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Starting Point

Dying, then rising again, always in the service of God


She is an elderly nun and was here several months ago. She stopped me one morning after Mass and asked if we could chat. We went down by the lake and sat near the water. It was a windy fall morning. It was chilly, but we had coffee and soon the conversation warmed to so many things that we paid no mind to the wind and the cold. Words, warm words, can always diminish the effects of whatever kind of weather.

She had read my first book and said how optimistic I seemed about life, about the church, about the future. As she spoke I felt a pang of apprehension: I am going through self-questioning as to whether what I write lacks some sense of the religious vertigo that is so common these days. I feel it, too. I feel the ground shifting beneath my feet and wonder if I should share that. Do I write as if to make it all go away? In my writing, do I hide or deny my pain and fear?

She said that day that her religious order was dying. She paused, and then said “Jeff, the whole thing is dying.” I knew what she meant.

Indeed, this house in which I live does not show signs of continued growth. The monks are aging, many are not well, no one is coming to replace them to continue the tradition. And this must be seen in the larger scenario of culture and world. We are in a radically new situation. Things are changing. Horizons are expanding and shrinking all over the place. A lot of stretching of resources, personnel and the heart are not at all uncommon these days in many religious orders.

Yes, I thought to myself. It is all dying. But it always has been dying and then rising again. The church, always struggling with itself and the world, emerging in ever-new forms and striving with faith, language and time to respond to what it “hears.” For God speaks, and the church is. And the church, as thus spoken, is never finished. No one generation, culture or epoch can contain in itself the resources to complete -- or even expand -- the church. We are in the service of God.

Any human life (or tradition) is brief. And that brevity is lived one day at a time. I sometimes recall acts of kindness that were shown me long ago and believe that those acts meant something. They may have been small, insignificant and even forgettable, but they were given, and in the giving life was blessed.

So, what of our plans and dreams?

Looking back on my friend who shed a tear that day, I now wonder. She was smiling when she wiped that tear away. Perhaps by telling me what she feared, something of the God she loves blew some love into her eye and made run a tear. I like to think that she left here with a sense that the best any one of us can do is deal with life on a daily basis by being kind, by sharing the good that we are and the good we can give.

Or the great plans for which we hope. The wondrous things we hope to accomplish, the vast areas our hopes want to cover. We want our influence to last, and our institutions to be validated by human longevity, meaning, certitude, success. And all the while, goodness and kindness are the measure of all things that truly matter.

It is enough to make one cry for joy and suffer a bit that strange wind that blows away our tears.

Trappist Fr. James Stephen Behrens lives at Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Ga. His e-mail address is james@trappist.net

National Catholic Reporter, November 3, 2000