Lent seems to call for a careful listening to your life over the next 40 days or so … to take stock of your life and the quality of your response to God’s Spirit working in it if you only listen. And I do point out that even if you live to be 80 or even 90, your life is such a brief thing from birth to death. So I raise the question: What are you going to do with it – this life of yours? I am halfway through writing my newest book, The Fiction of Our Lives, and have just received a contract offer from my current publishers, Cascade Books (an imprint of Wipf & Stock Publishers) to work with me and publish the finished project – likely in the fall of 2016. This is very good news, folks! Book contracts are hard to come by these days!
Last week, while I was having lunch in a nearby Indian restaurant and reading the morning’s New York Times, one of the op-ed pieces titled My Own Life caught my eye. The writer was Oliver Sacks, a neurologist at the New York University School of Medicine and well-known author in his own right. The piece turned out to be a meditation on his own death soon to befall him in the coming months.
I was struck by this writing for several reasons, one being that in my current writing project, I had quoted Sacks from the Introduction to that work. At the time of that writing, Sacks had just published another op-ed piece titled The Joy of Old Age. (No Kidding.) He had ended that column, written about three years ago, with the following observation: “I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together. I am looking forward to being 80.”
In fact, he has now lived to see 81. Since he has just been diagnosed with widely disseminated melanoma (including in half of his liver), he will likely not see another year. Yet the article is still upbeat and deeply reflective. I’ll return to his thoughts at the end of this blog.
Relevant to all this I think is the fact that we are now deeply into the Lenten season. And the sermon that I was going to preach last Sunday – and will now preach this coming Sunday since, because of black ice conditions, all church services at St. John’s were canceled last week – focuses on the topics of sin, death, and repentance. Sorry, but the season seems to call for an occasional reflection on our frail mortality and thus calls for some meditation on the deepest meanings of our life at this point in time. Yes, Lent seems to call for a careful listening to your life over the next 40 days or so … to take stock of your life and the quality of your response to God’s Spirit working in it if you only listen. And I do point out that even if you live to be 80 (like Sacks) or even 90, your life is such a brief thing from birth to death. So I raise the question: What are you going to do with it – this life of yours? What am I doing to do with the rest of my life … before it’s over?
I promised to return to Sacks and I shall end with his thoughts. I have read some of his previous works, including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Awakenings. He doesn’t talk about a transcendent dimension to life or any kind of engagement with God or Ultimate Transcendence – being, I suspect, a humanist through and through. Yet I think his reflections on his life as he nears death have something to say to us – at least they did to me, and so I want to share his thoughts with you here. He says:
Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.
On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight …
I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential …I shall no longer look at NewsHour every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.
This is not indifference but detachment – I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future …
I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. … Above all, I have been a sentient being … on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.
Monks of the Trappist monastic order have a practice (or at least they used to) of greeting one another with the words, “Remember that you will die.” Not a bad thing to recall once in a while when one is taking stock of one’s life as a whole: its direction and its shape over time. Lent is the time to slow down and listen as if your life depended on it. Because … in fact … it does.