For the past couple of weeks my thoughts have been shattered by the news that one of my very dearest friends has only a short time left on this earth. This friend is twenty years my senior, and very much both a friend and a mentor. He is the kind of friend who loves in a kindly encouraging every day cheerful way, the kind that is always there for you. And best of all, he is the kind that loves enough to say the hard things that need saying. In short, he is a treasure, and his departing will be a tremendous loss. A loss I have processed every day, almost every minute since he told me.
This news has reduced my vocabulary and diction to cliches: Oh, I am so sorry. Oh, I don’t know what to say. What can I do? God bless you. … Words seem pointless, they become an obstacle, I am trapped in the meaningless flurry of them.
The book of James talks about the tongue as an untamed beast that brings good and bad. It is like a ship that cannot be steered. It blesses and curses. We need to choose our words carefully both when we speak and when we write.
When serious stuff happens to those we love, we heed James’ words. We may even (as I am) be afraid to speak for fear that our words do not say what we want them to say. Or worse, our words do say what we want them to say, but we realize as soon as they are spoken that they are not what the person needs. We try desperately to be of support to the person and his family, but after hanging up the phone, we obsess over words that were spoken. Oh, I shouldn’t have mentioned that. That was not encouraging. — Or after leaving their house you wonder whether you comforted them, or whether your words–spoken in tremendous grief–were really trying to comfort yourself rather than them.
And really, in truth, it’s not the words we say (though a few select of us may have the gift of truly speaking comfort). For most of us the blessing we can bestow is in just being there, in letting our loved ones know we are available to listen any time, even if we just sit in silence, hold a hand, do their dishes, mow their grass, or bring them a basked of raspberries. (And in knowing when to not be there, or in knowing when to leave.)
I spend most of my career on words, communication, precision, diction, syntax, correctness, and then there are those days (like right now) when I have to remember the words of the preacher: Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.
And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith. I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit. That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered. I communed with mine own heart, saying, Lo, I am come to great estate, and have gotten more wisdom than all they that have been before me in Jerusalem: yea, my heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge. And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit. For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. ~ Ecclesiastes 1.
Still, there is also a bitter-sweet beauty in departing, in getting to express those last words of tremendous gratitude, of appreciating all that another person has said and done. There is something about the end of life that finally allows that kind of transparency. And that beauty is priceless. We yearn for it all the time, but it is a rare gift. C. S. Lewis puts it like this:
I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. ~ In a sermon: The Weight of Glory, June 8th, 1942
When spoken rightly and at the pertinent moment words can open worlds of beauty which bring hearts and minds together in communion. Words enable us to share both grief and love with others. Words can weave a fabric of beauty around us. They make us one in friendship and love. And it is the glimpse of that beauty which recalls to our minds our human yearning for the eternal, the world beyond, and our ultimate destiny–to go and dwell there forever.
Long ago, I wrote this paragraph at the end to a novel I never published. The main character has just entered Paradise.
The fragrance of the Garden rose ever stronger and sweeter; star after star twinkled overhead in the nightless day. His heart grew light; it seemed that his suffering had been removed like a festering wound that had finally healed. Suddenly he realized that like everything else, his pain was long long ago! And that Love had laid a new foundation, a foundation of life and joy that would last forever.
May we all find that peace and joy here and now, and in the world beyond.