Growing up physically can be measured in inches on the kitchen wall or in pounds on the scale of the school nurse. The growth of the soul isn’t so easily assessed, yet it happens whenever the world as I know it encounters the world as you know it to become the world as we know it. The soul grows when its world expands.
The soul grows when its world expands.
The acclaimed American novelist Richard Ford has just published a memoir, entitled Between Them: Remembering My Parents. Memory cannot summon up an entire life. It can only offer fragments to us, which we gather as clues to the whole of a life. “But pieces can stand for the whole well enough,” Ford insists. “Though each must make a difference to me or I wouldn’t remember them so well.”
Here’s a small passage, recording a moment in the life of every child: when we first learn how the rest of the world sees the parent, who is the center of our own world.
I remember an elderly neighbor stopping me once on the sidewalk and asking me matter-of-factly who I was. This was on Congress Street. Maybe I was nine or seven or five. It was a thing that could happen to you in Jackson. But when I said my name—Richard Ford—she said, “Oh, yes. Your mother’s the cute little black-haired woman up the street.” These were words that immediately affected me, and strongly, since they proposed my first conception of my mother as someone else, as someone whom other people saw and considered and not just as my mother. A cute woman, which she wasn’t. Black-haired, which she was. She was five feet five inches tall, but I never have known if that is tall or short. I think I must have believed, as I still do, that it was normal. I remember this, however, as a sentinel moment in life. Small but important. It alerted me to my mother’s—what?—public side. To the aspect of her that other people saw and dealt with and that was always there, alongside what I saw. I don’t believe I ever thought of her again without thinking of that, or ever addressed her except with that knowledge. That she was Edna Ford, a person who was my mother but who was also someone else.
It is, of course, a good lesson to learn early—cute, little black-haired, five-five—since one of the premier challenges for us all is to know our parents fully—assuming they survive long enough, are worth knowing, and it is physically possible. The more we see our parents fully, after all, see them as the world does, the better our chances to see the world as it is.
Unless she’s absent from its life, every child knows its mother. Her face is the font from which the world will flow; she is the portal through which the rest of the world first enters. Ford remembers this mundane incident, a neighbor commenting upon his mother’s appearance, because it truly was “mundane,” a founding stone of his adult world. Mundus is Latin for “world.” Ford’s soul grew when what he saw and what others saw—all the while looking at the same spot in the world, namely his mother—combined into a world that was simply, yet profoundly, greater. That is how any soul grows!
The deepest Christian conviction about Jesus of Nazareth is that he is not of this world, that, in him, this world, which all of us know, encounters another world, which none of us know. This is what we mean when we speak of him being truly man and truly God. In the Christ, earth and heaven meet, though only in him. Put another way, here on earth he is all we know of heaven.
To profess that Jesus was truly human is to insist that he grew as we do.
Imagine what it must have been like for Jesus to hear the God, whom he called Father, be described by others. How many of the adjectives, which they might have employed, would have struck him as strained, useless or simply untrue?
To profess that Jesus was truly human is to insist that he grew as we do. That means that his soul grew as his world expanded. But to profess Jesus as God is to insist that it was our knowledge of the Father that grew in our encounter with him, not his.
Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life.
No one comes to the Father except through me.
If you know me, then you will also know my Father.
From now on you do know him and have seen him” (Jn 14:6-7).
In all of the Gospels, but especially in the Fourth, Jesus is savior because Jesus is revealer. The vehicle or instrument of salvation is true knowledge of God, which is revealed in the very person of Jesus the Christ. To know who God is is to know what God wants of us. It is to know who we are meant to be, who we must become. Jesus would not be who Christians confess him to be if he did not reveal the Father to us and allow us to enter another world, one which we could never have known without him.
To know who God is is to know what God wants of us.
Yet the God whom Jesus called Father, whom Jesus reveals, remains an ever-elusive mystery. God is pure spirit, which means that most of the adjectives that we use to describe our world can be applied to God metaphorically at best. Yet, as we gaze upon the face of Jesus, as we ponder his actions—as both of these are given to us in the Gospel the church proclaims—we learn all that we must know of God in order to come to God.
Richard Ford closes his memoir with a fascinating comment about absences, which are only revealed in the telling. These are not gaps in the author’s memory. No, it is in memory, in returning to scenes long past, that we sense what might be called another actor, another world, present in them, yet, at the time, not recognized by us. Now, in graced memory, we see that the pieces add up to more than we thought; we see that someone else—someone who might be called a hidden actor—was present, though all of this remains elusive. Even now the actor is absent or, at least, hidden. This is what Christians call God. This is what we believe we find revealed, once for all, yet still to come, in the life of our Christ as the church remembers it.
Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.
How can you say, “Show us the Father”?
Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?
The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own.
The Father who dwells in me is doing his works.
Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me,
or else, believe because of the works themselves (Jn 14:9-11).
So, to write about my parents long after they’ve gone inevitably discloses hollow places, failures, frailties, rents and absences in me, insufficiencies that the telling, itself, may have tried to put right or seal off, but may only have re-opened and left behind, absences that no amount of life or truthful telling can completely full or conceal. These I agree to live with. Though when I turn to regard life—my own or others’—I now never fail to struck, amid the onslaught of all that’s happened and still is happening, by how much that’s gone from me. Absences seem to surround and intrude upon everything. Though in acknowledging this, I cannot let it be a loss or even be a fact I regret, since that is merely how life is—another enduring truth we must notice.
Readings: Acts 6:1-7 1 Peter 2:4-9 John 14:1-12