[imc-qc] THE FILIPINO MIND - The shortness and uncertainty of human
bmdrona at yahoo.com
Mon Jul 18 08:01:53 PDT 2005
A high school classmate and friend passed away last night, 6 days after suffering a stroke, a first and fatal one. He never recovered consciousness. We were just together in a Don Bosco high school past teachers and alumni gathering last July 2. He and his wife were looking forward to go to the Philippines in September, see the finishing touches on their vacation home and celebrate his birthday in October. And surely, I know he would want to share with his friends and relatives this place when we visit.
Anyway, it reminded me of the below article written by the highly controversial clergyman, retired Anglican Bishop of Newark, NJ, John Shelby Spong - one of my favorite authors/clergymen.
The Shortness and Uncertainty of Human Life
by John S. Spong
It was an indelible moment. The nonchalance of a relaxed and even a trivial conversation was abruptly halted. A litany repeated over and over again from the backseat of my car was simply "O my God, O my God, O my God."
The evening began as the final event in a wonderful day. New Dimensions lecturer, Karen Armstrong, the author of A History of God, had stretched the minds and hearts of a large gathering of our clergy and laity from across the Diocese who met at St. Peter's Church in Morristown. This audience was augmented by an array of visitors, including well-known rabbis from our state, some New Jersey political leaders and a host of other visitors, drawn by their interest in the brilliance and reputation of our speaker. Two unique guests had come for that day from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Their names were Richard and Nancy Rhem.
Richard Rhem is the pastor of a large Christian church who was just this last year expelled as a heretic from the Synod of the Reformed Church of America. His crime was his suggestion that Jews and Moslems might also be loved by God and even destined by God for salvation. His church voted to follow their expelled pastor and they too left the Synod of the Reformed Church. The New York Times had chronicled this bizarre excommunication in American religious life with a front page story. A few weeks later The Times had printed an op-ed column written by Karen Armstrong analyzing this strange act of Protestant religious intolerance. So the Rhems came to meet and listen to their internationally famous defender. The day had gone well. The lectures were brilliant. The questions were animated. The crowd was large. The excitement was real. At the end of the public event, our speaker and the Rhems joined Christine and me at our home. All that remained on that day's calendar was the anticipation
of a happy evening out together.
We had reservations at one of our favorite New York restaurants, The Union Square Cafe, on 16th Street. We left Morristown at 5:15 p.m. to make the journey through the Holland Tunnel and Greenwich Village to our destination. We were not ten minutes from our home when our lives were invaded by a searing trauma.
Our east-bound traffic was flowing, as if in formation, at around sixty miles an hour, when five seconds in front of us, a west-bound car veered at top speed from its lane, traveled over the median strip and plunged into our ranks. We gasped at what this incredible action might mean, but there was no time to contemplate motives as a terrible impact occurred just in front of us. Parts of two automobiles scattered all over the highway. The offending car was knocked halfway up the embankment. The violated car was stopped cold in its tracks. A third car was struck. There were no skid marks on the highway. There had been no time to react, no anticipation of disaster in that steady stream of traffic. One does not normally drive on a highway consciously guarding against the danger of a vehicle that might cut across the divide from the opposite lanes.
"O my God!" was suddenly the total substance of our conversation. Cars in both lanes stopped. People rushed to the victims, not sure what to do and probably creating more harm than good. From my car phone I called 911 to report the carnage and to direct police emergency medical crews and ambulances to the site of the accident. In remarkably rapid time they were on the scene.
We drove on, but the evening would never be the same. Had we left home five to ten seconds earlier, we would have been in the path of that errant automobile. Life in all of its sweetness was revealed to be so very tenuous, so susceptible to events for which there is no defense and against which there is no protection. Human beings are, at every moment, far more delicate than most of us could tolerate knowing, much less acknowledging, with our conscious minds. But flashing, traumatic moments, like watching a dreadful accident, invade our defense systems, forcing us to acknowledge what the Bible calls "the shortness and uncertainty" of human life.
A heightened sensitivity both to the wonder of life and its fragility has been my constant companion from that moment to this. That accident has haunted me as few experiences have ever done. The inevitability of death enters the awareness of us all at a very early age.
