Have you ever read something for the hundredth time, only to discover bridges linking it to other stories or pieces, at least in your mind? This is one of the myriad reasons why I love reading good literature. I love discovering similarities in myself or seemingly disparate characters across varying genres. Often humanity and fraility, vulnerability and faith convey the same basic truths even through vastly different voices.
Recently I re-read Willa Cather’s “Old Mrs. Harris.” It is a slow-moving penetrating story, a peering through a side window into a midwestern family at the turn of the century. In it we see the final portion of an elderly woman’s life, a woman who lived in a time when the female gender was marginalized particularly as they were widowed and grew more feeble. In it, we also see the beginning of a young girl’s life, a girl who desperately wants her life to be different. The story reveals the psychology of familial relations during this era in American history.
“When they are old, they will come closer and closer to Grandma Harris. They will think a great deal about her, and remember things they never noticed; and their lot will be more or less like hers. They will regret that they heeded her so little; but they, too, will look into the eager, unseeing eyes of young people and feel themselves alone. They will say to themselves: ‘I was heartless, because I was young and strong and wanted things so much. But now I know. ‘”
Why do we still marginalize the elderly in the West? I even see this neglect in churches. Instead of taking advantage of the wisdom, knowledge,experience, and love they have to offer, I have seen us ignore them, discount the weightiness of what they still may offer. Have I been heartless, because I wanted something so much? Myopic because I found urgency in the wrong thing?
And here is the bridge my mind built. It connected Willa Cather to, of all people, the apostle John. Not to the young man who followed Jesus around, and leaned up against him during their final meal, but to the aged man, living in Ephesus, who had survived isolation. Now, as a revered church leader, decrepit, elderly, he is carried daily to the city center.
There is a church tradition, which says, that when John was evidently an old man in Ephesus, he had to be carried to the church in the arms of his disciples. At these meetings, he was accustomed to say no more than, “Little children, love one another!” After a time, the disciples wearied at always hearing the same words, asked, “Master, why do you always say this?” “It is the Lord’s command,” was his reply. “And if this alone be done, it is enough!”
It is difficult to imagine that the beloved apostle was ever marginalized or pushed aside, forgotten, or trivilialized. After all, he had been with Jesus! Do you know someone who has been with Jesus? Someone who is continually with him, and has been for decades? May we never underestimate what is behind a failing exterior. May we never demand something more complicated from life than what is. May our eyes be forever seeing, our ears always listening.