The Word Embodied
The Long Haul
A heart, wise and understanding. (Kings 3:12).
God had called us: so says St. Paul in his Second Letter to Timothy. And Jesus is the call. Hence the voice from the clouds on the mount of transfiguration says, “Listen to him.”
But what are we called to? What happens if we listen to Jesus? Most of us have been listening for years. Supposedly that is one of the reasons we still show up in church. It’s his call we are heeding. He is our new Moses, our lawgiver. He is our greatest prophet, more glorious for us even than old Elijah. We’ve been listening to him. Now what?
So it is that we want to get on with it, to have things finished once and for all. Let there be a conversion, complete and dramatic. At least let there be some progress. We get tired of waiting. We’ve heard the call over and over, but not much seems to get done.
We can understand why Peter, James, and John wanted to build a tent. At least they’ve had a mountain experience. They saw Jesus in his glory standing with the mightiest prophet and the greatest lawgiver. No wonder they wanted to stop things right there. Surely it would be all downhill after the mountaintop. Surely there was not much more glory to see and savor.
Those of us who don’t have a mountain experience tend to settle down, too. If you’re fifty-five, you might well expect that there are not many more journeys to take or conversions to make. What was going to happen has pretty much happened. Even some of us who are only thirty or forty might be inclined to believe that we have finally “arrived” at the person we were becoming.
Abraham was seventy-five. At seventy-five you’ve pretty well seen the landscape. Not much more is to be expected.
But for Abraham it was the beginning. There was yet another call: “Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk, go away from your parents’ house. I will show you. You’ll know the place when you get there. I’ll make a great nation of you out of nothing.” Fat chance. A great nation? Blessings and high achievement unexpected? Get real.
Yet this great old man stirred to the voice of God. He gathered his family and things and hit the road. He was seventy-five.
The Jews (and we their cousins) have such great heroes. When Abraham heard a new call in his eighth decade, it was before the great famine and the tragedy of Lot and his wife, before he shared the bread and wine of Melchizedek, before he ever reached Egypt or Canaan. before the birth of Hagar’s Ishmael, before he would plead on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah.
It would take twenty-five years more for the promised covenant even to take shape, when he would be one hundred and his wife would change her name. This was all before Isaac, his prize child, long before Sarah’s death and his second marriage to Keturah. It was, in fact, one hundred years before he would die. It’s a good thing he hadn’t settled down permanently in his seventies.
Abraham and Sarah, our parents in faith, remind us that it is not so much a matter of when this life’s journey ends, as it is a matter of where the great hike of hope takes us.
When I was thirty-five, I foolishly imagined that I had seen it all. Thinking it was a sign of spiritual freedom and openness to God’s will, I even told my spiritual director in India that I was willing and ready to die. “Don’t say that,” he said. “You can never say you’ve had enough.”
Right he was. By the time I was forty-five, I realized that I had not dreamed, ten years earlier, of the pains that humans could suffer, the joys we might endure, the sheer exultation in life that is available to us. There is always more. There is always a further call as long as we tread this earthly road.
A woman who thinks she has had enough of her professional work discovers a new marvelous power to love and heal.
A priest at sixty-five taps into vast depths of courage and possibility within himself he had never imagined.
A man at sixty, dreaming of something new, starts a food distribution program in a poor Central American country.
A sister at fifty founds a new order.
A ninety-two-year-old nun goes more deeply into love, forgiveness, and trust than any novice could dare explore.
A couple married fifty years thanks Marriage Encounter for helping them finally understand each other.
Just think how many centuries it will take for us to delve into the mystery of God.
And so, it’s true, I wouldn’t resist or resent the going. We believe, after all, in the resurrection of a body far more glorious than our present meager skins. But I no longer think of rushing it. We need not build the tent here and now.
Abraham knew as much. He is our father in faith. Thank God Sarah had the faith as well.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.
**From Saint Louis University