Today (at 11:45 am, to be precise), I turn 49.
If I were going to take my cues from the culture, I should be surrounding myself with black balloons and all sorts of birthday cards evoking nostalgia and/or grief. For all of the talk about being “forward-looking,” we sure spend a lot of time longing for the past.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time in recent years thinking about our passage through time… especially as both my father and the man I consider one of my primary spiritual fathers passed from this life to the next. Experiencing these deaths, and especially being present at the side of my father as he took his last breath, had an unexpected effect on me. Of course I expected the grief and sense of loss. But what surprised me was the way it stirred up a desire for the life to come, enkindled, I’m sure, by the fact that both men had pilgrim hearts: They took great joy in this life but never forgot that they were still on the way.
About a year before he died, my dad sent me an essay he’d written in college about Robert Frost’s After Apple Picking, which includes this passage:
My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Dad enclosed a short note with the essay, very matter-of-fact, saying he found it among some old files he had been sorting through. He didn’t need to say anything more; the consummate teacher, he allowed his own peaceful – and I might hazard to say joyful – entry into the next life to interpret the poem for me. It wasn’t that he didn’t enjoy this life, but he had tasted something more and wasn’t going to stick with the hors’d ouerves when an entire banquet was being laid out before him. As C.S. Lewis once put it,
If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
Or in the words of Saint John of the Cross:
I will never lose myself
for that which the senses
can take in here,
nor for all the mind can hold,
no matter how lofty,
nor for grace or beauty,
but only for I-don’t-know-what
which is so gladly found.
Or as T.S. Eliot wrote in The Four Quartets,
In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass….
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.
So I think my perspective on age is a bit different, a bit changed this year. If someone approaches me today and asks, “So how does it feel to be a year older?” I think I will respond, “The real question is: how does it feel to be a year closer to the life to come?”