soldiers feel it in a foxhole; I feel it in my flesh.
The decline, experts insist, actually began at 30, but now it is transparent. Joints ache, a virus will not leave me, ligaments heal slowly. Cucumbers make me throw up, and sauerkraut makes for diarrhea. For some there is a stroke, a growth, a clot. No matter what, I am not what I was. This flesh that gloried in its strength, that lusted in its manhood, that tanned so evenly, is wasting. Once a week the bell tolls for someone I know. And I’m afraid that maybe, like my mother, I will lose my memory, my arteries will harden, senility will set in.
At this stage I must face up to Erikson’s key polarity: integration versus despair. Somehow I must grasp my life as something whole. Only then can I live late adulthood, old age, without bitterness or despair; only thus can I come to terms with death. It means I am aware of my lack of wholeness, of my corruption; I make peace with my flawed existence. And to continue creative, I must retain my link to youthful vitality, my tie to the forces of growth in myself and in the world. Otherwise this will prove only the winter of my discontent.
Integration Versus Despair
But how do this, how grasp my life as something whole? The problem is complicated by an ideal – the ideal of old age that America has fashioned. We inhabit a culture that canonizes youth and beauty, activity and productivity, power and sexual prowess. If you are eternally young and ceaselessly attractive, if after 60 or 65 you continue your career with little letdown and still make an impact on an acre of God’s world, if you can jog or play squash or straddle a Honda, if you can still satisfy a man or woman sexually, then your aging is ideal. In fact, you’re not growing old at all! The ideal is a compound of Churchill and John XXIII, Picasso and Susan B. Anthony, Maurice Chevalier and Marlene Dietrich, George Meany and Mae West, George Burns and Lauren Bacall, Clark Gable and Grandma Moses. The only ideal of old age we accept in America is an old age without change or limits or loss.
If this be ideal old age, it is a tragic ideal; for it is not our ordinary experience. Only a very few continue their careers after 65; only a very few live the dominant ideal. In The Coming of Age Simone de Beauvoir put it painfully well:
Apart from some exceptions, the old man no longer does anything. He is defined by an exis, not by a praxis: a being, not a doing. Time is carrying him towards an end – death – which is not his and which is not postulated or laid down by any project. This is why he looks to active members of the community like one of a “different species,” one in whom they do not recognize themselves.
An ideal that can be lived only by the rich, the talented, the powerful is hardly a viable ideal.
Basic to a Christian theology for the aging is a sacred Christian symbol: kenosis. The Greek word means an “emptying.” The archetype of emptying, in the Christian tradition, is Christ Jesus, who, in Saint Paul’s powerful phrasing,
though of divine status,
did not treat like a miser’s booty
his right to be like God
[his right to appear like Yahweh in glory],
but emptied himself of it,
to take up the status of a slave
and become like men.
Having assumed human form,
he still further humbled himself
with an obedience that meant death—
even death upon a cross!
This archetypal emptying finds a moving analogue in the Gospel scene where the risen Jesus addresses Peter, who has thrice protested that he does indeed love his Lord: “Truly, I assure you, when you were a young man, you used to fasten your own belt and set off for wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (John 21:18)
I am not suggesting that Jesus was lecturing Peter on gerontology. Still, the scene is provocative for our problem. In the Catholic vision, aging calls for a kenosis which radically sunders old age from youth, an emptying which can rarely be denied, a progressive loss which must be faced, evaluated, transcended. Of course age diminishes me. How could it not?
The point is, aging need not be an enemy. The Christian scriptures will not accept the more classical idea that adult maturity is a finished state, that at a certain point, at the peak of physical and intellectual manhood or womanhood, you are the complete person, you have it made, you have reached perfection. No, life is an endless pilgrimage; the Christian is a pilgrim, a wayfarer. The perfection of a Christian man or woman is total conformity to the humanness of Christ – and that is a ceaseless process, never achieved here below.
Essential to the pilgrimage is kenosis: you have to let go. From the very shape of the human journey. For the journey to go forward, to move ahead, you have to let go of where you’ve been, let go of the level of life where you are now, so as to live more fully. Whether it’s turning 21, 40, or 65; whether it’s losing your health or your hair, your looks or your lustiness, your money or your memory, a person you love or a possession you prize; whether it’s yesterday’s applause or today’s rapture; whether it’s as fleeting as Malibu’s surf or as abiding as God’s grace – you have to move on. Essential to the human pilgrimage, to the Christian journey, is a self-emptying more or less like Christ’s own emptying: time and again, from womb to tomb, you have to let go. And to let go is to die a little. It’s painful, it can be bloody; and so we hang on, we clutch our yesterdays like Linus’s blanket, we refuse to grow.
