Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Sacrament of the Moment

Earlier this week, 90-year old former President Jimmy Carter revealed that he has begun treatment for cancer in his liver and his brain. His announcement elicited the predictable, sympathetic comments from well-wishers. A potentially fatal illness naturally invites sympathy and compassion. A good reminder of our common mortality, it is one of the few things that still seems able to transcend the narrow niches into which we have tragically segregated ourselves, with all the now all so evident resultant cultural divisions and political polarization.

But in a special way the style and grace exhibited by President Carters in his announcement also seem to have touched many of his hearers, as reflected in the repeated airing of his announcement and the many admiring comments it has received. On Friday's PBS Newshour, for example, Judy Woodruff referred to how "gracefully" Carter spoke of his condition. Against the contrasting background of our increasingly secular society, Mark Shields highlighted this as yet another illustration of the "social as well as individual value of religious faith," showing what Shields called "grace, courage, and humor, and faith in the face of this daunting and dooming news." Meanwhile Michael Gerson saw in Carter's behavior and example of how to approach the danger of death - with "calmness," "grace," and "gratitude."

Carter indeed highlighted how he has much to be grateful for - a long and until now healthy life, rich in family and friends and experiences, including one term as President of the United States and an impressive (and, he seemed to suggest, much more satisfying) productive post-presidential career full of good works. While we all may have much to be grateful for, some certainly have enjoyed exceptional opportunities to excel in the kids of accomplishments a good person might want to be remembered for. Carter has certainly had that opportunity, and (it seems fair to say) has made the most of it, doing much good for the world.

Carter's political legacy may be debated. I have never thought of his presidency as particularly successful. One could argue that his spectacularly unsuccessful presidency resulted the electoral revolution of 1980 which produced such a profoundly tragic transformation of American society and politics. That said, few former presidents have demonstrated a commitment to the public good as obviously effective as his post-presidential Carter Center years have demonstrated. And it cannot fail to be noted how rooted his life and work have been in his Christian faith and zeal. 

None of us is perfect. Even canonized saints, whose virtue has been deemed heroic, have exhibited flaws in life. In the end, it all comes down to grace - God's grace - and how one responds to it and lives it. How fitting, I think, that the words "grace" and "gracious" have been so plentiful in comments about Carter's announcement. And I am old enough to remember candidate Carter, when asked to name his favorite hymn, naming Amazing Grace. Obviously, there may be a certain historical and cultural context connected with that particular choice, and a person of faith coming from a different milieu might well have named some other hymn instead. But the hymn he chose certainly speaks to how the invitation and the challenge of the Gospel have been experienced by him and many others with abundant and fruitful benefit for the world.

We pray that his treatments may be successful, but also that his faith-filled resilience may inspire all of us as we struggle through the ups and downs of life and leading to its inexorable end. May we all learn to approach both life at every stage and life at its end with grace and gratitude. 

Thinking about what it means to live and age well, I have often reflected on a sentence of Thomas Merton (written on January 18, 1950, as he approached the age of 35).  “There is nothing left for me but to live fully and completely in the present, praying when I pray, and writing and praying when I write, and worrying about nothing but the wish and the glory of God, finding these as best I can in the sacrament of the moment.” [Entering the Silence, ed. Jonathan Montaldo (Harper Collins, 1995), p. 400.]

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