We are a creature, my friends, who intertwines death so tightly with life, that we find ourselves marking the different ages within the marching years of our days by the way particular passings lace about our hearts.
I write that atrocious opening sentence with a bittersweet smirk, hoping that Brian Doyle, the brilliant author and editor whose death occasioned the sentiment, is smiling at it's ridiculousness somewhere in Heaven. I almost had the occasion to meet the man--he was slated to come speak at Mercy College here in Des Moines this last Spring--but the diagnosis of a brain tumor unraveled our plans. I suppose it was the almost-nature of the nearly-happy meeting that has stuck with me, and made writing this little post so difficult. Brian's work is beloved, and rightly so (his poem "Leap" is one of the most memorable works of art regarding the tragedy of 9/11), but at heart, he is a story teller seemingly before anything else, and I am disheartened that I do not have a better story to tell in his honor.
Instead, I am left with my opening, tortuous thought. Nevertheless, though the sentence may be gaudy, the sentiment is true, and I cannot shake the sense that this news of Brian's death has marked a new era in my life. All this, coupled with other recent more personal passings, render me somehow feeling "officially" in the "middle of my life" now, in a manner that 30-something birthdays never seemed to do. "In the midst of life, we are in death" says the old prayer I suppose. But a particular fact--that Brian died two days after the Feast of the Ascension--I think is a key to this new found self-regard of mine. And sitting here after Trinity Sunday, it is this event of Our Lord, which sets off the Crowning Feasts after Easter, that animates my thoughts.
Jesus tells us straight out, "it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you." (John 16:7). But I must admit with my very human heart that I hardly believe Him some days. Really Lord? With all that goes wrong, it is best that you go? With all the ways even your own people go astray and ruin your good name, there is a better idea than you sticking around? With coffins and obituaries fresh in my mind, I ask, you could not have helped if you were here?
And while it is absolutely true that He abides with us in the Eucharist (which countless people have spoken of with power and beauty), and though it is more than evident that the Holy Spirit truly does breathe the fiery life of God into His Bride the Church, I say we have not truly listened to the story of the Ascension if we have not stood baffled by it, like the Apostles looking dumbfounded into the sky.
When I was much younger, I was enthralled by sermons which side-stepped this question by pointing to "what happened next." That, of course, is the ACTS of the Apostles, the story proving that ours is not a religion of standing around, but a kinetic force on earth, and which Luke's second book demonstrates so well. So we pray the first Novena between the Ascension and Pentecost, so we find new life in the Spirit at Pentecost, and so with the remainder of Ordinary Time we effuse that life which pours forth from the Holy Trinity. No doubt to this day I find myself lost in the change and transformation that comes over the Disciples once their Master has left them, and see the redoubling gust of the Spirit's mighty breathe.
But for the past few weeks, in this newfound middle-age of mine, I have been stuck thinking of the fact that He left them in the first place. Why could He not have stayed with us? Why, to quote from the book of John once more, are we blessed precisely because we have not seen Him, yet still believe? Could I have not been tasked with believing, Lord, with you standing here next to me?
But my friends, this is the inescapable warp and weft of the world in which we live: things pass away. People depart. Circumstances change. And as it says in the book of Hebrews, here we have no lasting city. Jesus left this world because we too must leave it someday. And everyone we love. And everything we know. And everything that we hold dear.
What kind of Religion would we have that ignored this central, brutal, and yet astonishing fact of our existence, that we are so very much a part of this world, but only for a time? And even more baffling and astounding, He did not teach us this by immediately leaving after He rose from the dead. No, he stuck around, but only for a time! The earth it seems can bear the trodding of Resurrected feet upon it, but only for a span of days! The Saints can inhale and exhale this atmosphere, but only, only for a demarcated amount of minutes!
We only have each other, but only for so long. We only have breathe enough to retell our stories, but for a time, and then we must pass them on to someone else to tell them. We only have so much we can do here, either with the help of the Saints who went before us, or as Saints ourselves, before the old heavy world sends us off on our refulgent way. Our lives within each others lives are to be lived out as a prelude to these heart-rending, glorious Ascensions. May we keep this task of ours ever in mind, and when the time comes for another's passing, may we find the strength to admix our attendant, understandable sorrow with the expectant, eager awaiting for the Comforter.