That refusal to grow, to let go, I find powerfully symbolized in an old movie, Come Back, Little Sheba. The male lead, Burt Lancaster, is a reformed alcoholic. His wife, Shirley Booth, is a devoted woman with a big heart; but she bores him endlessly by ceaselessly recalling the good old days. Remember when. . . ? Time and again she walks out on the porch calling for Little Sheba, the dog that has disappeared, the dog that is a symbol of those bygone days, a symbol of dashed hopes. And for twenty years these two good people live what Thoreau called “lives of quiet desperation.”
But what is it I am growing into? Here I might well be mute, did not faith give me tongue. But not quite. Believer and unbeliever alike can grow into love. A quieter love, of course, without the passion of yesterday; but surely richer, perhaps deeper, because mellowed by every face I’ve seen or touched, softened from the anger and fear of yesteryear, grown more understanding of difference and diversity, more tolerant of the sinner in all of us. A love that has learned to listen. A love that at long last “is patient and kind, is not jealous or boastful, is not arrogant or rude, does not insist on its own way, is not irritable or resentful, does not rejoice at wrong but rejoices in the right.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-6)
And yet, it is my Christian faith that concretizes this love. As a Christian, my burden and my glory is to grow into Christ. Kenosis is not its own end. The Christian lets go because only by letting go does he or she grow gradually into Christ, come to be conformed to his life and death, fashioned to his passion and resurrection. It is in this way that the Christian reaches oneness, not with abstract transcendence but with Someone Transcendent, with the triune personal Love we call God. Self-realization through self-transcendence.
The point is: for the Christian life, eternal life, eternal life granted already on this Earth, “consists in this,” as Jesus said to his Father the night before he died, “that they know you, the one true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ,” (John 17:3). Not a purely intellectual affair. Here, to “know” connotes immediate experience and intimacy; it involves a loving communion with God, with his human images on Earth, with every work of his hands. It is this loving communion that I am committed to grow into.
There should be a kenosis, an emptying, a letting go, all through human living; but aging and the losses of aging press kenosis to its nadir, its low point. Loss is heaped on loss, indignity on indignity – social and psychic, physical and intellectual – to the ultimate indignity that is death. Like Christ, I am stripped naked, for all the world to see – if it cares to look. What is left is not what I have achieved, not what I have amassed; what is left is who I am. It can be a frightening relic, a soul-shattering image; but there I am, at this stage of the pilgrimage. There am I, there is God, there are “the others.” Do I “know” them?
But if the purpose of kenosis is to transcend self, to come into loving communion with Someone Transcendent and with his created reflections, how is this achieved? After four decades of searching, my response is: through contemplation. Oh, not the popular sense of “contemplate,” which all too many instantly associate with “navel.” Contemplation in its profound sense is something just as real as your navel but immeasurably more exciting. My Carmelite friend William McNamara – a contemplative whose spoken word is fused of fire and softness, who sparkles with Isaian woe and Irish wit – once called contemplation “a pure intuition of being, born of love. It is experiential awareness of reality and a way of entering into immediate communion with reality. Reality? Why, that means people, trees, lakes, mountain. . . . You can study things, but unless you enter into this intuitive communion with them, you can only know about them, you don’t know them. To take a long loving look at something – a child, a glass of wine, a beautiful meal – this is a natural act of contemplation, of loving admiration. . . . To be able to do that, there’s the rub. All the way through school we are taught to abstract; we are not taught loving awareness.”
Never have I heard contemplation more engagingly defined: a long loving look at the real. Each word is crucial: the real. . . look. . . long. . . loving. The “real” here is not some far-off, abstract, intangible God-in-the-sky. Reality is living, pulsing people; reality is fire and water; reality is the sun setting over the Poconos and a gentle doe streaking through the forest; reality is a ruddy glass of Burgundy, Beethoven’s Mass in D, a child lapping a chocolate ice-cream cone; reality is a striding woman with wind-blown hair; reality is Christ Jesus. Paradoxically, the one thing excluded from contemplation is the one thing we identify with it: abstraction – where a leaf is no longer green, water no longer ripples, a woman is no longer soft, and God no longer smiles. What I contemplate is always what is most real: what philosophers call the concrete singular.
This real I “look” at. I no longer analyze it or argue it, describe or define it; I am one with it. I do not move around it; I enter into it. Remember Eric Gill’s outraged protest? “Good Lord! The thing was a mystery and we measured it!” Walter Kerr, in his delightful book The Decline of Pleasure, compared contemplation to falling in love:
To fall in love with someone is, in a real but maddeningly inarticulate way, to know someone. But not in terms of its height, weight, coloring, ancestry, intellectual quotient, or acquired habits. A person who is “known” is known through these qualities but never simply by them. No one of these things – not all of them together – precisely identifies the single, simple vibration that gives us such joy in the meeting of eyes or the lucky conjunction of interchanged words. Something private and singular and uniquely itself is touched – and known in the touching.
