Turning 65 Just Before Lent
The year I turned 50, my birthday fell the day after Ash Wednesday. When I mentioned this, a friend piped in, “So you’re giving up your youth for Lent.”
This year Lent begins this Wednesday and my 65th birthday was last week. As a full-fledged senior citizen I no longer need to “give up” youth for Lent.
How did “Sign up for Medicare” creep onto my to-do list along with sensible things like ski bumps with my son at Grand Targee this Saturday (with a senior discount)? But then it happens to the best of us and, as they say, it beats the alternative.
Or does it?
Not that I’d consider anything rash, but lately my reading has been turning my thoughts beyond this life. I didn’t plan it that way, but can’t help believe that Someone did.
Elvenhome and Paradiso
At the end of The Lord of the Rings, elves, wizard, and hobbits make their way to the Grey Havens to sail away from the conflicts of Middle Earth to the peace and rest of Elvenhome. “And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water … the grey rain-curtain turned all silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.”
Want to know more about this funny thing called Lent? See Jay Richards’ We Should Fast, for Body and Soul
And David Mills’s Hey, Buddy, Jesus Said No Ashes (about Ash Wednesday) and How to Observe Lent: Read a Heretic
And John Zmirak’s Maybe Lent Should Start With Valentine’s Day Every Year
Then there’s Dante. Most people only know Inferno where the damned read over the portal of Hell: “ABANDON ALL HOPE YOU WHO ENTER HERE” (Inferno 3. 9).
But Dante, entering Hell on Good Friday, emerges “to see, once more the stars” (Inferno 34.139) at the base of Mount Purgatory at dawn on Easter. There after death the souls of the faithful arrive with anticipation and joy. “Please,” they ask, “if you know it, show the way we can climb the mountain” (Purgatorio 2.58-59).
At the top of that mountain once the souls of the saved are purged and beautified, they enter the Garden of Eden and then go on to Heaven where in the face of God all good desires meet and find utter satisfaction.
In the highest heaven, as Dante nears God’s essence, Bernard of Clairvaux warns him, “O son of grace, you will never find out … this life of endless joy if still your vision gazes here below.” Dante responds, “So from the valley to the highest hill / my eyes climbed to the limit of that realm / and saw its light, that was unconquerable (Paradiso 31.112-114; 121-123).
Man’s Eternal Will
As a pastor, I occasionally did funeral services for people I had never met. No one ever asked me if Uncle Harry or Grandma Beth was going to Heaven, but I had an answer ready. Heaven is about God twenty-four/seven (to use a phrase that won’t apply in Heaven).
He will be the saints’ love, joy, and preoccupation forever — just as He had been imperfectly for them on earth. Since I didn’t know Uncle Harry or Grandma Beth, I didn’t know whether they would find that delightful or intolerable.
While I didn’t know it, I was reflecting what I recently read in St. Thomas Aquinas’ Compendium Theologiae (174), “The soul will remain perpetually in whatever last end it is found to have set for itself at the time of death, desiring that state as the best, whether it is good or evil.… After this life, therefore, those who are found good at death will have their wills forever fixed in good. But those who are found evil will be forever obstinate in evil.” As Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21, Luke 12:34).
Now I know (as did St. Thomas) that we are saved by God’s grace and not by our goodness. Yet as I was admonished in my devotional reading last week, “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come, and the years draw nigh, when you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain; … and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:1-7). Time is short; decide now.
Now is the Time
At 65, I’m hardly ancient, but I am embarking on the final phase of, to use J.R.R. Tolkien’s words, “the long defeat.”
Now is the time to be serious about virtue and goodness. Now is the time to break earthly attachments and cling to God as the highest good. Now is the time to live the life I’ve already written about in my book Pears, Grapes, and Dates: A Good-Life After Mid-Life.
Now is the time to prepare for the final defeat even as Lent prepares us for the inevitable defeat of Good Friday — and the unspeakable victory joy of Easter that follows.