A Little While – and Meanwhile
A Meditation on turning 75
October 25, 2006
Last Sunday I completed the first 75 years of my life – the “first” 75 because I feel (today) as if I am at the halfway point, and (at least today) I want to keep going for the next 75.
“You have lived three quarters of a century,” my 17-year old grandson teased me Sunday, with perhaps a bit of awe too.
Perhaps that’s why I don’t want to say I’m 75. Neither my body or mind feel that old. I like it when people assume I’m much younger – “You are on social security?”- and then are surprised to learn how old I am. I don’t like it when they assume I am retired. There’s a lot of vanity there. I also don’t like to admit think of being 75 because now I am leaning toward 80. And that does seem old, especially when my sister-in-law and an old college chum both died in their 80s last week.
So it was intriguing today, during a quiet retreat, to meditate on a phrase I read on Sunday. The words “a little while” occur seven times in four verses of John 16:16-19. That intense repetition says: pay attention. Something important is there.
Jesus uses these words as he says to his disciples at the end of his long final talk to them: “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me.” It must have sounded like a riddle to the perplexed disciples who ask each other, “What does he mean by this ‘little while’?”
Some have taken Jesus’ “little whiles” to refer to his coming arrest and trial (“You will not see me”) and his showing up after his resurrection (“You will see me”). Other think he was speaking of the long years ahead when his followers would face tribulation (without his visible presence) and then his final appearing: he compares what is ahead to the travail of a woman in childbirth – first birth pangs, then great and lasting joy.
Bishop Leslie Newbigin thinks the puzzling ambiguity of Jesus was deliberate. “Jesus is speaking both of his manifestation of himself to his disciples after his resurrection, and of the full vision of God in the new age, for the one is the foretaste of the other.”
Jesus’ main point however is clear: whether you see me “for a little while” or not, I am with you, through my Spirit whom I am sending (meanwhile), and at last in my full presence (for a long while).
I pondered these words as I sat in the grounds of The Oratory center in Rock Hill, warmly wrapped in sweater and jacket on the chill fall morning. My bench was next to a sunlit white statue of Mary, her hands outstretched over a small garden plot, with tiny violet mophead flowers, and a bird that flew out over me.
It seemed as if she might be saying, “My Son is offering you all these gifts, even if they only last a ‘little while’ – the sun before shadows come, the flowers before winter takes them down. Don’t miss them – or him.”
Then I rose and walked the nearby labyrinth of seven concentric circles with a single pebbled path. And as I went along this spiritual prayer path I thought how life is made up of “little whiles.”
I have lived three quarters of a century, as Benji pointed out, and each “quarter” as I look back seems to have its own pace. The first 25 years through boyhood and college looking back seem very short. The middle 25 seem to have lasted much longer, because so full. I have completed the last quarter it seems at a slower pace – yet it has passed quickly! How strangely time appears to us!
And whether time has stretched through long passages or short days the things that came to mind as I walked were “little whiles”
boyhood summer days at the lake or in the park … jumping in the crackling leaf piles of autumn … glued to the radio for hockey night in Canada … long college days of revival that I described to my granddaughter last week .. giddy moments of falling in love …all the “little whiles” of world travel, the blur of leaving and coming, often exciting, just as often solitary and lonesome …the “little whiles” with children … a golden-haired and fast-tempered little girl … the boy who always went all out with no “yellow light” … the one who quietly listened to Narnia at bedtime.
Those “little whiles” seemed to fly. Others – the dark times – of grief and disappointment, of illnesses and depression – took much longer to pass.
So many of these “little whiles” came to mind as I walked. Then when I arrived at the center of the labyrinth the point came home to my heart (as Jesus was intimating to his puzzled disciples long ago) that all the “little whiles” are meant to lead to the “long while” and in the “meanwhile” Jesus has been present “all the while” – even when it has been hard to see him.
After lunch, when I spoke of this with my praying friend David, he was silent a moment, then said, “Those little whiles of our life may not cover a great length of time, but they open us up. They may be small moments but they are the portals through which we see the pattern of death and resurrection.”
Late that afternoon I stood by a lake and saw a flight of birds splash their wings on the water as they took off. Then the lights glinting off the ripples they left, casting a beautiful pattern of lights and shadows on the crimson leaves behind around.
A little while and they were gone. But the passing spoke to me of the Unseen Lord who walks with us through the changing seasons of life, invisible perhaps for a little while, but preparing us for the joy of the long while, and always present meanwhile.