In contemplation, I simply “see.”
This look at the real is a “long” look. Not in terms of measured time, but wonderfully unhurried, gloriously unhurried. For Americans, time is a stop watch, time is money; life is a race against time. To contemplate is to rest – to rest in the real. Not lifelessly or languidly, not sluggishly or inertly. My whole being is alive, incredibly responsive, vibrating to every throb of the real. For once, time is irrelevant. You do not time Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Symphony; you do not clock the Last Supper. I am reminded of the Louvre in Paris and the haunting Mona Lisa. I recall an endless line of tourists, ten seconds each without ever stopping; over against that, a lone young man on a stone bench, eyes riveted, whole person enraptured, sensible only to beauty and mystery, aware only of the real.
But this long look at the real must be a “loving” look. It is not a fixed stare, not the long look of a Judas. To be one with the real means to love the real. It demands that the real delight me, captivate me. Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Ballet or lobster cardinal, the grace of a woman’s walk or the compassion in the eyes of Christ – whatever or whoever the real, contemplation calls forth love, pleasure, delight. For contemplation is not study, is not cold examination; contemplation is not a computer. To contemplate is to be in love – with the things of God, with the people of God, with God himself.
A long loving look at the real – this alone is contemplation. It is seeing things as they really are. It is the biblical “Be still and know that I am God,” (Psalm 46:10). It is Saint Teresa of Ávila gorging on a roast partridge. The nuns are scandalized. Teresa laughs: “At prayer time, pray! At partridge time, partridge!” That is why Kazantzakis loved her so lustily. From such contemplation comes pure pleasure, the pleasure modern man resists because it is “useless.” From such contemplation comes communion. I mean the discovery of the Holy in profound human encounters, where love is proven by sacrifice, the wild exchange of all else for God. Thus is fashioned what the second-century bishop Irenaeus called “God’s glory – man/woman alive!”
Is this “for real”? Am I seriously submitting that a cultural model for the aging is discoverable in contemplation? In one word, yes. In our passion for doing, we have forgotten or betrayed an ageless tradition that transcends cultures, that permeates not only the Hebrew Testament and the life of Jesus but the Platonists and Aristotle, the Stoics and Plotinus, not only the desert fathers of early Christianity and the medieval mystics but the daily life of India and Islam.
Oh, I know, contemplation as a model for the aging confronts obvious obstacles. First, it clashes with our culture; it runs counter to a twentieth-century American article of faith: only useful activity is valuable. If you are not active, you are not alive. Second, the model meets resistance in the real: most of the aging are anxious, are concerned about sheer survival, how to pay for today, how to cope with arthritic joints and tumorous flesh; it is so hard to “rest” in the real. Third, we are not educated to contemplation; we have not been taught loving awareness. At sixty-five it is not easy to begin looking long and lovingly at the real; it is easier to start jogging.
And still it must come to pass. Without contemplation we will continue to find or create “things to be done” as therapy for enforced idleness, a therapy that makes the old into second-class citizens on the edge of human living. Without contemplation the people will perish; for aging will be meaningless, Macbeth’s “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” But with contemplation the aging can afford to let go, to be emptied, because kenosis is recognized as the way to living in the present, receiving this moment as a gift rich in its possibilities. With contemplation I do not merely remember an irretrievable past, mourn each autumn leaf that falls. All that has gone is gathered together, comes to focus, to a still point, in my now. With contemplation old age can be growth as well as decline, a time of increased innerness. I am no longer what I do; I am who I am. With contemplation suffering need not be painful waste; the Christian can transform it into sacrifice, by making it an expression of love, a sharing in the Christ whose self-giving was redemptive. With contemplation I can crystallize my Christian conviction that God cares. Even loveless and alone, I am loved.
But how realize this capacity for contemplation? Four practical (or impractical) suggestions. First, as William McNamara never tires of repeating, some sort of desert experience. Not necessarily the physical desert of the Bible, the proving ground of Jesus and the desert fathers. The process can be initiated by any experience – old age itself – that brings you face-to-face with solitude, with vastness, with powers of life and death beyond your control, with your vulnerability; some experience – like old age – where you opt for living or life destroys you. Your pattern of life is interrupted. You learn to be still, alert, so that the real is recognizable. You know yourself, not some statistic. You know not a theology of God, but the much more mysterious God of theology,, the God of Abraham and Moses, of Isaiah and Ezekiel, the God of Peter, Paul, and John, the God of saints and the God of sinners.
