Being 81 years old makes you think about death.
Example. Every time I hear or read about things that are likely to happen five, ten, fifteen years from now, I think, "I won't be around to see that."
I think of Sister Leonissa, the sister who had a huge influence on my choosing to be a Franciscan priest, and on my perseverance in working toward that goal. In her later years, I would visit her at the motherhouse in Riverton, Illinois. She was blind. She sat in a chair with two things nearby: her rosary, and her radio. The rosary was for praying, and the radio was for listening to Green Bay Packers or St. Louis Cardinals games. But always with a smile on her face. I never saw her without a smile on her face.
I think of Erik Erikson's "eight stages of man." The eighth stage he called "ego integrity." This is the stage where you look back on your life and see the wholeness of it. Maybe you see it as a story of loss and waste, in which case you experience despair. Hopefully you see it as a story of growth and wholeness—ego integrity. Has my life been a story of loss and waste?
Soon after I was ordained, my Franciscan provincial sent me to Harvard to study. I successfully got through that experience to receive a doctorate in sociology. That doctorate has served me well, at least in reassuring me that I could hold my head up in the presence of almost anyone I met. It also misled me, into thinking that I would do wondrous things toward making the world better.
Have I wasted that degree? Have I settled too easily into a life of comfort?
I tried. I taught at Quincy College for 40 years. I was not a great teacher--nobody ever accused me of earning the "teacher of the year" award. I kept at it for several reasons. One was that I knew that there were people who would have given their right arm to have had the chance to study where I did. It would have been irresponsible to throw away the gift of my education and go do something like be a pastor in a parish, even though I was conceited enough to think I would have been good at it.
Looking back, I am not so sure I would have been good at it. Because in 1977, after only seven years of teaching, I became involved in the movement called Worldwide Marriage Encounter. I threw myself totally into that movement. At one point I even speculated that my involvement could have taken the place of my being a Franciscan—the movement seemed more relevant than the Franciscan tradition. After five years of being on call to drop everything on a Friday and go somewhere to be the "team priest" on a weekend—Fort Wayne, Indiana or Jacksonville, Florida were two cases—I could not go on. I was losing my ability to keep being fired up.
But Marriage Encounter did something that I never expected. It put me in touch with a woman who changed my life by challenging my sureties about myself. She consistently taught me about the rigidities in my life, and kept me from throwing myself headlong into enthusiasms that would probably have burned me out if I had followed them.
In recent years I have reflected on my parents. My father dropped out of school after the seventh grade. People said he was a brilliant man. He surely knew how to fix almost anything. He did carpentry, electricity, plumbing, and welding. The focus of his life was his workshop in our basement.
Our parish in Decatur, Illinois was the center of our lives, but my father was never one of the important people in the parish, never a "trustee" of the parish. He took care of the sound systems in the church and school. One of my cherished memories is of evenings with him in a room behind the stage in the school auditorium. Our job was to watch over the amplifier for the bingo game going on out in the auditorium. Apparently the amplifier needed a human supervisor.
But my father was the victim of momentary enthusiasms. He would start projects and then go on to something else. Looking back, I realize that he was not able to teach me two things that are essential in an academic career: the need to stay in touch with literature in a field, and the discipline to stick to a project until it was finished. He taught me that life was a hobby. Book learning in our house was confined to a handful of books that he bought second hand, and which I kept reading over and over, along with the entire "Hardy Boy" series of detective stories. He taught me that we could do anything, just by being clever. The cleverness got me through the worlds of high school and even graduate school, but those two crucial elements were left out.
I don't fault him for his approach to life. He loved my mother and my brother and me, and he was proud of what we did with our lives. He had his own obstacles to overcome. I suspect that both he and my mother were adult children of alcoholics. But those were the days when Bishop Sheen convinced us Catholics that to admit the need for psychological help showed a lack of faith.
In the late 1960s, the years when I was in graduate school, there was concern about the "death of God"—Time magazine ran a cover story on it. I was facing challenges to my own beliefs in what I was reading in sociology of religion. I was blessed that my graduate school instructors—men like Talcott Parsons and Robert Bellah—took religion seriously. I never heard a professor mock religion or religious people. But at times I was adrift in a whirl of questions.
At one point I found myself walking down Michigan Avenue in Chicago, thinking about how I could pray. Ever since I entered the Franciscan Order ten years earlier we had prayed the psalms. I decided that people had been using those words for 3000 years. One reason why my sociology instructors were sympathetic to religion was that they had a great sympathy toward how people behave, especially "little people," the people not in charge of society. They recognized that those people have used religion to enrich their lives, in spite of the ways that religion can sometimes destroy people's lives. I thought, "All those people can't be wrong."
Over the years since then I have worked, along with my religious brothers and sisters, to learn to pray. We learn from each other.
I learned from Islam. I saw hundreds of men bow their heads to the ground together in acknowledgement of their submission to God. The physicalness of that gesture impressed me. My own physical limits prevent me from imitating that gesture. So I pray aloud. I do this privately, in my room. I sit in my rocking chair and look out the window at the sky and repeat words that men and women have used for all those centuries. Because my education in the seminary gave me schooling in Latin and Greek, I even use the words in those languages. The marvelous invention of the "Kindle" has made it easy for me to have those translations at my fingertips. When I use Latin I think of the monks of the middle ages using the Latin words. When I use Greek, I think of the people of the time of Jesus, who used the Greek version available to them, the version that shaped the thinking of the early Christian communities.
I think of the people all around the world who are praying these same words today, in their own languages. Men and women in India, in Kenya, in Nigeria, in Brazil, and Cuba, and Peru, and Alaska. I am one with these people. We are all part of the same story, the story that centers in the person of Jesus Christ, but that begins centuries before that, and continues centuries after him. There is sin in the story, just as there is sin in my own story, but the psalms have words about that. Psalm 51 is one that people have always used when they become conscious of their own weakness.
God speaks in these psalms. Even though philosophically I know less and less about God—what we are learning in astronomy makes us realize more and more how little we know about creation, and the Creator of it—I piggy-back on the words that so many of my fellow human have used and still use.
The psalms as I use them, the system of the official "Liturgy of the Hours," keeps me in mind of two things. The fact that I pray certain words at the same time in each four-week cycle makes me think of the immediate passage of time, in my own life and in the life of my world. For example, I think "today is Thursday of the second week—evening prayer begins with psalm 72. I love this psalm, because it reminds me of the dream of how government will care for the poor." Then I ask myself, "do I care for the poor?"
The "antiphons," the short verses that bookend each psalm, relate the words to the longer cycle of the year, with the four seasons and the stories of our faith. Advent, Lent, Easter—winter, spring, summer, autumn. Another year is progressing. For me it is another year closer to my death. It is a good way to spend that time.
I wonder because I do not experience the anguish and anxiety that seem to accompany the nearness of death. Am I way off base? Will that time come, when I experience the "dark night of the soul"? Or will I keep smiling, like Sister Leonissa?
Anyway, for now I am blessed.