When the Breath flies away

It takes only a moment to see oneself in the experience of Andy Catlett in Wendell Berry’s story, “Fly Away, Breath!” Our experience is of time flown away and flying away.

Most of us, most of the time, think mostly of the past. Even when we say, “We are living now,” we can only mean that we were living a moment ago.

Nevertheless, in this sometimes horrifying, sometimes satisfying, never-sufficiently-noticed present, between a past mostly forgotten and a future that we deserve to fear but cannot predict, some few things can be recalled.

Wendell Berry, “Fly Away, Breath (1907),” A Place in Time: Twenty Stories of the Port Williams Membership,” Counterpoint Press, 2012.

We are creatures of a specific time and place — and relationships with loved ones, friends, and enemies, a plot of land, a town or city we call home, a state, a nation, a world in time sandwiched between past and future that we call the present.

A ghost town is a reminder of time. Southern Cross stands on the mountain high above Georgetown Lake, Montana, where the vistas are breathtaking, and the past is barely remembered except for the abandoned miners’ quarters and mine shafts below the surface of the place that remind the visitor of the fickleness of time.

“All flesh is grass” and yet, despite our intuitive awareness of it, we unconsciously pretend most days it is not true that “the grass withers, the flower fades….” [Isaiah 40:8].

“Nevertheless,” says Wendell Berry, “… between a past mostly forgotten and a future that we deserve to fear but cannot predict, some few things can be recalled” — things like my friendship with Phil, now ended unexpectedly by a rare nearly undiagnosable lymphoma in his spleen. Hours before his death, the interventionist ICU doctor described Phil’s case and his 10 days in the ICU as “a real shit storm” because of the many ongoing complications that mystified the medical staff. In all of medical history only 10-15 cases have been reported where lymphoma originated in the spleen. By the time it was discovered in Phil, other organs had begun to shut down. The first organ to go was the gallbladder, which was already abscessed when they operated to remove the spleen.

Medical professionals are no different from the rest of us, except for their skill and training in how to treat illness and preserve life. Despite every effort to keep the present from slipping into the past, against every attempt to retain some kind of future, the breath always flies away.

Phil’s death, as I had come to see it days before he passed, came as an act of mercy, a release from the torturous interventions of advanced medical technology that asks the question ‘How?’ without first asking ‘Why?”

I’m increasingly convinced that the denial of death (mortality) and the search for immorality are the opposites of the Christian faith in God – on Hebrew YHWH (“I am Who I Am/ I will Be Who I will be”) who alone is Eternal. All else is species hubris, the refusal to live thankfully, graciously and peacefully within the limits of finite, mortal goodness.

We are all standing in line, not knowing at what time or place our time will come. We’re all headed for the ghost town, thinking of the past or dreading the future we deserve, but also, in moments of grace, remembering with thanksgiving the tender mercies along the way that cannot be denied.

I do not know what of Phil or any of us may lie beyond the grave, an odd thing to say for a minister of the gospel whose faith lives out of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Knowing my unknowing, my best friend reminded me of “Jesus’s question to Nicodemus at night about the not entirely unrelated matter of being born of the Spirit: ‘You are the teacher of God’s people, and don’t know these things?’”

I confess to knowing very little, especially when what Chaim Potok calls the four-o’clock-in-the-morning-questions wake me in the middle of the night between a present now gone and a future that remains inscrutable. However that may be, what I do know is that bodily life — mortal life in space and time in the midst of Eternity — is what we have and it is to be cherished. Bound to the limits of time and place, it is God’s good creation.  Yet only God is the Eternal One.

Whatever lies on the other side of my years is beyond my mortal knowing. But I can and do affirm the Eternity of God and the scriptural point of view that whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord. “All flesh is grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God [YHWH, the Eternal] shall last forever.” Right now, in good conscience, that’s enough bread to live on today as I recall the blessing of Phil to our lives and pray for all who loved him.

– Gordon C. Stewart, written at Georgetown Lake, Montana, July 26, 2015.

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