A second suggestion: develop a feeling for festivity. Festivity, Josef Pieper insists, resides in activity that is meaningful in itself. I mean activity that is not tied to other goals, not tied to “so that” and “in order to.” Festivity, therefore, calls for renunciation: you take usable time and withdraw it from utility. And this you do out of love, whose expression is joy. Festivity is essential to ideal aging, because festivity is a yes to the world, a yes to the reality of things, a yes to the existence of man and woman; it is a yes to the world’s Creator.
A third suggestion, intimately allied to festivity: don’t try to “possess” the object of your delight, whether God or man, imprisoned marble or free-flowing rivulet; and don’t expect to “profit” from contemplation, from pleasure. Here Kerr’s Decline of Pleasure has a profound paragraph that has powerfully affected my life:
To regain some delight in ourselves and in our world, we are forced to abandon, or rather to reverse, an adage. A bird in the hand is not worth two in the bush – unless one is an ornithologist, the curator of the Museum of Natural history, or one of those Italian vendors who supply restaurants with larks. A bird in the hand is no longer a bird at all: it is a specimen; it may be dinner. Birds are birds only when they are in the bush or on the wing; their worth as birds can only be known at a discreet and generous distance.
A fourth suggestion: read, make friends with, remarkable men and women who have themselves looked long and lovingly at the real. I mean Augustine of Hippo and Antoine de Saint Exupéry, Catherine of Siena and Margaret Mead, Nikos Kazatzakis and Lao-Tzu, Julian of Norwich and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross, Dag Hammarskjöld and Dr. Zhivago, Thomas Merton and Thomas More, Gandhi and Thoreau, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Abraham Joshua Heschel, and a host of others. But note what kind of men and women these are: not solitaries, not hermits, not neurotic escapists, but flesh and blood in a flesh-and-blood world, unique however because each of them struggles daringly for self-transcendence, each smashed through boundaries and stretched humankind’s limits to the walls of infinity.
Have I gotten away from the aging? Quite the contrary. As I see it, all our agonizing efforts to make aging palatable will be band-aid remedies unless the elderly can move through kenosis to contemplation. The task is awesome indeed; for that task is to create a new climate – social and economic, political and psychological – where the aging can be freed to look long and lovingly at the real, freed to see themselves and their world as these really are, freed to grow inside by growing in oneness with God and with all that God has so lavishly fashioned, to laugh once again because so much of human activity is absurdly incongruous, to rejoice and be glad because this day of their lives the Lord has made!
They Wintered Gracefully
Fortunately for our realistic hoping, there are people who age that way. From my vocation to Jesuit existence, I prize, perhaps inevitably, certain of my colleagues who grew old gracefully. I choose from among many John LaFarge, Teilhard de Chardin, and Horace McKenna.
Member of a distinguished family of artists and authors, John LaFarge (1880-1963) labored for fifteen years in the rural missions of southern Maryland and founded the Catholic inter-racial movement in the U.S. Wonderfully wide-ranging, he was active in liturgical arts, international peace, and rural life, was honored by Jews and Catholics, feted by scholars, loved by the deprived. On turning seventy, Uncle John (as his colleagues on the weekly America fondly styled him) wrote a moving article to show how faith can transform old age, if one has a definite purpose and program. The program? Old age is a time of prayer, a time of charity, and a time for courage.
A time of prayer. Not monastic isolation, only a deepening of value. Greater familiarity with God and his saints; prayer now a part of life’s texture; the familiar (Mass, the De profundis) taking on fresh meaning. Listening for the Voice once drowned out by younger clamorings, now clearly heard in the cool of evening. More consciously grateful for the years behind, for the present moment; each day is a gift. Prayer less private, absorbed into “the great sacramental intercession of the Mystical Body of Christ.”
A time of charity. The area of operation has narrowed, of course. A kind word, a quiet service; visiting the lonely and listening to the young; sharing the sadness of the bereaved, the gladness of the newly wed; encouraging creative effort; charity for those spiritually kin to us but separated by misunderstanding or honest differences or even prejudice. Love for the living and love for the dead.
A time for courage. Indeed a time for precautions – from the railing on the stairs to the coat over chilled shoulders to the salt-free diet. And yet, the very “fact that so little of life still remains is the added reason for being prodigal of that little.” Here is “when you place all your life, hopes, and being the hands of him who gave his all for you.” It’s the courage to accept diminution – of adventure and achievement, of flesh and friends, of control, concentration, and communication. Welcoming diminution, going forth to meet it, embracing it. It can be “a vast liberation, not an imprisonment.” It’s the chance to rewrite our lives, perhaps the lives of others. With John LaFarge’s faith, old age was summed up in the great offering of thanksgiving-reparation, the Mass: into this offering he set his own offering of life itself.
