Let what you have heard from the beginning remain in you. If what you heard from the beginning remains in you, then you will remain in the Son and in the Father. And this is the promise that he made us: eternal life.
1 John 2: 24-5
This morning I received a much appreciated email from a good friend and confrere. He was responding to my New Year’s greetings as well as to my questions concerning an annual New Year’s Eve gathering of several of the brothers in his area. He wrote: “New Years Eve was bitter sweet. I enjoyed the tie with all the Brothers but could not shake thoughts of our aging.” He went on to speak of a brother who was present who is very ill and another who was unable to come due to illness and impending surgery. As we age and weaken, there is definitely something of a “bittersweet” aspect to all of our gatherings and communications.
As I read this description from this close friend of many decades, I was brought back to the consciousness we shared as young brothers in our 20’s, just beginning our active lives in the community and as teachers. How different was our consciousness then! It was thoughts of the future that dominated our awareness. Those with whom we lived who were the age we are now, or even younger in many cases, were respected and liked by us, but their worlds and ours were really not connected. Our emotional lives were dominated by the ego experiences of excitement and enthusiasm, on the one hand, and frustration and anger on the other when life and world did not conform to our demands and expectations. We could know sadness, of course, but we did not really experience the “bittersweet,” the pathos of life. In the sense of immortality that goes with youth, the world consisted for us of our projects, plans, and hopes for the future. In our youth, our lives were essentially a pursuit of competence, success, happiness, and fulfillment — a life oriented toward the future and its endless possibilities.
On New Year’s Eve I spent time thinking of my mother and my godson. Both of them died in the early moments of New Year’s Eve some four years apart, my mother at the age of 89 after suffering the effects of Alzheimer’s Disease for twenty years, and my godson at the age of 24, after suffering the effects of brain cancer for 4 years. My mother had a long and fruitful life, despite the mental and physical suffering of her last two decades. My godson had a very brief life, yet he seemed to come to know in that very short time the truth of the “eternal life” of which John speaks.
As he was being brought by ambulance from the hospital to the hospice house where he would die, my godson Keith said to his parents: “This is the happiest day of my life. There is so much love and so much peace.” At the age of 24 he had come to know that joy and peace come from, as Thomas Merton says, being “content with what we have and with what we are.” Life is bitter in its partiality, in its vulnerability, in its mortality, yet it is sweet in its “eternal” realities of presence, communion, peace, love, and joy. These realities we can only know in the reality of the present. They are not to be acquired or attained in the future. They can only be known by being received in the “now.”
When we are young (and even when we have failed to deepen as we grow old), we live in pursuit of a future that will fill and complete us as we desire to be filled. Instead of living gratitude for what is, we live out of our demand for more, from the world, from ourselves, from others, and from God. As we read in the gospel of John, “Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go” (John 21:18). For the last years of his young life, “someone else” had to dress and care for Keith. When others would ask him why he was never more upset or angry about his sufferings, he would say that others gave him so much care and love that he couldn’t be anything else but grateful. Things did not have to be other or more than they were because what was at each moment was the life he had been given, with which he had been graced. It was in life as it came to him that he found peace and contentment.
Last Friday, the great scholar of world religions Huston Smith died at the age of 97. In one of his last interviews he was asked about what scripture passages were most significant to him. Among them was the verse from Philippians: “. . . for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (Phil. 4:11). If we dare to fully experience it, life will often tend to be “bittersweet.” To be human is to strain for more; it is to pursue a life that we think would bring us “the more and the better” that would fulfill us. Be it in a short time, like Keith’s, or in the much longer time of my mother, Huston Smith, and now myself and my contemporaries who are still here, life teaches us that it is in remaining in what is rather than attempting to flee it for our idea of something better that we realize “eternal life.”
He [St Gregory of Nyssa] studies the concept which Pascal called “divertissement”—very important for contemplatives. Persons seek distraction. We vainly hope to forget our troubles not so much in enjoying pleasures or acquiring wealth, as in the pursuit of these things. It is the pursuit, the expectation, that gives joy Hence we live more and more outside ourselves and “beyond” ourselves, and our lives become a race, a running away from the present into the future, perpetual motion. This is the vanity of Ecclesiastes. The first step to stability is then to be content with what we have and with what we are.
Thomas Merton, Cassian and the Father: Initiation into the Monastic Tradition, p. 58