Today was Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. I’ve been fittingly pensive and reflective lately, almost to the point of feeling haunted. This is a time of year that used to fill me with energy, but these days seems more likely to leave me thinking about lost opportunities. I became starkly aware last night, while driving downtown to teach my CCD class, of how short a fuse I was on, and how much stress I was feeling. That’s not a good thing for me, and I quickly had to coax myself back off the ledge.
Thinking about how to go about lowering my stress level, I considered how helpful it might be to tune out the political environment, and focus on matters of a less agitated character. As tempting as that may be, it hardly seems the responsible thing to do, and would be easier said than done anyhow. At the end of the day, I have to live in the middle of it all, as does everyone I care about. I may be powerless to effect any real change in the world, but within my tiny little circle of influence, I am not free of the obligation to shed whatever light I may be able to on the greater or lesser questions of the day.
And so I’m left to confront the daily anxiety of backwards-looking regrets and forward-looking resignations. It dawns on me that I’ve never quite come to peace with myself following the crisis of my second coronary stent procedure, almost two years ago to the day. The first one, in May, had almost killed me, but I walked away from it with a sense of relief, feeling I had dodged a bullet, and ready to work my way back to health. But the prospect of the second one, several months later, felt like the bullet I’d dodged had, like a heat-seeking missile, turned around to come back for me. It was a humbling experience: half-expecting to die, unwilling to let anyone know how pessimistic I was, and dumbstruck at the profound chasm between what my life had been, and what it should have been.
And yet the ensuing two years have found me, in many ways, digging the same grave I was working on before: burning the candle at both ends, and allowing busy-ness to trump my need for quiet reflection and reconciliation. But that is hardly the whole story.
Five years ago, on Yom Kippur in 2004, I was spending some time in preparation for my first assignment, the following morning, as a reader in the Sunday Liturgy. As I sat in the basement, browsing my reading assignment for the nth time, and listening to some music, the seriousness of what I was about to embark upon hit me with full force. I realized, with full conviction, that justice demanded that, if I were going to proclaim the Word of God to His congregation in the sacred liturgy, my life needed to likewise proclaim the Word, outside of the liturgy. This was a sobering recognition that I needed to give up the shortcuts and compromises I had become accustomed to, and it was a little unnerving. The song that was playing at the time was a perky and heartfelt piece by Margaret Becker called “I Testify.”
Now, I am a quiet and reserved man, not much given to things like testimony, and I had to smile at the irony of the moment. True to my character, I started wondering what difference it would really make what I did with my life, and how it could possibly be important. At that point, the song changed, and as I looked down at my MP3 program to see what was next, I saw it was Joanne Hogg’s rendition of “My Song is Love Unknown.” I had to smile again at the irony, and said to myself something like: ‘Yes, indeed, and that is a glorious truth hidden from so many souls, so much in need of being told. I admit it.” Driven then by what felt like a silly curiosity, my eyes glanced down at the playlist to see what was next: a song called “One More Reason,” followed by “The Lord Reigns.” Sometimes, the Lord just won’t let us miss the point – either of His purpose, or of His lordship. After having a good laugh, I snapped a screenshot of the MP3 player, and said: “You win, Lord, but the ball’s in Your court.”
Despite my continuing foibles, I can hardly deny that the Lord has truly worked a gradual but profound personal transformation in me over these past five years. It’s not that I wasn’t serious about my vocation before that, and hadn’t in many ways been even more profoundly transformed a decade and a half prior, but I learned to let go just a bit more that night. I certainly can’t claim to have realized that imperative to give up all my shortcuts and compromises, but at least I am constantly aware of its imperativeness, and I can truly point to identifiable areas in my life where I have been able to be both more sensitive to Gospel demands, and more responsive, as well. My personality has both hardened and softened in different ways as my tolerance for moral and spiritual compromise has diminished. And while I’m grateful for the growth in wisdom and piety, I’m even more grateful for the grounding such spiritual life gives to the hope I must cling to so tightly on these autumn days, when I survey that terrible, battle-scarred landscape of my life, which won’t let me forget how very much I need the redemption of that Song of Unknown Love. More hope, less stress: better living.