A sign of contradiction for twentieth-century Catholicism, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) offered a seductive vision of the universe wherein matter and spirit, body and soul, nature and supernature, science and faith find their unity in Christ. Whatever one may think of his scientific methodology and the theological implications of his system, here was a priest-scholar of profound spirituality for whom the divine milieu is not only the mystical body of Christ but his cosmic body as well. “God is as out-stretched and tangible as the atmosphere in which we are bathed.” Towards the close of his life he could write: “Throughout my life, through my life, the world has little by little caught fire in my sight until, aflame all around me, it has become almost completely luminous from within. Such has been my experience in contact with the Earth – the diaphany of the divine at the heart of the universe on fire. . . Christ; his heart; a fire: capable of penetrating everywhere and, gradually, spreading everywhere.”
Here was a man who, especially in The Divine Milieu, wrote with sensitivity and passion of our diminishments slow and swift – from our earliest defects, failings, and limitations, through a body rebellious and a personality in conflict, to “old age little by little robbing us of ourselves and pushing us on towards the end. Time, which postpones possession, time which tears us away from enjoyment, time which condemns us all to death – what a formidable passivity is the passage of time.” In a moving prayer, Teilhard prayed to God for continuing communion through his very diminishing:
Now that I have found the joy of utilizing all forms of growth to make you, or to let you, grow in me, grant that I may willingly consent to this last phase of communion in the course of which I shall possess you by diminishing in you.
When the signs of age begin to mark my body (and still more when they touch my mind); when the ill that is to diminish me or carry me off strikes from without or is born within me; when the painful moment comes in which I suddenly awaken to the fact that I am ill or growing old; and above all at that last moment when I feel I am losing hold of myself and am absolutely passive within the hands of the great unknown forces that have formed me; in all those dark moments, O God, grant that I may understand that it is you (provided only my faith is strong enough) who are painfully parting the fibers of my being in order to penetrate to the very marrow of my substance and bear me away within yourself.
You are the irresistible and vivifying force, O Lord, and because yours is the energy, because, of the two of us, you are infinitely the stronger, it is on you that falls the part of consuming me in the union that should weld us together. Vouchsafe, therefore, something more precious still than the grace for which all the faithful pray. It is not enough that I should die while communicating. Teach me to communicate while dying.
In May of ’82 we buried a man of 83 in our nation’s capital. Few of the powerful knew Father Horace McKenna, for he was one with the powerless. He simply lived Christ’s criteria for inheriting his kingdom, (Matthew 25:31-46). Were people hungry? He founded SOME (“So Others Might Eat”), walked there day after day to breakfast with the “street people” SOME served. Were people strangers? For half a century he labored to link black and white in love, gave blacks and poor whites a sense of their dignity. Were people homeless? He inspired Sursum Corda (“Lift Up Your Hearts”), low-income housing, placed families there, called each child by name; he started the House of Ruth for homeless and abused women, gave it its name and the first dollar for its property. Were people naked? He offered them showers and fresh clothing. Were people sick? He visited them recklessly, however dangerous the area. The first time I saw him in civies and tie (he was 75), I expressed surprise: “Horace, what gives?” His response with that impish smile: “Some of the fathers at St. Al’s kidded me that I didn’t have to worry about being mugged around there, because I always wore the Roman collar; so I thought I’d see what it would be like without the collar.”
Horace McKenna described himself as a man with a stole and an apron – the twin symbols of his service. Like his Lord, he could grow black with anger, but only if others were hurting. At countless speeches his head slumped to his chest early; but at the end it invariably popped up with the same old question: “And what of the poor?” And yet he was never narrow. He encouraged us crusty eggheads who are poor only in spirit, and he always had time for the fledglings at Gonzaga High, even for their West Side Story when he could no longer see the players. No man, woman, or child ever bored him; for, as he said on his deathbed in the Georgetown University Hospital, one lesson above all others he had learned in living: “the presence of Jesus Christ in every human being.” No wonder that when Horace McKenna died, Southern Maryland and Washington wept.
Horace McKenna’s achievements were amazing indeed. Even more amazing was ow, through life’s last diminishments, life still delighted him, people of all ages still turned him on, injustice still angered him and love left him aglow. Almost blind, he could still “see” you with startling insight; led about by others’ hands, he never stopped moving out to the other. It was more than human – and possible only because he had always submerged his weakness in another’s strength: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me,” (Galatians 2:20).
