catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 18 :: 2007.10.05 — 2007.10.19


A thousand years

The autumn light burns orange on the houses across the street.  A child’s voice sounds over the shuffling of leaves.  It is the dying of the day in the dying of the year.

Teach us to number our days aright,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

Show us how precious each day is;
teach us to be fully here.

For most of us, autumn signals a return to school and will do so for the rest of our days in spite of our distance from the educational calendar.  For me, autumn involves teaching a class for first-year college students, introducing them to the character and theology of the institution to which they’ve entrusted their education. 

This year, a fellow instructor of this introductory class used a film clip from Dead Poets Society—the scene in which the unusual and shocking Mr. Keating (or, “Oh, Captain, my Captain”) attempts to shake up the worlds of adolescent boarding school boys on the first day of a new year.  A reading of the first verse of Robert Herrick’s poem sets up the lesson:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.

Sieze the day, boys.  Tomorrow, you’ll be food for worms.  And in that knowledge, do something extraordinary with the time you have.

You return our bodies to the dust
and snuff out our lives like a candleflame.
You hurry us away; we vanish as suddenly as the grass:
in the morning it shoots up and flourishes,
in the evening it wilts and dies.
For our life dissolves like a vision
and fades into the air like a cloud.

In spite of the Captain’s charisma, I suspect that the faithful life is rooted in the ordinary—in the preparation of meals, the consolation of children, the encouragement of a neighbor, the reading of a novel, the suffering of a broken heart.  The pressure to be extraordinary in our seizing-of-the-day can in fact blind us to the daily signs of life and death that sustain deep and appropriate sorrow alongside a deep hope.

Our hope is what awakens us to the reality of another world, while our sorrow is opportunity to rehearse our own deaths.  We practice by grieving the loss of communities and identities and innocence.  We practice by saying goodbye to people and ideas and homes and routines.  We learn how to let go by releasing our fears and dreams and possessions and health.  The change of the seasons, the close of the day—even the rhythms of nature condition us for endings.

Fill us in the morning with your wisdom;
shine through us all our lives.

Teach us to number our days aright,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

Number our days.  Do we start counting at the terror of birth and finish when death steels our hearts and stops our breath?  Or is death merely the close of the first day of our lives and wisdom lies in the conviction that dawn will break on the other side? 

You turn us back to dust,
and say, ‘Turn back, you mortals.’ 

For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night.

Now the filtered light of sunset is gone and a dense darkness has descended on the street, the shadow that comes before sleep when I will die to the directing of my thoughts.  Tonight’s sleep is mere metaphor, but it speaks to an inevitable reality: we will be food for worms.  We will be food for worms.  Even in the decay of one body, new life emerges, the constant speaking of creation into our speaking of destruction. The roots that entwine our bones bring nourishment to the leaves that produce the oxygen that sustains the creatures who survive us.  And by the grace of God, the lives that we lived provide fertile soil in which the Kingdom can grow with the ongoing labor of our children and grandchildren.

May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us; 
establish the work of our hands for us— 
yes, establish the work of our hands.

Establish.  Stabilire.  “Make stable.”  Preserve our work forever. When we grieve, we only grieve for the passing of that which is good, and even that passing is only from our eyes—not from the Creative Source in whom all good things have their beginning and end.  And so the cycle of mourning will always be broken by the dawn of hope—hope that makes us present to the endless resurrection of love and joy and kindness even in the face of death.

Quoted verses are from Psalm 90 in the New International Version and the New Revised Standard Version and from an adaptation of Psalm 90 by Stephen Mitchell.

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