A sense of being guided
Sunday was the Day of Pentecost, a major feast day of the church, on a level with Christmas and Easter. It’s the day when Christians ponder and celebrate a reality that comes to most of us slowly and uneventfully over the course of our entire lives – the sense that we are evolving, that we are being guided or led into an ever-deepening awareness of what truly matters in our lives.
In the Gospel lesson we hear in church on Pentecost, Jesus tells his disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”
It happens to many of us as we get older, this sense of being guided or led into deeper truth. As we age, we might inexplicably start to pause a little more often to stare at the moon, for example. We find ourselves putting down our book at the beach and watching the miracle of little children playing with each other, or we lose ourselves in the rhythms of the ocean. We find ourselves paying attention to the birds in the morning and the stars at night. Occasionally, we’ll stop to ponder a young mother in the grocery store who is doing her best with an energetic toddler, and we’ll remember our own children or grandchildren when they were that age. Or we’ll wonder how we tend each other in community, as we notice an elderly person making his way unsteadily down a sidewalk, surrounded by young professionals who are earnestly speaking into their smart phones.
As we get older, we might stop what we are doing to ponder the people who have loved us throughout our lives – our grandparents, parents and siblings, our spouses, children, and grandchildren, our good friends and companions. We realize how important it is to tell these people what they have meant to us. We know the power and necessity of forgiving. In these and many other ways, as we age, the deepest truth is dawning in us; we have a sense of being guided into a deeper truth that has been with us all along, just not noticed as much as we are noticing it now.
I don’t know how to talk about this. Sometimes it seems that the truth into which we are being guided is at the same time very simple and accessible, and also mysterious and transcendent. Whatever it is, this truth into which we are being guided can elicit wonder and a sense of gratitude so deep that we know we shouldn’t try to speak about it, lest we thereby diminish it or make it seem less sacred than we know it is.
In Wallace Stegner’s final, autobiographical novel, Crossing to Safety, the narrator and main character is a professor and successful writer, Larry Morgan, who tells the story through a series of flashbacks. In the first chapter, Larry is gradually waking from sleep, with his wife beside him in bed. They are both old now, and she is crippled. And as Larry slowly wakes into consciousness, he begins reflecting on his life, particularly on his love for his wife and the love the two of them have for some very special friends. His thoughts about what truly matters ring true and have stayed with me for decades, ever since I first read them:
Though I have been busy, perhaps overbusy, all my life, it seems to me now that I have accomplished little that matters, that the books have never come up to what was in my head, and that the rewards – the comfortable income, the public notice, the literary prizes, and the honorary degrees – have been tinsel, not what a grown man should be content with. …
I didn’t know myself well, and still don’t. But I did know, and know now, the few people I loved and trusted. My feeling for them is one part of me I have never quarreled with….
In high school, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a bunch of us spent a whole year reading Cicero – De Senectute, on old age; De Amicitia, on friendship. De Senectute, with all its resigned wisdom, I will probably never be capable of living up to or imitating. But De Amicitia I could make a stab at.... [pp 12-13]
At some point, we realize that all things come to an end, including the wealth, recognition, prizes and awards that we spent so much of our good time and energy attaining and fretting over. But it is never too late to devote ourselves to the one thing that has always endured in the background of our lives, that has no bounds, and that crosses to safety with us.
In her commencement address at Vassar College years ago, a physician said something similar:
As a physician who has been deeply privileged to share the most profound moments of people’s lives, including their final moments, let me tell you a secret. People facing death don’t think about what degrees they have earned, what positions they have held, or how much wealth they have accumulated. At the end, what really matters is who you love and who loves you.
It reminds me of something the Episcopal priest and founder of Thistle Farms, Becca Stevens, said when she was at St. Stephen’s recently.
“I’ve been an ordained priest for 25 years,” she said, “and I’m pretty sure that I believe fewer things today than when I was ordained 25 years ago.” (A few eyebrows probably raised.) “But what remains,” Becca continued, “what I still believe, I believe that with all my heart, and with all my soul, and with all my mind.”
Maybe this is the truth into which many of us sense we are being guided or led somehow. It’s as if we are being led away from many things that used to seem so important, and guided into a deeper appreciation for a few things – simple and wonderful things that have always been available to us, but that have probably not gotten the attention they deserved. Until now.