Teach Us To Number Our Days

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And when some of them were talking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and votive offerings, Jesus said: “These things you are looking at—days will come when thee will not be left a stone upon a stone that will not be torn down!”

Luke 21: 5-6

Both of the readings today speak of the destruction and passing away of the most powerful and beautiful of human authority and creations. In Daniel it is the breaking down and eventual overthrow of the powerful reign of King Nebuchadnezzar and in Luke it is the destruction of Herod the Great’s Temple of Jerusalem. The stories are invitations to us to ask ourselves on what foundation do we build our own lives.

Our quest is for immortality, and so we work hard at doing something to make a lasting name for ourselves. The reality of our own passing remains ever for us the great scandal of life. “Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom,” says Psalm 90: 12. As much as the transience of our life and all that we hold dear is difficult for us, it is only in reckoning with it that our hearts truly learn wisdom. Somehow we live the moments of our lives differently and more meaningfully in that awareness.

We are reminded today that there is no avoiding, even with the power and wealth of Nebuchadnezzar and Herod, the fact that our days are numbered. As we hear in Psalm 90: 5-6, our lives are “like the grass that flowers in the morning but wilts in the evening”. It is in this light, however, that the value, the preciousness of the ordinary moments of life come are manifest. Many years ago, as I relatively young man, I was sick for a number of weeks. I was so tired and weak that I was not even able to do the ordinary tasks of washing up and shaving in the morning. Typically these are tasks which I, even now, take to be mere necessities to be hurried through, impediments to the more important tasks of the day that lies ahead. Yet, at some point into the course of the illness, I longed to be able to stand at the sink in the morning and wash and shave, and then to come back to my room and make the decision of what to wear for the day and dress myself. In light of my inability to carry them out, the true sacramental significance of these most ordinary of daily human tasks became manifest to me.

One of the most formative presences of my life was my grandmother who died when I was six years old. For those very early years, however, she provided for me the loving holding environment within which I learned the beauty of the ways that human beings build a life. I still remember the feeling of sitting on her front porch on a late summer afternoon being taught by her how to string the beans for dinner and experiencing a peace and contentment that had a sense of the eternal. The calm and peace that she brought to the most simple and routine of daily tasks made them luminous to me. To this day, as I remember her kitchen where she cooked and cleaned, or her bedroom where we took our afternoon nap together, I experience spaces that are filled with light. More than any monument or temple it is her loving and peaceful way of being and of carrying out the ordinary tasks of life that manifest the Mystery and serve my recognition of the sacred.

Strangely enough, when we live our lives and do our work mindless of our reputations, we may leave an everlasting inheritance. As we are reminded in the letter to the Ephesians, it is when our ordinary and daily lives are “rooted and grounded in love” that we come to know in ourselves and to pass on to those around us “the fullness of God” (Eph. 3: 17, 19).

After the orchestra had been playing for some time, and had passed the andante, the scherzo, the poco adagio, and the first flautist had put his head on the stand because he would not be needed until tomorrow, there came a passage that was called the forbidden music because it could not, the composer specified, be played. And still it must exist and be passed over, an interval at the discretion of the conductor. But tonight, the conductor decides, it must be played—he has a hunger to make his name. The flautist wakes with a start. Something has happened to his ears, something he has never felt before.  His sleep is over. Where am I now, he thinks. And then he repeated it, like an old man lying on the floor instead of in his bed. Where am I now?

Louise Gluck, “Forbidden Music”, Faithful and Virtuous Night, p. 43

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