Saturday, July 09, 2005

On Being Forty-seven

I’m completing my 47th year on the tenth of July. (I’m not asking for gifts, but you can always send money.) I don’t mean to be a Pharisee blowing my own horn, for it’s not an accomplishment or even a milestone like, say, 50. Anyone can turn 47; you just have to avoid dying before then (though I did have a bit of a scare back in ’93). So why am I blathering on about it? Well, there are probably several million people in the world who are 47 right now, and I’d just like to assure them that I know how it is. In our tradition we don’t sing “happy birthday,” but rather, “God grant you many years.” I’m not so sure I’d like many more years, frankly, though I know we all have to take the time to learn how to love and serve, to pay our dues and all that. I am sure that I would like eternal life, though it’s not measured in years. How about singing, “God grant you one eternity”?

When I was young(er), I was free. Free from righteous
ness, as St Paul was wont to say. Now that I am old(er), freedom means something different, though it’s an elusive enough concept that I’ll probably never know precisely what it means. But that’s OK; everyone struggles with these things. I read recently that they’ve come up with a new life-stage crisis (I guess life is no fun if you can’t complain about being in one sort of crisis or another, and thus elicit everyone else’s understanding and sympathy). It’s called the quarter-life crisis, and you get to have it as early as your mid-twenties. I wish I’d known about it 20 years ago; I would have had one myself. As it is, I passed my mid-late 20s right here in the monastery, in relatively ignorant bliss.

I remember remarking rather blithely during my early- or mid-thirties that a monk ought never to have a mid-life crisis, because he of all people knows the meaning of his life, and one who is securely on the path to the Kingdom of Heaven ought never to feel compelled to do the dopey things or have the doubts and nagging fears of those who think they may have made the wrong choices, wasted their lives, don’t know what the future holds, and if only they’d done things differently… Famous last words, as they say. I did have a sort of crisis in my early 40s. I realize, in retrospect, that you don’t really see it coming, and by time you recognize it, it’s too late, and then you just—if you’re a monk—try to trust God and ride out the storm. But even monks’ moorings can be susceptible to a bit of slippage. However, the relentless monastic schedule of services, full of inexorable divine counsels—with the still more relentless, tenacious, ubiquitous, and indefatigable love and mercy of God—tends to re-tighten them, Deo gratias. For me it’s all kind of a blur now. Someone will have to tell me what I was like back then. I think I was elected abbot during that time. Anyway, I did have some doubts, and I guess I did a few dopey things, but all in all it was more of an interior mid-life crisis (monks favor the interior life, you know), and the Holy Spirit restrained me from doing a whole lot of damage.

So now what do I have to look forward to—a three-quarter-life crisis? I guess if I’m still around in another 15 or 20 years, I can have one of those, too. Not that I enjoy crises, but perhaps we do need a crisis every once in a while so that we have the opportunity to consciously recommit ourselves to what we know is right and good, rather than slipping into complacency or quiet desperation. “Crisis,” after all, comes from a Greek word meaning “decision” or “judgment.” We may need to have times of decision so that we can ratify who we are and what we’re doing here. If God is going to grant us many years, we ought to have some idea of what to do with them, how to bear good fruit for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. The only crisis I don’t want to have is an end-of-life crisis. The time of proximate preparation for crossing the threshold of eternity is not the time to start second-guessing one’s vocation. But I don’t expect to be looking back with regretful dread on a wasted life, as some people inevitably will. I hope that I will simply and serenely trust that God has accepted the prayer and labors and offerings of my life, has forgiven my failures to be all He has called me to be, and is ready to accept his mostly-faithful and sometimes-recalcitrant servant into his heavenly kingdom.

So, 47 is OK for now. I’ve yet a lot of work to do, I think, promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep. But I daresay I’ll not be much troubled when at length it’s time to be relieved of this mortal frame. Someone asked me once what I thought heaven would be like. “Rest,” I replied, “eternal rest!”