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Starting Point

Just as the sky goes on forever


Driving home along Route 1 from choir practice, I saw the aurora borealis off to my left. Torn between my desire to stare in wonder and my need to keep my eyes on the road, vigilant for sharp curves, traveling wildlife and oncoming traffic, I considered stopping the car but decided to keep going, hoping the aurora would continue long enough for me to appreciate it from a stationary position. It graciously did so, and as soon as I pulled into my dooryard I grabbed my walking stick and threw on some gloves and boots and headed out along the road toward the beach, where I could have a view unobstructed by trees.

Palest green, shimmering, like quick-moving clouds, like dust blown about by fairy winds, the light filled the northern sky and extended far overhead. Long straight fingers of light would point, then curl, then disappear. I spoke, to the sky, “You are so beautiful”; to God, “Thank you!” I rejoiced beneath the dancing brightness and felt glad for such moments.

I had heard that day about the recent unrelated deaths of two acquaintances in New Mexico. John had been ill for some time, after many decades of service with his wife in peace and justice ministries in the Santa Fe archdiocese. Marie, a radical activist nun in her 50s, had spent the last dozen years deeply committed to eco-spirituality, permaculture, and running a community garden. She died alone in an auto accident. Both John and Marie were well known and mostly loved throughout the justice and faith network in New Mexico and beyond, though it’s usually true that prophetic lives stir up some reaction and resistance here and there. And characters strong enough to accomplish much often have sharp edges.

Since I am in touch with many who know and will be missing Marie and John, e-mails had been humming back and forth throughout the day. We were sharing memories and musing on the meaning of life and the surprise of death. It was easy to look at these two lives and imagine God saying, “Well done, good and faithful servants.” It was clear that they had lived with passion, dedication and faith, and had literally poured themselves out in service to their ideals.

And yet, it seems too facile to summarize a life that way, to imagine our relationship with God, with ultimate reality, to be as simple as a final report card, a spiritual activist version of the old bumper sticker: “He who dies with the most good works on his score-card wins.” This temptation to measure, to evaluate, to judge, is a nasty habit I’ve learned, and I long for the day when I can grow beyond it.

I would rather look at Marie and John, and at myself and at every other being and simply see the miracle of our having been here at all. Most of us do the best we can; we live by the light we are given. Some, by nature, by choice, by accident, have a profound and visible effect on others. Some pass through very quietly or very briefly, the meaning and the purpose of their existence forever unknown. I would like to believe that God does not consider one way more important than the other, does not love the great achievers any more than those whose lives remain simple and hidden.

I hope to let go of my “report card” vision of God, though I just may hang on to, lightly, the idea of a little “exit interview.” What if, as we leave this earth, God says to us, “Did you like it? Did you have fun? Tell me what you saw, where you went. What did you like best? Whom did you love? Did you pay attention? Did you look up? Did you really see?”

As high as the sky is above the earth, so God’s ways are so far above our own. And just as the sky goes on forever, so full of lights and darknesses, of gravities and mysteries, so God is unimaginably beyond our reach, our comprehension. But then, there are nights when the sky moves in so close, and the light within the darkness bends toward us. We hear it whisper; we feel that we can touch it. It reaches down and touches us. Just so does God approach. There is no need to understand.

Mary Vineyard is a massage therapist living in Downeast, Maine.

National Catholic Reporter, July 13, 2001