Live Along Some Distant Day

A Communion Meditation—I Corinthians 13:9–12 and Hebrews 11:1–3

by Lois Vetvick

Visiting members of one’s church can be the most fulfilling part of any minister’s ministry; every person I know, including myself, has said, “From every visit you receive more than you give.” The gifts can be intellectual stimulation, knowledge of a foreign land, insight into a family structure, warmth from another person, the deep faithfulness a person has for the church community, a glimpse of dedication and faith one may have toward God, or the feeling of acceptance from one human being toward another. Rather than staying in your office coordinating all that you need to do, you can walk out the door into the arena of humanity.

Visiting can also be quite frustrating. In my first parish, I visited everyone probably once a month and had 10 or 15 people on my visiting list.

One day I decided to visit a man with Alzheimer’s disease. He was unable to communicate verbally. When he spoke to me, his voice had an intonation that suggested he was saying something that had meaning for him, but it wasn’t possible to make out any of his words.

At the care center where he lived, I came into the unit, walked up to this person, once again introduced myself, and told him I was from the church. I asked if he would like to come and sit with me so we could visit with each other. He spoke to me incessantly as we walked to the chairs, but I did not understand a word he said. I sat down waiting for him to join me. He came and stood in front of me, and suddenly he was on his knees in front of me, sobbing. His pain and frustration were overwhelming. I patted his shoulder and made what seemed to me inane comments like, “It’s OK, Tom; it’s all right; I know it is hard.”

After some futile attempts at communication, I held his hand for awhile until it seemed time for me to leave him. As I left the care center, I tried to figure out what had happened. I had tried to let go of my reality and enter the reality of this person, but I hadn’t been able to do so.

I went back to my office greatly agitated by my experience, feeling such an overwhelming sadness and frustration. I wanted answers. Then as I sat at my desk, I looked at my bulletin board where I have a piece from the book Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. It says:

Be patient toward all
that is unsolved in your
heart . . . Try to love the
questions themselves like
locked rooms and like
books that are written
in a very foreign tongue.
Do not seek the
answers, which cannot
be given you because you
would not be able to
live them. And the point
is, live everything.
Live the questions now.
Perhaps you will then
gradually, without noticing
it, live along some distant
day into the answer.

Be patient . . . love the questions themselves . . . live the questions now . . . I would like to suggest three things that we. can learn from living some of life’s great questions. By living the questions now, I mean dealing with some of life’s hard and painful questions to which we have no answers at the time, not by trying to ignore them nor by looking for cheap answers to them, but by letting them be a part of our being, of our existence.

We can learn to be patient; we can learn about community and how to live in it, and we can learn answers on our journey. The first thing we may learn is patience. By Jiving the question now, I mean living with the pain or frustration that seems unresolvable, in which there seem to be no answers, no matter how many ways you look at the question. My own journey began in the 1960s, at an impressionable time in my life when being patient was not part of the vocabulary used when trying to change the social structure. I wanted answers immediately. I wanted resolution to problems in order to go on to the next problem. There are many kinds of problems, such as, does life have any meaning? Or why is there suffering? But, for me, the problem then was how to change the world into a more humane place. I wanted a new social structure. Being patient meant not doing anything. It had to happen now. We had to get out of Vietnam now; we had to do away with poverty now, and racism and sexism—any form of discrimination had to be done away with now. I never thought in terms of living the questions. It sounded like an excuse for doing nothing.

Most of us want to resolve issues too quickly. As I have already suggested, we tend to do that either by avoidance, burying our unresolved issues deep in our subconscious and convincing ourselves that it’s all right, that we don’t need to confront or deal with them, or by going for cheap answers. Certainly, living the questions themselves is risky.

When those of us who were impatient in the sixties did live with the questions for awhile, without having too hasty resolutions, we did have positive experiences that were not necessarily a direct resolution of a problem. These experiences opened us up to new possibilities, such as, deeper understandings, awareness of the complexity of some problems, and how much was required of us in terms of self-understanding and understanding of others. We not only learned, now and then, to be patient, but also we learned the value of patience, and we learned to value it as a human resource in some situations.

