By Daniel Martins
All three of my children are alums of Sewanee: The University of the South. There’s a pious tradition on that “holy mountain” of tapping the roof of one’s vehicle upon exiting the gates of the domain to summon a guardian angel for protection while out in the world, and then to repeat the gesture when returning, this time to release the angel, since an extra measure of care is redundant while on the sanctified grounds. While the custom is perhaps theologically dubious, I nonetheless conformed to local practice during the nine consecutive years I had at least one child on campus.
In remembering this, I am put in mind of Psalm 91, with its stunningly comprehensive assurances of divine protection, reaching an apogee in verses 9-12:
Because you have made the Lord your refuge,*
and the Most High your habitation,
There shall no evil happen to you,*
neither shall any plague come near your dwelling.
For he shall give his angels charge over you,*
to keep you in all your ways.
They shall bear you in their hands,*
lest you dash your foot against a stone.
One must, of course, grant the psalmist some poetic license here, as we all know that, indeed, bad things can and do happen to good people. Yet, even in the shadow of the bad things that have happened to me and to those about whom I care, I want to bear full-throated witness to the underlying veracity of these words from the psalm, and to other passages like it. They ring true.
I am nearly halfway through my 72nd year in this world as I write this. I can no longer escape the fact of my advancing years. Through my 60s I claimed to be “late middle-aged,” but once the digit in the 10s column turns, that just no longer works. I’m drawing a pension and receiving Social Security benefits. I’m old! When my maternal grandfather turned 70, I thought he had the proverbial one foot in the grave. I don’t feel quite that decrepit. I walk nearly 50 miles most every week. I know I can still run because I do so often to beat a light change. But, facing the genetic facts of life, I may have another 20 years left, but probably a good bit less, before I embrace what comes next. And, at my age, the prospect of 20 years feels like 20 weeks once did.
My age, I am finding, gives me a vantage point from which to look back over a life that, even were I to die soon, would not be considered cut short, not ended “prematurely.” I’ve had my threescore years and ten. Several factors have converged to give me this sense of … if not “completion” (I do hope to yet make significant contributions to the world, to the church, to my family), then “fullness,” at least.
One is a slideshow of 600 images, chosen from among hundreds more that are available, that cover my life front infancy, and the life of my wife, Brenda. These photos were assembled and designated as the screensaver on the living room television. We did this for Brenda’s sake, as her short-term memory, and then her long-term memory, was deserting her. We had to entrust Brenda’s care to professionals about nine months ago, but I continued to leave the retrospective slideshow where it is. I see random snapshots of my entire life (and Brenda’s life), flashing before my eyes every day. It is integrating and grounding, subliminally as well as consciously, and, while I foresee some culling and editing and adding, it’s going to remain a fixture in my life for a good while yet.
Another element in my ability to view my life as a sort of Gestalt is the brief memoir Tell Me Good Things by James Runcie (son of the late Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie, and creator of the Grantchester mysteries that have become popular on public television). I encountered it quite by accident, in my search for audiobooks to listen to while I walk, thinking it was a novel. But it’s not a novel. It’s a deeply poignant reflection by the author on his marriage, on his wife’s brief final illness and subsequent death, by motor neurone disease, after their 35 years together, and on his experience of reassembling his life as a widower. As I am in the midst of a much more drawn-out process of losing a spouse to another degenerative brain disease, Alzheimer’s, Runcie’s memoir struck a very responsive and tender chord in me. It has helped me think more clearly, and get more closely in touch with my feelings, about my life, my marriage of over 50 years, and my experience of loss and grief as I learn for the first time how to live alone and present myself neither as quite single nor quite as part of a couple.
Most of all, though, I’ve been spending a good chunk of time poring over old volumes of my journal. I started the practice when I was 16, and have continued it since, with varying regularity. If you are young, and don’t keep a journal, let me assure you that your older self will thank you if you take up the habit, because my older self now thanks my younger self profusely! Yes, some of the entries from my teen years are — shall we say — cringeworthy. Many others are still painful to read, even years and decades later. During the 11 years between graduate school and seminary, I had more jobs than there were years to have them in. With three young children, we were perpetually on the brink of financial disaster, battling constant anxiety. We went through bankruptcy, and learned what the inside of a food stamp envelope looks like, and the embarrassment of using WIC coupons in the grocery store. My discernment process toward ordination was frightfully long and difficult, with every reason to give up, and fraught with hazards virtually until the day episcopal hands were laid on me. Both Brenda and I fell short of honoring and loving one another as we had vowed to do, and there were some tense times between us. All of this is amply chronicled in my journal, and to have access to it, even the painful parts, is a life-giving blessing.
And it’s a life-giving blessing precisely because it also testifies to God’s unwavering goodness and faithfulness to me over the 55 years (minus a couple of two-to-four-year gaps) that I have kept it. It is the narrative of the streams of divine mercy that have never failed me, the fulfillment of the promises so boldly declaimed in Psalm 91 and manifested in the tradition of the “Sewanee angel.” Neither I nor my family ever missed a meal, or were undernourished. We were never homeless. I went on to a ministry as a parish priest and (how my younger self in the ordination process would never have believed this) a diocesan bishop. The dozen or so years before the onset of Brenda’s dementia symptoms in 2016 were the happiest of my life, and the happiest in our marriage. We were showered with way more blessings than we deserved. Grace abounded mightily.
I’m not quite ready to sing Nunc Dimmitis and move on, though I realize that’s ever an imminent possibility. I don’t think I’m yet standing on Mt. Pisgah! But I’m savoring the lofty perch on which I do stand, looking back on a life in which the mercy and fidelity of a gracious God has been made amply manifest.
One of the hymns that didn’t make the cut from 1940 into the 1982 revision is the marvelous (I think so, at least) text by the inimitable John Mason Neale that begins “Art thou weary, are thou laden, art thou sore distrest?” (Hymnal 1940, #406) It’s a profound spiritual reflection on God’s fidelity in response to faithful discipleship. The final verse is one I wish to underscore and echo:
Finding, following, keeping, struggling,
Is he sure to bless?
Saints, apostles, prophets, martyrs,