I left off last time with the first chapter of The Imitation of Christ from my personal library and the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf of Books and a photograph of a rough-hewn and de-carpeted staircase. In that condition, the staircase served the function of getting from the downstairs to the upstairs, but nothing more than that. Maybe there is a metaphor in that rough-hewn and merely functional staircase.
At the time, though, I wasn’t concerned about metaphors. I knew only that I had waited long enough. I had gathered all the materials, and now it was time to get to work making this a functional and (hopefully) beautiful staircase. One that would be pleasing to my wife (and thus “good enough” for me). Maybe there is a metaphor in this after all!
Reading through these devotions by à Kempis were having an effect on me. And pretty quickly, I stopped fighting this because nothing I was reading raised any warning flags whatsoever. If this is what Catholicism has to offer, what’s the matter? And as I ripped up the old treads on the staircase and started replacing them with new, freshly cut treads, the staircase rehabilitation as metaphor for my own rehabilitation started playing out through the work of my hands and through the work of my heart.And trust me, I get a lump in my throat writing this because guys aren’t supposed to have feelings like this. Not about religion. Least of all coming from some hard-charging Marine! I didn’t think so at the time, anyway, and thankfully, I think differently now. But I had survived a life-changing event that had left me wondering “what now Lord?”
Which really meant “what’s in store for me now Lord?”or more accurately, “What’s in it (life) for me Lord?” And as I worked as a rookie carpenter, I turned to the Bible, Blaise’s Pensées, The Imitation of Christ and prayer. Prayer for direction in my life, prayer for guidance and understanding of why I was spared (when several of my comrades weren’t.) Prayer like what the character Lt. Dan, in the movie Forrest Gump says as he is crying on the floor with no legs: “What am I gonna do now? I had a destiny!”
And then I read the following from the last chapter of the first section of The Imitation. The chapter is entitled Zeal in Amending Our Lives and though Thomas (we’re on a first name basis now) is writing about those who have recently been cloistered, it applied to me just the same:
Be watchful and diligent in God’s service and often think of why you left the world (California)and came here. Was it not that you might live for God and become a spiritual man? Strive earnestly for perfection, then, because in a short time you will receive the reward for your labor, and neither fear nor sorrow shall come upon you at the hour of death.”
Perhaps it was that, too. I had thought it was for better public schools and cheaper housing and all the temporal concerns that go along with that etc., etc. But maybe this was the real reason. Thomas continued,
Next, Thomas segues into a story that might as well have been from “Thoughts from the mind of Frank”:
Labor a little now, and soon you will find great rest, in truth, eternal joy; for if you continue faithful and diligent in doing, God will undoubtedly be faithful and generous in rewarding. Continue to have reasonable hope of salvation, but do not act as though you are certain of it lest you grow indolent and proud.
One day when a certain man who wavered often and anxiously between hope and fear was struck with sadness, he knelt in humble prayer before the altar of a church. While meditating on these things, he said:”Oh if I but knew if I should persevere until the end!” Instantly he heard within the divine answer: “If you knew this, what would you do? Do now what you would do then and you will be quite secure.”
Keep it simple, stupid. And for good measure, Thomas adds,
Remember the purpose you have taken and keep in mind the image of the Crucified. Even though you may have walked many years on the pathway to God, you may well be ashamed if, with the image of Christ before you, you do not try to make yourself still more like Him…Always remember your end and do not forget that lost time never returns.
I had been baptized since I was ten, and my mother had been a great example to me growing up in a Christian household. But what about after I left the nest? “Lost time never returns” really struck a chord with me.
How much time had I lost due to arrogance, spiritual pride and stiff-necked resistance to the Church? Well, I married a nice Catholic girl in 1989 and seeing how it was 2007 when I read this passage, I had basically been spinning my wheels spiritually for at least eighteen (18!) years. Add on eight (8!) more from the time I left “the nest” before I got married and now we’re talking twenty-six (26!) luke-warm years altogether. The accident that took the lives of two of my comrades, and killed my “destiny” of becoming a Marine Officer (and almost killed me too) took place in 2001, so six (6!) of those years of wheel spinning, post-accident, is near incomprehensible!
One of my favorite quotes by a heroic military figure is one attributed to Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson during the heyday of the Royal Navy:
Time is everything; five minutes makes the difference between victory and defeat.
I can’t help thinking of that after the quote above and again as Thomas puts the finishing touch on this chapter with these words:
If you have spent the day profitably, you will always be happy at eventide. Watch over yourself, arouse yourself, warn yourself, and regardless of what becomes of others, do not neglect yourself. The more violence you do to yourself, the more progress you will make.
At this point, as I was putting the finishing touches on my staircase, a voice inside my head, (my voice?), said “haven’t you waited long enough? Waste not one second more!”
Next time: The prodding of both Blaise and Thomas lead me to a modern Cistercian named Father Louis, and to look for a job.