Wise Old Men
Today is July 18, 2019. The day has finally arrived. Today is my 40th birthday...
To say that it has not occupied a significant portion of my thoughts, fears and overall mental energies over the last few years would certainly be a misstatement. On many occasions I have found myself pondering the rapid approach of this magical – almost mystical – number, admittedly ambivalent about its approach, wondering with fascination about its significance, importance and impending impact upon my still young(ish) life.
I am sure to many readers this would seem a pedestrian subject to engage. Many of you have crossed this bridge before. Many of you have reassured me that the road of life does indeed continue beyond the passage of this milestone. Many of you in looking back have confidently reassured me and those in my age group that – compared to what lies ahead – we of this age are still but sprawling infants in the nursery of life and existence.
Yet, the time has come for me to experience this rite of passage for myself, and as I do so (really for the past several years leading up to this moment) I find my mind is drawn to contemplate the more rustic or cavalier questions that may arise on such an occasion: What have I accomplished thus far and what do I hope to accomplish in the future? How long will I live and will I have one of those “mid-life crises” everyone always talks about? What will become of my health, happiness, capabilities and strength as I enter this new phase and beyond? These are all questions, I suppose, that would come naturally to any reticent 39-and-holding-year-old. Why should I be any different?
When I was a boy, we had among our children’s books an illustrated collection of Bible stories created especially for children. (It’s been so long I confess I’ve forgotten the name of the book). In this book, there was a chapter entitled “Wise Old Men.” I can’t remember about which exactly of the sections of the Bible it was written (the Prophets? Or the Apostles maybe? The Judges of Israel?). All I can remember from the picture on the title page of the chapter was a depiction of two middle-aged men sporting colorful tunics (like the kind in which we’d imagine Sts. Peter or Paul to have strolled around in) and long graying beards. Of course, it’s also worth mentioning the page number upon which this picture/chapter could be found. You guessed it—page 40!!!
“40” the number, in Biblical language, often refers to a long period of time in general, or to a period of trial and testing, or the time it takes for one generation to reach its stature and/or a satisfactory level of maturity before giving way to the next.
Forty years of life, therefore, would mean that person had lived a long time, experienced much and learned much from those experiences. So, in such a way my young, impressionable mind came to associate the number 40 with “Old Men” or being old. Not exactly a 39-year-old’s favorite predicament to be in, is it?
I pause to take stock of my life now: Colorful robes? Check. Beard? Check. 40? Check. Uh-oh. I’m one of the “Old Men,” or at least I feel like I am.
But wait, what about “wisdom?” Last night, before we drifted off to sleep, my lovely wife Yeretsgin Alice posed to me an astounding question: “What did you learn in your 30’s?” Simple, yet direct and invitatory.
I have to admit, I was stunned. I sat in silence for a moment as suddenly a whole wave of thoughts rushed into my mind… thoughts about life lessons that were complex and intricate, difficult at times (like this one, in fact) to put together or express cohesively. It took a few more minutes still before I could even open my mouth and find the words with which to begin my answer. (If any indication of this predicament could be alluded to, that my first utterance was “I learned how to change diapers” may be the most telling!)
What an important question had been posed to me in the final hours of my fourth decade of life! What have I learned in the last one? Where all this time I had been contemplating the existential, consumed with the specious, the plenitudes and platitudes of overgrown advice, all pertaining to my impending age-doom, I suddenly found myself thrust into a new, brighter light under which to examine my prevailing attitudes.
“What have I learned?,” in other words, “What wisdom have I gained?”
Perhaps it is too much beyond the scope of this essay, or too out of focus to be able to clearly depict my entire vision… or it could be just slightly too personal for me to divulge everything that was expressed during our ensuing discussion. Suffice it to say that it was the sentiment of said discussion that compels me to write these lines to you today.
In his book of Proverbs, King Solomon quips, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge of the holy one is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10). In that microcosmic recall of the elapsed time between birthday number 30 and birthday number 40, I realized in a moment how far I had come through God’s grace. In one decade, the life lessons I had been taught, both whimsical and monumental, seemed truly miraculous and awe-inspiring.
Reverence (=”fear”) for God has been crucial for me to gain wisdom. Whenever growth or learning have occurred, they have done so in conjunction with a humble acceptance of God’s love and his will for my life. Indeed, I have seen this with near axiomatic certainty: wherever God was willing to impart upon me wisdom and understanding – in any matter at all – reverence toward the Lord and seeking to know the “Holy One” (=God) in my life would be the only way it could be wholly and securely imparted to me.
This is not to imply that I did not tender many failures, as well as missed opportunities for learning along the way. What is of importance is that I choose at the present moment no longer to belabor those things about which I have very little knowledge and much uncertainty, but rather to relish the joy of what I had learned along the way.
Now, for reasons of practicality (and so that you, the reader, can at least say that you came away from the experience of reading this paper having learned something of my imparted wisdom), I would like to share with you just a few of my insights: One thing I have learned to try to put the needs of others before my own (like Jesus did), but also to speak up for myself when the need arises (Couples nicely with: fatherhood, marriage, priesthood).
Additionally, I learned that one should listen to people, really listen to them in a way through which I might be able to truly hear what they are trying to say (Try your skills through: friendship, mentoring, parenting).
Moreover, I learned to always give thanks at all times and for all things, and to never take for granted that one’s health, status, position, relationships or anything else will remain static forever. What may be a present reality for you today maybe a distant memory tomorrow. Cherish what you have – yes, even the difficulties – and give thanks to God, for it is through good circumstances and bad circumstances that God has forged your character and each trial is a way for God to whittle away at you until you become his perfectly sculpted masterpiece.
Most profoundly, I have also learned that the greatest joy there can ever be in life is found in singing the praises of the One who created me and in sharing that joy with others. This is the essence of life in God’s Kingdom and in order for us to inherit it then, we must learn to live that life as a reality now.
Most importantly of all, I have learned that God loves me for the person he made me to be, not for who I might aspire to be (or fall short of being). And furthermore, the greatest sign and promise of this love and acceptance is our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom he invited me and all of us to share in his divine life and love.
Through his Holy Cross – whose care lifts up all human beings to the heavens, whose silence absorbs the cries and joyful shouts of all the ages, which encapsulates both the grace of salvation given and the gratitude for it received and which leads all the peoples of the earth in a great, glorious paean of praise – I can now see the true depth and breadth of his love for me, and feel compelled more and more every day to make knowledge of the Holy One, Jesus Christ, my utmost priority for my remaining years. During this decade and the many more to come.
May God turn us all into "Wise Old Men."