a complete life

First Things, an intellectual Catholic magazine, hosted its Erasmus lecture last night at the Union League Club. The topic was “A Complete Life.”  I had just arrived from trying, somewhat unsuccssfully, to work with children of incarcerated parents in Bed-Stuy at Children of Promise.

The contrast could not have been more marked.  I had just tried to tutor a child so full of energy that he couldn’t sit still or stop talking or joking or attacking or touching people or laughing long enough to sit down.  I took three subways to get to the Union League Club and walked into a crowded room full of people in dark suits, sitting still on stiff-backed chairs and talking quietly to each other.  The room smelled, not unpleasantly, of mothballs. High above us glowed lamps the color of lapis lazuli.

A hum of quiet energy filled the room. The editor of First Things, Rusty Reno, introduced the speaker, Gilbert Meilaender, Professor at Valparaiso, in his pleasant, good-natured, good-humored way.  The speaker’s topic was: “The Complete Life”.

I expected a talk on healthy food choices, regular cardio-vascular exercise, sleeping eight hours a night, praying alone and in groups, reading the Bible, volunteering, working cheerfully and maintaining close interpersonal relationships.

Instead, Meilaender approached the topic of a complete life as one that spans from birth to death.  It took a moment to adjust. I hadn’t thought about life from that perspective in a long time.  He said there are two different ways of imaging life: as a series of ages (or stages), or as a journey.  He said that to image life as spanning from infancy to decrepitude, with the prime somewhere in the middle, is a pagan perspective, adhered to by people like Aristotle. In contrast, the Christian sees life as a journey in which God leads us with his hand, and supports us with his love, as the evening prayer service puts it. In this way of viewing life, there is no difference between young and old. The initiative always lies with God, as Barth put it. No matter what stage one is in, one can live as if this were the only stage. Each age is equidistant from the God who calls.

Meilaender began and ended his talk – he “completed” it, you could say – with a poem by Wheelock, of a lover hearing the sound of a thrush and longing to recapture a former romance.  “Sing it again now,” the poet begs the thrush.  “Sing that self-same song.”

Meilaender has a head of white hair.  He wore the same dark suit as most of the other listeners. And yet he revealed a deep passion for the longing for love:  after he recited the poem a second time, he said, with a wry smile, “I guess you can tell I like that poem.”

The same longing beats in every breast, whether it’s a hyperactive child whose father is in jail, or a white-haired professor of theology.  We each want to hear the self-same song of love.  We each want to hear the song that tells us that what we do matters. We want to know that whether we are young or old, we are all equidistant from the God who calls.  Sing to us again, Lord, is the cry of our hearts.  Sing that self-same song of love. We need to hear it over and over because we die without love. And to think that God loves us that way is too incredible to believe. Tell us again.

Or as David puts it in one of my favorite verses: “My heart has heard you say, ‘come and talk with me.’ “And my heart responses, ‘Lord, I am coming.'”  Ps. 27: 8 (NLT).

We run to talk to God, because, as Peter once told Jesus: “where else can we go?  You have the words of eternal life.” God sings to us of His love. He asks us to sing to Him “a new song.”  Ps 98:1. In the call of the thrush, we hear not just the sad song of human love lost but the joyful song of divine love found. This is a love that puts an arm around our shoulder; or holds our right hand; and sometimes has to carry us in his arms the way the shepherd carries his young. This is a love who walks with us every step of our journey, through every age, and makes our life complete, no matter what happens; no matter whether we are crawling or tapping a cane; trying to tutor someone who can’t listen; or sitting in the audience looking up at the lapis lazuli lamp and thinking: sing to me again, Lord. Please.

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