Letters From a Hospital Bed #15: Reflections From a 99 Year Old
Letters from a Hospital Bed is a series of reflections by Jim Houston, now entering his 100th year, in which Jim seeks to capture and reflect new insights of his ever-discoverable God, revealed through his own hospitalization, for the encouragement of all care givers.
February 23, 2022
I well remember when I first moved from independent living to my independent apartment where meals and some support were provided. I was excited to think of new ministry opportunities with new friends who were part of my new neighbourhood. It did not turn out as I originally hoped. There were a few glimmers of common interest, but not many. It frustrated me then. I understand it better now. To be fully alive when your body is less and less interested or capable becomes not only challenging, but a source of a deep weary. I have never really subscribed to the ‘once and one’ sense of the familiar phrase “be born again”. Over and over, in my life, the Lord has opened new doors, revealed new vistas, allowed me to enter new landscapes of both mind and soul. And so it has been again, more recently for as less and less was possible, I have seen more and more. So much newness, that on many days I sense being “born (yet) again”!
One of the ways in which my dear wife Rita had a disproportional influence on our family, was to train our children to tease me as mercilessly as she, in her own way, did herself. As I started to explore and edit into common language the works of the desert fathers and other pioneers of our Christian faith, our children referred to my ‘dearest friends, most of whom had been dead for over a millennium’. While their irreverence was harmless fun, there was a grain of truth in their mischief as I was drawn to immerse myself in Augustine, John Chrysostom and the early church fathers, Bernard of Clairvaux and the monastic founders and later contemplatives like Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross. Late, I have begun to wonder why it is that they had such wisdom for us that transcends the unrecognizable context in which we live today.
As I reread their texts and reflected quietly on what I knew of their lives and how they expressed their reality of a very Living God, I began to find myself drawn more deeply than ever into the refreshment of their wisdom. But why? Why were they getting my attention now, at 99, more deeply than ever before. I had studied them. They were the focus of my scholarship, yet I was knowing something more deeply than I had ever known it. It was all so new! Why did I sense their renewing influence in my seemingly ‘old’ spirit? As I puzzled with this conundrum, I realized that this newness came because not only were they different from me and the scholarship I have engaged for most of my life, but that I now was different than I had been, and could hear and sense in new ways.
It is said, with some mischief, that the apex of authentic scholarship is realized when there are only one or two other people on the planet with whom you might enjoy a robust conversation! The microscopic mind formation of the scholar is to become more and more expert on less and less. The ancients, unburdened by the yet undiscovered treasure trove of modern knowledge, still to be discovered, looked through their telescope backwards and as they looked into the mysteries of God, their vision grew wider not narrower. Their minds were far less cluttered than ours. Like Mary, they chose only ‘one thing’, to know Christ. Like my good friend, mentor and colleague in the formation of Regent, Marshall Sheppard, they adhered to the example of the Jewish scholar, now apostle Paul, ‘to know nothing among you except Christ crucified’. As I age, I must be satisfied with less and less, and yet it is becoming more and more!
So, not only were the ancients different, but I am different; first in my body, though not by choice, and as consequence, in my mind, as well. Jesus affirmed of Mary in her stillness, ‘she has chosen well’. While, I confess, I did not choose this state of being much more immobile than has been my life habit, it has forced me to see more, to go deeper, to be still with the deeper wisdom of the ancients and to hunger for what they had found in the greater simplicity with which they lived. In consequence, the very disabling of what was once possible, is enabling a deeper reality of God than I have ever known and so, I find, I am ‘born again’…in my 100th year!
If ever we have all lived through a time when more of what we knew was upended by what is unknown and, for the most part, unwelcome, it is these past few years of pandemic. We can each produce litanies of things lost and longed for in ‘re-opening’, or whatever lies ahead. My body will not ‘re-open’, in the sense of new opportunity that many of you can sense ahead, and so my prayer for you is that as you have opportunity to regain all the former ‘busyness’ that may have been ‘stolen’ by recent circumstances, that you hold fast to this one thing, to know Christ, and Him crucified and to treasure the path of Mary in resisting all the many new distractions that become possible, and retain a hunger for the few.