Holding on to the dying

During the years immediately after I completed seminary, a question from Thomas Merton – actually, two questions – lodged permanently in my consciousness. “If you want to identify me,” he wrote, “ask me not where I live or how I comb my hair or what I like to eat, but ask me what I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for.” What am I living for, in detail? What is keeping me from it? I can’t shake them for long. The first one is challenging enough; the second one grows more significant as years roll on.

Now a new one has been added, from Pico Iyer’s latest book, Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells (New York: Knopf, 2019). He slips it in almost immediately, on page fourteen, and I had to pause my reading to ponder it. “Autumn poses the question we all have to live with: How to hold on to the things we love even though we know that we and they are dying.” How to hold on to those things instead of letting them go is only part of it. In what way do we hold on? What are the nuances between holding on and letting go that tilt toward holding on? And in the holding on, what are the subtle forces that tilt toward letting go?

Iyer’s book and question came to me following a return to my home turf – in the autumn, of course – after an absence of twenty years. I went back to join my classmates from high school in celebrating our collective seventieth birthday, the proverbial number of years the psalmist says are the days of our life (Ps. 90:10). During the weekend I visited places in town that witnessed my coming of age. In the countryside I paused below the hill where once stood the house where my paternal grandfather was born and raised. A mile or so up the valley from that site, I communed with the numen of the nineteenth-century school house, still standing, where he started his formal education. Then came the cemeteries where five generations of my family take their rest.

It was a strange brew of holding on and letting go, and I’m just beginning to know its taste and to know just how I will hold on and how I will gracefully let go.

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