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Starting Point

Writing in the margins of our lives


Many years ago I was waiting for my friend to gather his bags and say farewell to his parents. He was on his way to Rome and I offered to drive him to the airport. His mom and dad were well on in years. I was in their living room and Dick was talking with them in the dining room.

They were talking in hushed tones. Their voices were tender and hushed because that is the way goodbyes are between parents and sons, and, I think, especially the parents of a priest. I sensed a reverence between them.

I looked to my left and there was a small stack of books on a table near the arm of the chair. I picked one up. It was by Cardinal John Henry Newman. I opened it and started to browse through the well-read pages. It belonged to Dick -- his name was written on the first page -- but the handwriting in the margins of the pages was his mom’s. She had read with obvious care. Her heart and memory worked along with her eyes as she read and noted impressions and thoughts in the margins.

Dick returned from Rome. His parents were well. I went to lunch with them and looking at his mom, I thought about her reading by the light of the lamp, taking in the soft light and words, and then picking up a pen and writing in the clean margins of that book.

Dick’s dad passed away some years after. I was with Dick in the hospital as his dad moved on to new life, helped along by the love and prayers and heartache of his mom.

I received a letter from Dick yesterday. His mom had passed away. She was 98 years old. I felt a sadness when I read the letter. No matter what age, to lose a parent is to lose such a deep love.

Earlier that day, I had read a few lines written by Jean Sulivan, a French priest who died in 1980. At the start of his journal called Morning Light, he wrote: “It had to be Mother who passed on the heritage to me, she who had nothing else to leave, just as her parents had passed it on to her. In her house the father used to read the Old and the New Testament aloud every winter evening, and even the dogs didn’t dare move.”

The heritage is that of the gospel -- the heritage of faith, given from parents to a son. Faith and love are all we have to leave behind someday. They last. They live on in the flesh and spirit of sons and daughters, friends and loves.

Life is like a gift of so much living text -- with clean margins. We write in those margins with the daily entries of our words and gestures of love, mercy, hope, longing, praying. And sometimes we really do write, write with a pen of our love for words and God. As I read the words of Dick’s mother that day, she may well have been kissing her son, holding his hand, wishing him well. She was living her writing in the margin of life -- an ordinary day, a sad farewell, an unwritten, unsigned day of a human life.

Most of our days are just like that.

And now God holds her, and reminds her of what she wrote and how she loved. God, too, wrote in the margins of her life, and the writing spilled into the text of her days and nights through her loving, her aching, her praying, her writing.

God’s writing lasts, too.

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

National Catholic Reporter, March 16, 2001