It would be graceless to leave the impression that graceful aging is a Jesuit preserve. Recently I read a moving account of the cellist Pablo Casala. At ninety he was dreadfully afflicted by rheumatoid arthritis and emphysema. Each new day was agony. He could hardly dress himself. He would shuffle into the living room each morning on the arm of his lovely young wife, Marta, badly stooped, head pitched forward. He would move to the piano, arrange himself with difficulty on the bench, somehow raise his swollen, clenched fingers above the keyboard. Let Norman Cousins, long-time distinguished editor of the Saturday Review, tell you what he saw:
I was not prepared for the miracle that was about to happen. The fingers slowly unlocked and reached toward the keys like the buds of a plant toward the sunlight. His back straightened. He seemed to breathe more freely. Now his fingers settled on the keys. Then came the opening bars of Bach’s [Well-tempered Clavichord], played with great sensitivity and control. He hummed as he played, then said that Bach spoke to him here – and he placed his hand over his heart.
Then he plunged into a Brahms concerto and his fingers, now agile and powerful, raced across the keyboard with dazzling speed. His entire body seemed fused with the music; it was no longer stiff and shrunken but supple and graceful and completely freed of its arthritic coils.
Having finished the piece, he stood up by himself, far straighter and taller than when he had come into the room. He walked to the breakfast table with no trace of a shuffle, ate heartily, talked animatedly, finished the meal, then went for a walk on the beach.
Such grace-full aging I found powerfully symbolized several years ago. A fellow Jesuit and former colleague at Georgetown, Eugene Geinzer, is a sculptor of uncommon creativity. One product of his art, entitled, “Vulnerability,” is a bed made of hard, uncompromising wood. Visually, it does not seem able to ease the body into sleep. Yet it yields to the convexities of the body; it is carved to received the body.
This bed is equipped with pillories at head and foot. Worse still, the pillories are adjustable to stretch to the limits of the body. We seem to be looking at a rack. Neither head nor chest nor trunk nor groin is protected. The limbs which might otherwise defend the body are stretched out defenseless.
But this is the superficial story. When you lie down on this bed, it is carved to hold your body gently. It is not hostile to your shape; it accommodates itself. It is not a Procrustean bed. Even the pillories reveal themselves not as mechanisms of torture, but something to stretch yourself upon easily, the way a cat or balletist might. If anything, it feels like an exercising board. What you seem to see is challenged by what you feel. On this bed you can actually relax your muscles, be invigorated. What seems designed to torture you is really a way of setting you at peace.
This is, as you might suspect, a repercussion of the ambiguous character of our personal cross, of pain. What we discover in our vulnerability is that what threatens us with destruction can, if eased into , give our body and our spirit their rest.
To speak of vulnerability is to raise the issue of suffering. Not that suffering afflicts the aging alone. Little children suffer from Tay-Sachs disease and starve on refugee roads; young executives are stricken by strokes, and the life expectancy for men and women in Bangladesh is 35.8; the middle-aged feel the finiteness in their flesh, increasingly seek the analyst’s couch, at times find refuge in alcohol or death. But is is the old who bear life’s burdens precisely because of their age, bear them day after day, bear them with little or no hope from the dominant culture.
Frankly, I have found no “explanation” of suffering that satisfies the mind. Suffering enmeshes us in the problem of evil, and despite all the efforts of the philosophers evil remains very much a mystery. The Old Testament traces suffering to sin – the sin of parents, the sin of the nation, one’s own sin; it sees in suffering a test of virtue, of fidelity to God; suffering enables the victim to atone for others. Yet even here there is no “answer.” Remember how Job wrestled with God? In the face of evil – the innocent suffering, the wicked prospering – he found human wisdom bankrupt. His anguished questioning ended in a theophany: God appeared to him, not to defend his wisdom but to stress his mystery. Job trusted God not because he could prove that God merited his trust, but because he had experienced God. Ultimately, he trusted God because he loved him. God had shown Job his face.
In the Christian vision the mystery does not disappear, it is simply enriched. It is through suffering, for us and in our stead, that God-in-flesh destroyed the power of sin and death; and it is through suffering that we “complete in [our] flesh what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church,” (Colossians 1:24). But as with Job, so with me: I cannot prove that my pain is redemptive; suffering will only make sense if Christ has shown his face to me.
I sense this sort of experience in that tough yet gentle woman Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, now 92. Her life has been darkened by tragedy: the assassination of sons Jack and Bobby; the death of Joe, Jr., in war; daughter Kathleen killed in a plane crash, daughter Rosemary retarded. . . . What enables her to sparkle and laugh, to love every moment of life, swim before lunch, stay interested in books and politics, genuinely enjoy 29 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren? Basically, a profound faith, hope, and love: “It’s the religious feeling that God is all-good and that he won’t give us any cross that is impossible for us to bear, that I’ve had so many great favors given to me by everyone and everywhere, that I should be strong myself and help other people rather than depending on them to help me.” Books and articles “expose” a ruthless, romancing husband; yet she never had an argument with him through 55 years. “I married for love and I got plenty of it.” Rose Kennedy’s cane is not a crutch. It’s a way of reaching out to others: to God in daily Mass, to the deprived and underprivileged in daily giving. No self-pity; only gratitude for the gift of life.
