Posted by: Harold Knight | 12/18/2010

“. . . nibbling at eternity — like some lowly but holy mouse. . .”

In 2008 Dana Jennings wrote a thought provoking little piece on religion/belief/aging/etc.  I’d seen Dana Jennings’ name in print, but if you keep up with things in general better than I do, you know Jennings is an editor at the New York Times and has written several books.

My birthday is fast approaching. Sixteen days. Few birthdays have bothered me.  An old (as in years of acquaintanceship) friend of mine said as she approached seventy, “Thirty was nothing. I hardly noticed forty. Fifty I had a great party and moved on. My friends thought sixty would surely affect me, but it didn’t. But seventy? This one is a terrible!” I rushed right out and bought her a copy of May Sarton’s At Seventy, but she was not amused.

I’ve had an autographed copy of At Seventy for about twenty-five years. Seventy’s not the birthday that has me in its crosshairs. It’s only sixty-six. But thinking about it is having some effect on me that I can’t put into words.

The core of Jennings’ piece makes sense to me.

. . . talk of God, talk of faith, makes people squirm. They’d rather gab about their new Hummer, or their daughter’s drug problem, or “American Idol” — anything but religion. If you’re one of those who’s started nibbling at eternity — like some lowly but holy mouse — there’s no lack of “educated” folks who’ll look at you as if you’re cross-eyed and dangerous.

But religions, if nothing else, are metaphors for how we choose to lead our lives, how we choose to defy the empty cultural whirlwind.

Our lives begin in mystery … and end in mystery. In between, we try to explain ourselves to ourselves, all 6.5 billion of us who are wedged onto this improbable planet — 6.5 billion potential paths toward the holy. (1)

Dana Jennings is not old. He’s fifty-three. I was ready to cross him out of this writing, regardless of his captivating prose. This is about my assent into incipient old age, and no mere fifty-three-year-old can possibly understand. But Jennings, I discovered, found out two years ago he has advanced and aggressive prostate cancer. I don’t know if he wrote this piece before or after his diagnosis. I don’t know how he fares today. He has, however, a clear understanding of “nibbling at eternity.”

For me, awareness of nibbling at eternity started in a (perhaps pathologically) serious way when I was about thirty years old. Truth be told, before that.  I’m not going into the symptoms of my (presumed) pathologies here. However, a friend of mine in about 1975 gave me—trying to be helpful because I talked so often about being dead—a copy of The Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker (1973). It was just my cup of tea, but it was the last thing I needed to read. I still have that copy (which is not surprising because I never—well, hardly ever—get rid of a book).

I never get rid of a book, and in certain instances my mind never gets rid of a piece of music. Our university choir once sang a funny little ditty, and anthem arrangement of a spiritual—J. William Jones explained that he had done scholarly due diligence and was unable to find the source of the spiritual. I’ve never been able to find the source, either, and the anthem itself is not available from any publisher I can find. The words:

Good Lord, shall I ever be the one,
Good Lord, shall I ever be the one,
Good Lord, shall I ever be the one
To cross over in the promised land.”

The Lord walked in the garden,
‘Twas about the cool of the day.
The Lord called to old Adam,
And Adam tried to run away.

The words tell the story from Genesis, God walking through Eden after Adam and Eve sinned, and they trying to hide from God. God delivers his edicts to the serpent, to Eve, and then to Adam, ending with the familiar, “you shall return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (RSV, Genesis 3:19). Our “nibbling at eternity.” Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. The one certainty.

In sixteen days, my Social Security retirement benefit will begin. I’ve been saying that can’t be true because Social Security is for Old People.  I bought my copy of At Seventy for May Sarton to sign when she was on the book tour for its publication in 1985. Twenty-five years ago, I thought she looked amazingly good for an old lady. The book is her daily journal of her 70th year. Rereading it these days, I realize one of the reasons she didn’t seem like an old lady. She hardly ever mentions being seventy except to say such things as

It is quite incredible that I am seventy and that I feel so young, much younger than I felt when I wrote The House by the Sea, but isn’t true that one often fears what is ahead, and then when one gets there it is not at all what one feared? These days seventy is not old, especially if good health is in the cards. (2)

After seventy

After seventy

I don’t now, and never have had, the joie de vivre May Sarton had (for more fun than you can stand, get a copy of her The Fur Person). Beating myself up over that is no good. I am what I am. I know my life began in mystery and it will end in mystery, and, like everyone else, I expend a great deal of energy, in Dana Jennings’ words, “trying to explain myself to myself.”

Lately my doubt about everything I used to believe has left me philosophically/theologically depressed in addition to my normal psychological depressiveness. But the other day I found some, as the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer calls them, “comfortable words.”

Mature people are able to tolerate doubt better than younger people; they can live comfortably without “existential certainty” . . . [the] process of faith development and maturity has a reciprocal relationship with authentic human growth, freedom, and maturity.  . .   the progression of our religious experience . . . moves toward an “authentic religion”’ which is “self-authenticating [in that] it confronts us in such a way as to challenge us to make a decision about our existence.” (3)

cosmic objects, so far

cosmic objects, so far

So I’m able to “tolerate doubt better than younger people.” Bring it on! The chaos of my mind as I try to explain myself to myself is OK. Writing, playing the organ, that’s what’s important. That’s my explanation.  All of this reminds me of a paragraph from the conclusion of William James The Varieties of Religious Experience.

What we think of may be enormous, —the cosmic times and spaces, for example, —whereas the inner state may be the most fugitive and paltry activity of mind. Yet the cosmic objects, so far as the experience yields them, are but ideal pictures of something whose existence we do not inwardly possess but only point at outwardly, while the inner state is our very experience itself; its reality and that of our experience are one.(4)

(1) Jennings, Dana. “Religion Is Less a Birthright Than a Good Fit.” Ideas and Trends.  New York Times, March 2. 2008. Web. Dec. 17 2010.
(2) Sarton, May. At Seventy, A Journal. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1984 (272).
(3) Galek, Kathleen, et. al. “Religious Doubt and Mental Health Across the Lifespan.” Journal of Adult Development 14 (2007): 20.
(4) James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience.  Intro. Martin E. Marty. New York: Penguin Books, 1982 (499).


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