It is not that we shouldn’t be impatient at times, but also we should be able to be patient when that is what is called for. And one way of learning patience is to learn to live with unanswered questions. Living the question has led us to a deeper understanding of discrimination, more knowledge and action about the imbalance of goods in our country, the pollution problem, and new ways of learning. We have discovered how complex the problems are, how much is required of every one of us lo work with the problems, and what we need to learn about ourselves and others. We have discovered that the process is long and frustrating and that we all must be patient. I personally seem to be getting more patient, but I am not sure if it is due to wisdom or old age.

My second point is that we need to live in community. We need support to live the questions. This is implicit in Rilke’s piece. He is living in community by writing to this young poet—sharing his thoughts and ideas. In a world in which we do not have answers, loving the questions may provide a means for sharing the journey. But, first, we need to acknowledge that we do not have answers and learn to live without answers. Those of us who choose to live as Christians have no choice but to journey without maps. In Hebrews 11, faith is defined as the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. The author of Hebrews devotes a whole chapter to how the great cloud of witnesses lived by faith— from Abel to Rahab.

Living and loving the questions now together is one form of patience. There are no great resolutions; there are few “aha” experiences. To love the questions and be patient toward all that is unsolved in our hearts may not give us the answers, but it will bring us closer to a partnership in which our experiences are valued and heard. I hope that we can find this community within the church. Within the Christian community, I have found deep-thinking people who do not accept easy solutions to hard questions, who struggle with questions and who live within the struggle. This is a great strength of the Congregational Church, that we accept that there are questions and join together m our search for meaning.

In Culture and Commitment, Margaret Mead has a chapter entitled “The Future: Prefigurative Culture and Unknown Children,” in which she points us toward some important ways of keeping ourselves open to the future by living out our questions. Mead is arguing that we have shifted from a culture that is postfigurative (one in which the young learn from the old) to one that is prefigurative (one in which both children and adults learn chiefly from their peers). She appeals for a prefigurative culture in which, as the future explodes in the present, the old learn from the young.

One example of this comes from a friend who told me how his sons pray—one son always prays for the environment, the animals, the birds. One night his son was praying for the carrier pigeons that are almost extinct. This young boy asked God to create more carrier pigeons—not to make people stop destroying them. His faith was strong enough to ask God to create them anew, as God created the universe originally. The father’s faith grew from his son’s prayers.

Now I would like to take Margaret Mead’s assertion one step further—that we not only learn from and question with the young, and also the old, but that we go further and learn from Tom in the care center, as well. That we love the questions brought to us by the existence of the obviously different, the morally ill, the prisoners, the survivors, the hopeless ones. That we go beyond what is the norm and learn from living and loving the questions now, from people whose experience is unlike our experience. That we join in partnership in living all the questions with all people.

Elie Wiesel, Pulitzer Prize winner and survivor of the holocaust, stated many times that he would never bring a child into this world. His experiences in a concentration camp killed any hope that he may have had in humanity. As many of you know, Elie Wiesel now has a son. Living the questions of the holocaust and learning patience within community seem to have helped him find meaning that wasn’t present for him before. In living the questions, hopefulness, courage, and maybe some resolution of feelings became part of Elie Wiesel’s life again. My third point 1s voiced clearly in this example of Elie Wiesel. If you stay long enough with a great question, you may live into answers. It may not even be an answer to the original question, because sometimes the question itself changes into one for which we find an answer.

Finally, I return to Tom. In Tom I sensed a deep yearning. In living with Tom in the questions, someday without noticing it Tom and I may live along some distant day into the answer. Then. we will have lived through that question into another question. It may even be a question we can do something about together. For 1t is the partnership of struggling together that comforts us along the way and leads us to change.

Our partnership is revealed to us full force as we come to the communion table—being faithful toward our God and each other. Maybe we just might find one small answer someday.