Thomas J. McCarthy

I had grandiose expectations for a recent reunion with my five closest friends. Nearly 20 years in the making, the gathering was both less and more than I had imagined. Two of my favorite texts inspired my anticipation and now give shape to my reflection on the event—T. S. Eliot’s poem Four Quartets and Thomas Merton’s essay “Fire Watch, July 4, 1952.” Both works speak to the relationship between relinquishment and spiritual fulfillment. Key to internalizing this connection is learning to embrace the profoundness of the moment while at the same time detaching oneself from it. For me, reconciling this apparent contradiction is bound up with my ongoing reflections about how friendship evolves over time and distance.

 

With age comes a growing awareness of being part of something vast stretching before us—God, the universe, eternity—which tends to focus the mind and spark a kind of conversation that can leave even longtime friends at a loss for words. As we watched the desert sunset, with its many stages of light and color, we drank it in, sharing the wonder and a silence that spoke of the imperceptible passing of days into years. Hence Merton: “Eternity is in the present. Eternity is in the palm of the hand. Eternity is a seed of fire, whose sudden roots break barriers that keep my heart from being an abyss.” And the questions, whether voiced or tacit—Are you where you want to be? Are you who you hoped you’d be? What has been gained and what lost?—remain, as ever, part of the Now we must embrace if our friendships are to thrive. At 40, when the concepts of time and eternity start to become rather more tangible, if not poignant, our old motto, carpe diem, carries new weight. Because for those who bother to ask those questions,

every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been.

 

Unlike when we were 20 and had no real responsibilities, no end of time and the world was all before us, at this stage an essential part of seizing the day is not to seize it at all, but rather to relish it. Whatever I had planned and hoped for in this reunion—as with countless much-anticipated events in life—dissolved as expectation gave way to flesh. In other words, fully engaging without wanting to control was the only way to receive the grace and gift that was this gathering:

 

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting....
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

To meet friends—to meet life, in general—in this manner means accepting a certain uncertainty, journeying in a half-light, prepared for utter surprise and liberated from the pressing need to anticipate every moment. To be metaphorically still, amid gathering darkness, is to give oneself over to unknowing, a disposition Merton believed uniquely rewarding, for “the night has values the day has never dreamed of.”

The reunion has taught me this: neither desire to shape the future nor sentimentality about the past, but detachment alone can perfect the moment dividing who we were and who we will be. For old friends separated by thousands of miles and countless experiences, the deepening of that bond depends on learning how to let go rather than hold on. Letting go is not my strong suit. Thus I fear detachment, which makes me think of separateness and isolation. Time that once seemed limitless and, like everything else, both distant and intensely knowable, has become, like everything else, a shadowy companion tinged with contradiction and incomprehensibility. Eliot describes this chastened and oddly freeing outlook:

 

In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of disposses sion....
And what you do not know is the only thing you know.

Detachment would seem to be the polar opposite of the kind of risk-taking that first forged our friendship: throwing ourselves into the moment with a youthful passion for life. And yet from where I stand true detachment brings the greatest risk of all. Insofar as it represents the purest leap of faith, I realize that it has always been at the heart of what and how we share. Without it there would be no “seed of fire,” no silent desert sunset—what Eliot calls “the still point of the turning world.” Trusting in that moment is what friendship has always demanded. To be together, in and through and despite and beyond our separate and changing lives, deeply affirms us. For

We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
.

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