Beloved, we are already the children of God, but what we are to be in the future has not yet been revealed; all we know is , that when it is revealed we shall be like him because we shall see him as he really is.
1 John 3: 2
In the opening of her poem Visitors From Abroad, the poet Louise Gluck speaks of “Sometime after I had entered/that time of life/people prefer to allude to in others/but not in themselves . . . .” Today is the first day of November and the Feast of All Saints. Here in the Northern Hemisphere, November is a stark, brooding, and nostalgic month. It is a time of increasing darkness and barrenness. For those of us who have “entered that time of life people prefer to allude to in others but not in themselves,” it is an emblem of our present life as we experience the diminishment and loss that come with increased age. There is, as with the later autumn environment, an increased solitude and starkness to our lives, as we lose the “foliage” of family and friends, strength and energy. November begins in the Church with the Feasts of All Saints and All Souls. These celebrations are an invitation to ponder anew the nature of our communion with each other and the mystery of “who we are to be in the future.”
One of the great mysteries of human relationships is how, in the ordinary flow of day to day life, we relate to each other as if we were going to live forever. Our feelings toward others vary dramatically from positive to negative, depending on whether the other is pleasing us in moment. When needy, we grasp at the other. When lonely or sad or discouraged we hold on to the other. When physically and emotionally stirred by them, we embrace and fuse with them. When hurt or angered by them, we reject and repudiate them. When disgusted by them, we repulse them. Although none of this is the heart and soul of our love for others, these immediate reactions tends to determine much of the tenor of our day to day relationships.
Yet it is loss and solitude that begins to teach us about true love and communion. In our particular part of the world, the nostalgia and pathos of November comes from our memory of the summer past. We experience the darkness, dampness and chill in relationship to the recently passed warmth and light. Even when unexpected and unseasonable summer warmth occurs for a day or two, we experience it as but a pale reflection of the lost light and ease of summer.
So, too, with those we love and have loved. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” we say. This is due not only to sentimentality but also because distance allows us to see and know the other absent the “vicissitudes of ego” that determine our reactions to them on a daily basis. From a distance, we gain an expanded perspective. “Think of the love that the Father has lavished on us, by letting us be called God’s children; and that is what we are. (1 John 3:1) From a bit of a distance, we come to realize the love that God has lavished on us through the others who are God’s gift to us, even when they do not gratify us. It is in our shared love that we have come to know that we truly are God’s children.
One of my great teachers is my Godson Keith who died at the age of 24 from a brain tumor. As he made the decision to forego any further treatment, he expressed sadness that his decision would make his family sad, and yet, he longed to communicate to them the peace and the trust he experienced. To be at his bedside and to speak with him was to know that the love that truly bonds us transcends every limit that we experience. Somehow he knew that we would be sad, but he would not. As he was taken by ambulance to the hospice where he would die, he kept singing a verse from a song he had learned years before: “All is love; all is peace.”
Keith never even came close to attaining the age of which Louise Gluck writes. Yet, perhaps through the solitude of his years of illness, he had come to know the love that comes from the truth that we are now “God’s children.” We do not know what we are to be in the future. But we can know, by experience, that whatever we are to be will continue the communion with each other, as God’s children, that we taste, despite our frequent forgetfulness, in this life. Perhaps as we seem with age to come to live more and more in memory and re-appropriation of the relationships of the past, we are really becoming more prepared for the future. As God’s children, we are our lives with each other, lives that somehow, although we know not how, continue forever.
My mother and father stood in the cold
on the front steps. My mother stared at me,
a daughter, a fellow female.
You never think of us, she said.
We read your books when they reach heaven.
Hardly a mention of us anymore, hardly a mention of your sister.
And they pointed to my dead sister, a complete stranger,
tightly wrapped in my mother’s arms.
But for us, she said, you wouldn’t exist.
And your sister—you have your sister’s soul.
After which they vanished, like Mormon missionaries.
The street was white again,
all the bushes covered with heavy snow
and the trees glittering, encased with ice.
I lay in the dark waiting for the night to end.
It seemed the longest night I had ever known,
longer than the night I was born.
I write about you all the time, I said aloud.
Every time I say “I,” it refers to you.
Louise Gluck, from Visitors From Abroad, 2-3