I ran into an old friend the other day. She’s a Baptist’s Baptist who hails from deep in the Bible Belt. Soul freedom personified, and a fierce free-churcher, she is not someone you’d expect to inhabit the same zip code as a Book of Common Prayer. But there it was… she had it in her hand.
I must have raised an eyebrow, because she immediately launched into an explanatory rant about how loopy worship services at her home church had become.
‘We never know what we’re going to get,’ she said. ‘Every week it’s amateur hour!’ A few Sundays before, it seems that instead of the sermon there was a fully-costumed skit announcing the Strawberry Fair. And just last week there was special music to honor the King…of Pop. And every Sunday, she endures the vague churchy blather (her words, not mine!) of a pastor who can never quite pull off a single, simple, clear declarative sentence—subject, verb, object. ‘And,’ she said, ‘when that man prays, bless his heart’—if you’re from the South, that’s a phrase that makes it okay to say something bad about somebody—‘when he prays, bless his heart, you’d think it was the weather report on the morning news!’
“Dear God, we thank you for the blue sky and bright sun on this perfect spring day with temperatures hovering around 70 dry, breezy degrees. And for this high pressure area that’s going to ensure pleasant weather well into the week…“
So… she’s started going to an Episcopal church. Hence that BCP. She attends Morning Prayer, Eucharist, Evening Prayer—whatever’s on offer. With the ‘Piskies she gets a fixed liturgy, time-tested language, no guesswork. She can relax. “And,” she said, “it makes me cry.”
Now, I got the part about a fixed liturgy being a relief. But I wasn’t expecting her say, “It makes me cry.” And to mean ‘that’s a good thing.’ She’s not exactly sentimental.
So I echoed her, in my best imitation of a therapist, “It makes you cry….”
“Yes. Well, no,” she said. “not everything makes me cry. It’s mostly evening prayer that makes me cry. “
“Evening prayer…” I repeated.
“Yes. Well, no, not evening prayer as such. One of the prayers in evening prayer, the collect, this one. It makes me cry.” And she opened the prayer book to read it to me. But I already knew which one it was going to be. Maybe you do too.
“Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past; be our companion in the way; kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love. Amen.”
For years this prayer has been a devotional staple of mine for when I lay me down to sleep. It makes me cry too… In part, I think, because my heart is easily smitten by a really great metaphor: Almost evening. Nightfall. The day passing away.
You know where this is going.
If you were to place this prayer on the lips of my 91-year-old father some Monday night, he wouldn’t be thinking, ‘Monday. Monday is almost over.’ He’d be thinking about how it’s all gone so fast. He’d make a stunning calculus of years behind and years ahead and wonder how it happened. He would say to himself, deep in that place in the soul where from time to time you dare to test out the truth, ‘It won’t be long. It’s almost evening. The day is far spent. Death is near.’
And, of course, he’s not the only one.
I occasionally spend time looking at photographs of myself as a child. Not so much because I’m vain, but because it’s bracing. It’s like the old monastic practice of keeping a skull in your cave. ‘Memento mori,’ says the wiry, sun-draped child sprawled like Huck Finn on a flat rock in the swift brook that empties into Stirrup Iron Pond on her grandfather’s farm. She is so far away. She is impossible. I’m only 65, not 91, and yet I can’t reach her. I can’t really say in truth that I remember being her. She is a day drawing to a close. She is like an evening gone. She makes me cry.
Do you know what I mean?
Once upon a time, we had our whole lives ahead of us, and we imagined them a certain way as we hatched hopes and made plans for them. We cast ourselves as protagonists of beautiful unfolding stories: We’d have a loving, lasting marriage. We’d build a good career in a meaningful profession and stash enough money away for a comfortable retirement. And we would be fine people, people who do good and not harm. We’d eradicate world hunger by the time we were forty.
And then we wake up to find that we are forty and there is still world hunger, and that good intentions notwithstanding, we were more than occasionally mean or dishonest or selfish. Whatever we did or left undone, we managed to contribute our fair share of sin and stupidity to the vast reservoir of human pain and regret.
And then we wake up one day to find that we are fifty and our tattered marriage is no better now than it was when we were forty; or maybe we find that we don’t even have a marriage any more.
And then we turn around and we’re sixty, and we are have doubts about the meaning of our life’s work, and the money we thought we’d have is not as much as the money we actually have, and what we do have may not last until we die. And we are going to die. It wakes us up in the wee hours.
And I haven’t even mentioned what could happen at 70…
The day is far spent. It is almost evening.
In the course of my teaching and preaching, I come across a lot of people who are really “into” spirituality. They also seem to know what it is, which I find fascinating, because I’ve been studying it for a good part of my life and I’m not sure I have any solid sense of it yet. But I have come to at least one conclusion about spirituality, not so much from study as from what happens in those wee hours when one is awakened by the sadness of things slipping away. I’ve learned it from the pathos that wells up and constricts your throat when you turn the soft black page of an old album and come face to face with a child who (they swear) is you, but you can’t exactly place her. I’ve learned it from the way tears come unbidden when at vespers we finally say out loud what we know is true, ‘It is almost night.’
I think if spirituality is about anything, it has ultimately to do with the immense grief that punctures the human heart, grief that stems from the knowledge that this one life is all we have, and that it is way too short, no matter when it ends, and that even if it is full of suffering, it is still too wonderful and precious to have to abandon, just like that, to the night that is fast approaching.
This grief is the subtext of every delight, the undertow of regret we feel even in the midst of ecstasy or quiet gratitude for the beauty and pleasure of this life, the smoldering rage we reflexively stoke up when we ponder the intractability of our fate, the fact that nothing can stay.
Spirituality must be about the kind of grief and fear that, left to its own devices, is capable of recasting our souls as one life-long, fatalistic shrug of the shoulders, rendering us indifferent to all kinds of intimate and global horror; or worse, making us cruel, able to take out our despair on the innocent.
If spirituality is about anything, I think it must have to do with this stunning human disappointment, the fact that we who love to live all die, that death is the one sure thing that is coming to us all.
The job of a devotional life, if I can put it that way, is to take us as we are—caught up in immense disappointment, traveling on a rough road to more of the same–and by grace, day by day, year after year, discipline us to know and embrace our heart’s anguish as the finite echo of another, infinite and encompassing reality: the fact that, although our deaths are sure, we were not made for death, but for a persevering love that cannot lose or leave us. When all is ended, love remains
The job of a spiritual practice is not to make us perfect people, holy people, or even better people, but simply to deposit us daily, routinely, in the way of this sustaining love; to accustom us to the familiar cadences of its voice, which we may not at first be able to place exactly, but which rings so true that it blazes; and to support these frail hearts as love makes mysterious, yet shining sense for us out of the grand story of the trustworthy ways of God; and shining, yet mysterious sense for us of our own stories in God.
And then, when we look up and register that it is almost evening, that the day is indeed ending and night is falling fast, we will know that our anxious prayer has already been answered, the prayer that goes, ‘Lord Jesus, stay with us.’ Our anxious prayer not to die, not to die forever, has already been answered and is never unanswered, no matter the strange disguise in which this answer may appear. Answered and never unanswered by the companionable One whose hands still bear the mark of nails and from whose open side we have all received grace after grace.
And after we have gone in with him and he has come in with us, after we have sat to eat with him, and after we have known him again and again together, there will be only one thing to do with the life he imparts: To get up and return to that rough and hopeless road to find some other pair, some other trudging hearts despondent over death, and say to them, “Love is living still!”