Fear of Forgetting
During my late forties I did a peculiar thing.
I found myself living, five days a week, in a tiny apartment, with a 100 miles highway separating me from my wife and young children.
What was I doing there?
I often asked myself that question…
I wasn’t in jail, or in the military.
I had decided, shortly after my parents died, that I was called to become a Christian minister, and Yale Divinity School had kindly agreed to cover my education.
All I had to do was give up my life for three years.
I hung pictures on the wall, and smuggled in a cat (we were not allowed cats in the dorms) but I still felt strange.
I was smack in the middle of being a husband and father, and now, instead of being at home where I most certainly was needed, I was off on my own, trying to get to know a God who I had no certainty of.
Our tradition gives us hints about this God.
For the more than two thousand years that have passed since Christ walked the earth, there have been countless theologians, clergy, monks, philosophers and poets who have striven to understand the ways of the mysterious God that Jesus pointed to through his life and his teachings.
One of these — Saint Bonaventure – wrote of “footprints” or “vestiges” – small indications, here and there of the divine presence.
And as august and storied a place as Yale is, it is only barely up to the task of helping its students make sense of these footprints.
The lecture hall and the discussion seminar, may be filled with excellent students, and equally amazing professors, and remain an utterly clumsy way of trying to get at the divine mystery…
I have a distinct memory, from that time, of a night when I found myself in crisis…
I was taking a class called “creative faith” which was basically a writing workshop that, in true Yale style, was being taught by the writer who was, undoubtedly, the most celebrated writer of spiritual autobiography in America at that time.
For several weeks, I’d been deep in the throes of writing a memoir piece about my father.
I wanted it to be good, but more importantly, I wanted it to be true, and I was aware, as I struggled, that I was missing the details, the little things that made him who he was.
And the more I sought those telling details, the more I was aware of the time that was slowly gathering…
The time that was separating me from my father.
The fifth anniversary of my father’s death was steadily approaching.
I fell into a deep and fearful despondency.
The more I tried to write, the more lost I felt.
His memory felt like a sacred thing to me…
And I was forgetting.
This forgetting felt like a betrayal.
It felt like the love that bound us was now a thin thread, and that, as time passed, that thread was fraying…
I didn’t want to forget…
That separation, from the father that I loved, filled me with a kind of spiritual anxiety.
A Parent’s Worst Nightmare
Our Pew Bibles give a title to this morning’s lesson taken from the Gospel of Luke. Above the story, in italics are the words “The Boy Jesus in Jerusalem,”
If I were the managing editor of the Revised Standard Bible, I would be tempted to give this story a different name. I’d name it “a parent’s worst nightmare.”
It’s a terrifying story.
Jesus is 12 years old. His parents, Mary and Joseph, take him to Jerusalem for the Passover celebrations. When the festivities are over the parents set off toward home, assuming, all the while, that their son Jesus is “in the group of travelers.” After a day’s journey they realize that their son is not with them!
Where is he?
Jerusalem is the big city! A 12-year-old left alone?
Mom and Dad must be in a panic!
To react in any other way would be unnatural!
And yet the story includes none of this drama. It simply states that they “returned to Jerusalem to search for him…”
Then the story states, again, in an oddly matter of fact tone, as if the fact has no emotional significance at all, that the parents, Mary and Joseph searched for three days for the boy.
Can you imagine?
When at last they find Jesus, the text says that he is
in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.
Finally, the story acknowledges some parental concern, when it reports the words of Mary, who rebukes her son:
“Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”
But instead of respecting his parents concern for him, the boy replies, rather peevishly, if you ask me:
“Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
This story has been used, traditionally, to emphasize Jesus’ remarkable character.
Even at a tender age of 12, the boy could not only take care of himself – he could also hold his own debating with the Rabbi’s in the Synagogue!
I remember that my mother was quite taken by this interpretation of the story. I suppose she liked the idea of a 12-year-old giving the old timers in the Synagogue what-for.
But when I read this story again this week, the center of gravity of the story seemed to me to be with Mary.
Mary – and Joseph too – bore the emotional brunt of the story. They were the ones who had to learn the hard lesson that their hearts taught them when they were separated from a loved one.
Yesterday, when my daughter Isabel spoke in the Parish Hall about her experience being a Peace Corps Volunteer in Indonesia, someone asked her what was the hardest thing she’d had to deal with living there, on the other side of the planet.
Isabel told us about the first month when arrived in her placement in the village of Malangbong in West Java.
She’d been trained, for three months, with a whole cohort of American young people, and then, suddenly, she’d been left alone, in a village, staying with a family that she could barely communicate with. And to make matters worse, she arrived at the beginning of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, so the school (where she was to work) was not in session, and the whole culture was almost at a standstill during the day, as people rested to conserve their energy.
The isolation, she said, was intense.
All of her loved ones were on the far side of the globe…
23 years old and utterly alone.
What am I doing here? she asked herself.
In all these stories, separation –
the separation of a man from his family
the separation from a father five year’s dead
the separation from a beloved child, left behind
the separation of a young woman far from home…
In all these stories, separation is a kind of spiritual anxiety that seeks resolution.
If love is the most human of emotions, then separation from love, certainly, is among the most profound and universal of the human sorrows.
After Isabel’s talk was over, I had a brief conversation with Sarah Ellis.
I think Isabel’s description of isolation must have given her cause to ruminate about her own solitude, because she spoke to me about losing her father, earlier this year.
Sarah said that her relationship with him had now changed, because now instead of being a person in his room, he had become an inner presence – someone she carried in her heart.
She said that, in strange way, she felt closer to her father, now that he was gone.
When she would seek him out – and even when she didn’t – there he was.
“Yes,” I said.
And I remembered that night in New Haven – the one I began this morning sermon describing.
Something amazing happened that night.
You may recall, I had been writing about my father, and I was stricken by a great sadness, because I feared that I was forgetting the little details that made him who he was.
Finally, I gave up writing, and, in despair I went to bed..
And as I sat on the edge of my bed, I happened to look down, and my glance happened to fall upon the house slippers that I had just taken off, that were sitting on the ground beside the bed.
And I recognized them.
And suddenly, I was weeping.
I recognized them — they were, of course, my house slippers.
But they were also my father’s house slippers.
They were just the kind of slippers he would wear.
And they were worn down in just the way he would’ve worn them down.
And they sat demurely beside each other in exactly the way they would sit beside my father’s bed.
I wept, realizing in that moment, that I was not forgetting my father.
Without even trying, he was a part of me.
So much so that, looking at my house slippers was no different from looking at his.
And in the end, this very same internalization is also the center of gravity of the story of the boy Jesus in Jerusalem.
In the end, it was Mary who was changed by this experience of painful separation. It was Mary who discovered a solution to the age-old spiritual problem of separation from love…
The text tells us that, in response to this separation, Mary
“…treasured all these things in her heart.”
When we are separated from love, our love goes inside.
It becomes a part of us.
From the pain of separation, we seek love and we find it placed in the safe keeping of our hearts.