A Christian like rose Kennedy doesn’t look for a theology of suffering, an explanation of evil. Suffering is simply there, to be lived with, to be lived. But not stoically, resignedly, stiff upper lip – “mustn’t let on, you know.” The difference is a person: Christ. Christ who lives in her. Christ dying and rising. It is his dying and rising that the faith-full Christian reproduced day after day. This is the way it has to be; for if the dying and rising of Jesus is not the constant rhythm of my life, I am less than Christian. And so I often wish that, instead of looking for a profound explanation of evil, I could simply immerse myself in the mystery of Christ, where love transmutes sheer suffering into redemptive sacrifice. I wish that at the Eucharistic consecration I were more clearly murmuring, “This is my body, which is given up for you.” There is so much to learn about suffering if we can only put our reasoning to rest awhile, if like the disciple “whom Jesus loved” we would only lie “close to the breast of Jesus,” (John 13:23).
This is the kind of lived theology you find in people like Dr. Tom Dooley, who gave his hands and his heart to the poor in Laos, originated a program (MEDICO) to bring mercy medicine to backward areas the world over, and at 34 died of malignant melanoma – “a gift” he called it, a gift from God, a gift to be used. “I knew I was not going to abandon what I think is the correct thing to do in life because of shadows on a page. Nor was I going to quit this living, loving passion for life that I possess simply because of a statistic [the pessimistic statistics on survival in melanoma]. I was not abandoning the beauty and tenderness that man can give to man, just for a statistic.”
If Tom Dooley could say this in the summer of life, I should be able to say it in life’s winter. Suffering is a gift. Not a good thing in itself; in itself it is the absence of something good. But good if it is my yes to the redemptive work of Christ, my, yes, to Gethsemane and Calvary. Not a naked syllable supinely affirming his passion; rather, the insertion of my life into his. Yes, my life: each moment, each twinge of the flesh as well as each rapture of the heart. For Christianity is not, in the first instance, a set of regulations and obligations I must observe if I am to reach Heaven. Christianity is a way of life in which (to use the traditional Morning Offering) “my prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of this day” continue through time what Christ began but could not finish “in the days of his flesh,” (Hebrews 5:7).
The theology is clear enough, but how do you come to live it? Only, I suggest, through close intimacy with Christ. This I saw in the living Pietà of my mother cradling the lifeless bodies of my father and brother, dead within three weeks of each other. Until her memory deserted her a quarter century later, she lived the agony of a husband and a son wasting away on hospital beds. And still she lived – this seemingly frail woman who shoveled 25 tons of coal to heat the flats she janitored for several months after my father died, this sensitive woman who must have been unbearably lonely and yet was a ceaseless source of strength to the heavy-burdened. She simply lived, lived simply, in God’s presence. God was real to her – the abiding experience of Another that shaped her, roughly and rudely at times, to the dying-rising Christ.
All well and good – so far. But even if my oneness with Christ lends a Christian sense to suffering, even if I achieve through contemplation a measure of integration that wards off despair, I must still face the ultimate in disintegration. I mean. . . death.
How come to terms with death? Skeptic that I am, I doubt that most Christians years, with Saint Paul, “to depart and to be with Christ,” (Philippians 1:23). Most pass early through Kübler-Ross’s first four stages of the actually dying: I deny death imminence; I get angry at death; I bargain; I am depressed. Why? I will not admit, as some charge, that my fear of death is basically my fear of life. I cannot resonate to those who view death as part of a movement naturally upward and positive – like the butterfly leaving the cocoon, like the fetus breaking the amnion. I feel at times much closer to the respected medical doctor who wrote in a respected medical journal: “Death is an insult; the stupidest, ugliest thing that can happen to a human being.”
Why an insult? Because in death a unique I, an irreplaceable thou, is destroyed. I who lift my eyes to the stars and only yesterday looked down on snow-capped Alps. . . I who catch with my ears the rapture of Ravel’s Boléro and once throbbed to the music of my mother’s voice. . . I who breathe the smog of our nation’s capital, whose nostrils twitch to the odor of Veal Scaloppine. . . I who cradle the Christ in my hands and whose lips thrill to a kiss. . . I who run my fingers lazily through water and gently caress the face of a friend. . . I whose mind ranges over centuries and continents, to share Plato’s world of ideas and Gandhi’s passion for peace. . . I who laugh and love, worry and weep, dance and dream, sing and sin, preach and pray – this I will be lost to the world, this thou lost to those who survive me.
