I wonder in this moment how many stars are slipping into oblivion. How many are being born.
The turn, turn, turning of the universe goes on all around us all the time, and among and within us too. To everything there is a season in this ceaseless sea of changes, waves rising from the ocean only to fall back again.
My thoughts have turned increasingly toward wisdom literature over the past year, as losses and griefs have accumulated.
I watched my strong, proud, independent and good father reduced to a state he would have seen as "pitiful" (one of his favorite adjectives to describe someone in a condition he would hope never to endure). An uncle as close as a brother died weeks later, and a cousin whose name I share in honor of his father died just a few days later. Shortly after returning to Louisville last August, my wife's best friend died after a long and courageous battle with breast cancer. And we had hardly turned around when Debbie's step-mother, who was in so many ways a mother to her, died suddenly. And these losses last fall, it turned out, were just the beginning. As one year gave way to another, more sorrows followed.
The expressions of sympathy and care we received as a family were overwhelming and overwhelmingly moving. The prayers and words and visits of friends and colleagues bore us through all of these losses as they have sustained so many other families. I have often tried to comfort others by saying that grief is the price of love, the greater the love the more grief we feel. These words are true, I believe, as true as the sympathy we feel for others. But grief is not only a test, it is a teacher.
Gently or roughly, with compassion or with a sublime indifference to our suffering, this teacher enters our lives. The lessons we learn are at a far deeper level than our heads. Broken hearts discover more than whole ones when it comes to life's most profound lessons.
As the Greek dramatist Aeschylus said long ago in Edith Hamilton's glorious translation:
"Even in our sleep, / Pain which cannot forget, / Falls drop by drop upon the heart, / Until, beyond despite, / And against our will, / Comes wisdom, / Through the awful grace of God."
Epictetus, another ancient Greek, once described what it is we learn if we embrace, rather than resist, the reality of life with its manifold changes and its terrible losses:
"True instruction is this: – to learn to wish that each thing should come to pass as it does. And how does it come to pass? As the Disposer has disposed it. Now he has disposed that there should be summer and winter, and plenty and dearth, and vice and virtue, and all such opponents, for the harmony of the whole."
Epictetus might easily have been a conversation partner to the biblical writer Koheleth, the mysterious author of the book most of us know as Ecclesiastes.
"There is a time for everything under heaven."
"The sun sets, the sun also rises."
"Generations rise. Generations fall."
Wisdom, we learn, consists in embracing with equanimity and grace all the times we are given, each season of life, because the One who Disposes acts for the harmony of the whole. We who live just now are but "a minuscule speck," Epictetus tells us. We exist momentarily within the vast inconceivable reaches and ages of the universe, a minuscule speck given the gift of understanding, a smattering of energy and matter with the gift of consciousness. However foggy and uncertain and faulty these gifts may be; however partial, flawed, deformed by emotions, distorted by assumptions and driven by passions, these capacities we have in common with God, Epictetus tells us.
With these gifts we glimpse what we are within the universe, a speck of matter, a spark of energy, a wave on a rising then ebbing tide. Yet, we have come to believe that we are also, as small and as apparently insignificant as we may be, created by God in God's own beloved image and likeness.
One of my favorite stories of the late Carlyle Marney, that maverick Baptist preacher who owned the Reformed tradition as his own and whose teaching and preaching shaped so many of us Presbyterian, Methodist and Episcopal ministers, goes like this. He was leading a service at a retirement home, surrounded by a score of aged men and women, among whom were a number of very elderly people who had outlived everyone in their own generation and most of the people they had loved. Marney began his devotional by saying in that deep Southern voice like God's only deeper, "Oh, what a bunch of losers we are."
And we are. But until we can embrace the losses, the griefs, the deaths, including our own, and know them ultimately to be a blessing and a gift as surely as are the births; until we learn the wisdom of acceptance in the depths of our souls, we will struggle, as Leonard Cohen has sung "like a fish on a hook" to be free.
According to the wisdom of our faith and the thought of some of humanity's great souls, wisdom, like joy, lies in embracing life as it is, and holding it with gratitude and grace just as we receive it from the hand of God.
Maybe this is what is meant by "making peace with God."