I figured this out earlier this week. I was thinking about John, and realized he was 49 when he died, and I’m 49 now. So I looked at his dates, and figured his age at death (49 years, 5 months, 20 days) and compared it to me (today I’m 49 years, 5 months, 22 days, but the slight discrepancy is because I have a February in there). So to the day, I’m as old as he was when he died.
Aside from the fact that this proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that I have an obsessive-compulsive streak, I find this oddly humbling. Of course, John is one of my heroes, and I cannot in any meaningful way compare myself to him except to say that we are both writers concerned with questions concerned with faith and mystery. He had the good fortune of having Teresa of Avila for a mentor; he was a gifted poet and a profound theologian; and he suffered terribly for his beliefs, enduring imprisonment and regular beatings for some nine months, at the hands of his own Carmelite brothers. But of course, out of that affliction came some of the most psychologically astute mystical writing that the Christian tradition has yet to produce.
As for me? Well, let’s just say that I enjoy affluence and comfort that would have been unthinkable to John; as a writer and an amateur theologian, I mainly hope that my by comparison feeble talent might help others to find treasures such as the writings of John.
I suppose I am reminded that life, for so many of our ancestors, was nasty, brutish and short. John of the Cross was by no means the only great contemplative to have died relatively young. Thomas Aquinas and Richard Rolle both may have been only in their late 40s when they died; Catherine of Siena was 33; Simone Weil 34; and dear Thomas Merton only 53 when he was electrocuted in a freak accident.
Now, lest you think that mysticism is a hazardous line of work, we can point to Bede Griffiths, who lived to be 87; Matta el-Maskeen (also 87), George Macleod (96), or Raimon Panikkar, who as of this writing is 91 and still breathing. Historically, there was John Ruusbroec (88), Hildegard of Bingen (81), Thomas à Kempis (90), and St. Anthony of the Desert, reputed to live to be 105!
Christians of old used to talk about always remaining aware of one’s mortality. In our day, when the average life expectancy is perhaps double what it was 200 years ago, this seems like a less useful endeavor. It strikes us as morbid, or psychologically twisted. But I don’t think pretending death doesn’t exist help either. What does it mean to have a balanced and healthy friendship with one’s own mortality? I suspect that it means living life to the fullest each and every day (which probably includes not bothering to compare one’s length of life to those whom we admire but who died young). It also means finding, and living, the “peace that passes understanding,” so that when the day comes in which we do draw our final breath, we can do it with serenity — whether we are 49, 79 or 109 years old.