It comes normally when a grandparent, an elderly relative, or perhaps even when a pet dies. This ultimate reality is then filed in the deeper recesses of our minds. We rationalize it by assuming that death is some distant event that does not need to be contemplated now. So death is repressed, buried amid the busyness of our lives, until it remains only a shadow that is rarely visible. Human beings have a capacity to act as if somehow we might be the only ones who will escape it.
I shall never forget calling at the home of an elderly priest the evening he died. His family pulled out a file containing his carefully worked out funeral directions. His sister handed me a sheet of paper on which, in clear handwriting, this priest had written, "If I die, please do the following things." "If I die!" It was the perfect expression of that universal human hope that refuses to recognize that reality dictates the word "when," not "if," to be the proper word for us to use.
As one grows older, death is allowed to enter our consciousness a bit more openly. It has a strange, almost bitter-sweet, dimension to it. Death means that life's tasks need to be brought to conclusion. It thus rings the bell on all procrastination. It does not allow us to drift into a sense of meaningless days that pass eternally before us with no driving necessity to do anything special while we have time. Yet it is precisely because our days are limited that they are recognized as precious. Because of the presence of death, one does not postpone seeing a friend, calling a mother, holding one's wife, writing a letter, finishing a book or whatever the compelling desire might be. The background of death as our ultimate destiny forces us to make decisions about how our finite time is going to be spent. Meaningless activities are dropped. I, for example, do not ever intend to be present at another provincial synod meeting of my church. I do, however, quite intentionally intend to
cherish my friends, to enjoy my family and to deepen my involvement in those activities that feed my soul. It is a kind of adopted discipline that comes when one reaches the age that constitutes the death-watch of one's life. Still there is a fear that death might come suddenly and leave each of us with our unfinished dreams or our unappreciated relationships. In my heart of hearts I have determined that I do not want to die until I have been able to say in both word and deed to those I hold dearest just how much they mean to me.
Those were among the thoughts that erupted from within me as I saw this irrational human drama unfold before my eyes on Highway 24 on May 13, 1997. Death can come so suddenly, so unexpectedly. It can come no matter how healthy our diet, how constantly we exercise or how regularly we see our doctor. It sometimes comes with the suddenness of a bolt of lightning, and that reality must be factored into our lives at every moment. So every time I see my wife, every time I speak by phone to my children or my grandchildren, every time I preach or celebrate at a service of worship, every time I preside over a meeting or a convention, every time I share a meal with special friends, those experiences must be filled with the presence of my best, for I never know when they might turn out to be my last.
The talk among the five of us at the restaurant in New York that night was somber, open, barrier-less, honest and filled with an awareness of this fragile wonder of life. All of us knew that finitude had invaded our minds in a powerful way. We recognized that each of us was living an unrepeatable life. We even recognized the uniqueness of that dinner party. It would never occur again; it would be a once-in-a-lifetime occasion. It must, therefore, stand forever on its own merits. So, as people who had transcended a great divide that night, we shared and we laughed, we listened and we engaged each other. We also stretched that evening as far as it would stretch, in a leisurely pace from cocktails to a second coffee. It was as if we wanted time to stand still, or at least that this encounter might never cease. But the internal alarm clock went off, as it always does. We rose to leave. We embraced and thanked one another for an incredible, and undoubtedly, an unforgettable evening.
In less than twenty-four hours, Karen Armstrong was in Seattle, the Rhems were in Michigan, Chris was in New York for a luncheon, and I was working my way through a staff meeting, a Standing Committee meeting, telephone calls, appointments and a gathering in Paterson of the Diocesan Council. All of us were back to business as usual, but none of us would ever be quite the same. We had endured the shock of existence. We had walked with each other through that rending experience. We had processed it together; we had touched each other's souls, and perhaps even entered each other's being. We had suspended time, as it were, to contemplate meaning. But for those people, who traveled just five to ten seconds ahead of us that evening, it was not a warning; it was reality. We had been able to go to school on their pain.
The 1928 Prayer Book had a prayer which said, "Grant us grace always to live in such a state that we may never be afraid to die, so that living and dying we may be thine." That night I hugged my wife, Christine, very tightly as if I never wanted to let her go. Both of us understood why.
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