There is a darkness to death which even the Son of God cried out against. Death has a blank face; death is cruel; death breaks the whole person; I, I, I will vanish from living reach and touch. And so I fear that, like Dylan Thomas, I shall “not go gentle into that good night.” I am much more likely to “burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Aware of death’s darkness, I find I need a fresh conversion to the risen Christ. What was once credal affirmation, “we look for the resurrection of the dead,” becomes literally life or death. I am disturbed by Christian theologians who insist that personal survival doesn’t matter all that much. I cry with Paul: “If Christ has not been raised, then [my] preaching is in vain and [my] faith is in vain. . . . [I am] still in [my] sins. . . . If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men and women most to be pities,” (1 Corinthians 15:14, 17, 19). If Heaven is not for real, I shall be madder than hell.
There are indeed moments when the idea of a God who transcends time and space and yet cares for me seems absurd, when “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit,” (2 Corinthians 13:14) sounds unreal, when the risen body is less believable than the strange, lovable creature E. T. in Steven Spielberg’s movie. There are times when I am driven to my knees to pray, “I believe, Lord; help my unbelief.” But on the whole, there is the joy Jesus promised, the joy no man or woman (save ourselves) can take from us, the joy summed up in six short words: “I live, and you shall live,” (John 14:19). In my most Christian moments I expect that the Spirit who never ceases to surprise me – with sorrow and joy, through events and people – will surprise me singularly at the moment I die.
I cannot begin to imagine what it will be like (bestriding clouds and gazing on God for eternity fail to turn me on). I know only that it will be an experience of God without parallel this side of death, that the experience will satisfy my deepest needs and longings. I believe, against all the evidence, that the Lord Jesus “will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body,” (Philippians 3:21), that my ultimate integration will be one whole person in the image of the risen Christ, whole because utterly free of Saint Paul’s fourfold slavery: enslavement to sin and death, to law and self.
Death as freedom. A startling thought. It recalls that astonishing Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who at 39 was hanged in the concentration camp at Flossenbürg because he had conspired to overthrow Hitler.
Here was a German who returned to Germany from New York in 1939 because he felt he would have no right to help reconstruct Christian life in postwar Germany if he did not share the wartime anguish of his people. A Christian who agonized over Christian complicity with Hitler on war and the Jews. A churchman who could no longer endure the church’s silence when the blood of the innocent was crying to Heaven. An ethicist who came to believe that in extraordinary situations there is no law behind which the responsible man or woman can seek cover – only a complete renunciation of every law. A theologian who wrote from prison that only by living unreservedly in the bittersweet of this life can one become human and Christian. A prisoner who even gave thought to suicide, not because he felt guilty but because basically he was already dead. A disciple who experienced to the full what he had called so poignantly, “the cost of discipleship.”
Bonhoeffer’s grasp on freedom as our imaging of God (free for the other, free from the creature, be that creature a suffocating technology, a tyrannical Führer, or an enslaved church) was climaxed in the prison days after the July 20, 1944, attempt to assassinate Hitler failed – climaxed in the remarkable prison poem, “Stations on the Road to Freedom”:
If you set out to seek freedom, then learn above all things
to govern your soul and your senses, for fear that your passions
and longing[s] may lead you away from the path you should follow.
Chaste be your mind and your body, and both in subjection,
obediently, steadfastly seeking the aim set before them;
only through discipline may a man learn to be free.
Daring to do what is right, not what fancy may tell you,
valiantly grasping occasions, not cravenly doubting—
freedom comes only through deeds, not through thoughts taking wing.
Faint not nor fear, but go out to the storm and the action,
trusting in God whose commandment you faithfully follow;
freedom, exultant, will welcome your spirit with joy.
A change has come indeed. Your hands, so strong and active,
are bound; in helplessness now you see your action
is ended; you sigh in relief, your cause committing
to stronger hands; so now you may rest contented.
Only for one blissful moment could you draw near to touch freedom;
then, that it might be perfected in glory, you gave it to God.
Come now, thou greatest of feasts on the journey to freedom eternal;
death, cast aside all the burdensome chains, and demolish
the walls of our temporal body, the walls of our souls that are blinded,
so that at last we may see that which here remains hidden.
Freedom, how long we have sought thee in discipline, action, and suffering;
dying, we now may behold thee revealed in the Lord.
Bonhoeffer’s paean to death would be the sensible man’s dignified way of waving farewell to winter. For better or worse, the author and editor in me cannot resist reproducing the epitaph Benjamin Franklin presented to Samuel Morris in Philadelphia on August 31, 1776:
The Body of
B. Franklin, Printer,
Like the Cover of an old Book,
Its Contents torn out,
And stript of its Lettering and Gilding,
Lies here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be lost,
For it will, as he believ’d appear once more
In a new and more elegant Edition
Corrected and improved
By the Author.
So be it. . . .