The scene is a nursing home. A woman reads to a bedridden old man. He is dying at the age of a 101. They are not related, but she has known him since as a girl she first interviewed him for a school project. Her mother never approved of her friendship with their neighbor: a single man, dodgy, probably gay, might be unsafe.
Daniel Gluck is not gay. He is European, which made him dangerous enough for Elisabeth’s mother. Elisabeth seems to be shutting herself off from the world in order to keep vigil at Daniel’s bed. An odd thing for a young friend to do for a much older, unrelated man. But it was this old man who once told Elisabeth, “The people who love us and who know us a little bit will in the end have seen us truly. In the end, not much else matters.”
“The lifelong friends...we sometimes wait a lifetime for them.”
Autumn, Ali Smith’s melancholy, utterly beautiful novel about the relationships that form us, is set in our post-Brexit world, one in which so many bonds are unraveling. Elisabeth has not set her world aside to keep vigil in the nursing home. Far from it. She has brought it into focus. For it was Daniel who awakened Elisabeth’s love of reading and thus opened so much of life to her. And now, in this nursing home, “Daniel lies there very still in the bed, and the cave of his mouth...is the threshold to the end of the world as she knows it.”
Daniel once told Elisabeth, “The lifelong friends...we sometimes wait a lifetime for them.” He was so right! We do and we must because we were not fashioned to flitter from one shallow relationship to another. We were created to find life and its author in those rare relationships that reveal who we are, who we were meant to be, even as they unveil what God wants of us.
When we are waylaid by a demanding relationship, Christ truly becomes our shepherd.
For example, we learn something of God the Father in the tender, constant love of a parent, and the Holy Spirit is revealed in those really rather rare relationships that truly give us life and energy. And the Christ? He comes to us in the relationships that waylay us.
These relationships, like that of Elisabeth to Daniel, draw us out the world. For a time, we set aside so many activities and companions as we bind ourselves to one person. The waylay may be relatively brief yet intense. You watch through the final days of your spouse who gave your life meaning; or you care for a beloved, infirm parent who gave you life itself. Perhaps it is a protracted, yet relentless, relationship that draws you away from the crowd, like the child whose special needs constantly call for the recalibration of your schedule, your energies and your focus. The waylay might only be quotidian, but it is nonetheless an opportunity to encounter Christ, like the person who is clearly having a bad day and seems so determined that you share it.
When someone “becomes our cross,” the Father is asking us to become their Christ.
Sometimes we resent the relationship or, at least, we resent that it waylays us—though with those whom we love it is difficult to admit, for it seems so shamefully selfish. Yet we cannot help but wonder why God has asked this of us. Why has our life been waylaid? What is the Lord trying to accomplish here? And how long will my life be like this?
Here is what is happening or, rather, what will happen if you let it. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, the Father is drawing you into the Christ, “the stone rejected...which has become the cornerstone” (Acts 4:11). Christ becomes our Good Shepherd only when we walk his path, when we enter into his solitude, his rejection by the world. He came among us not to march down a broad avenue of sure acceptance but to forge a narrow way, one that gives life through surrender. “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn 10:11).
When we are waylaid by a demanding relationship, Christ truly becomes our shepherd. The world will pity us, to the extent that the world thinks of us at all:
“How long will she have to care for her mother?”
“I would have thrown the bum out years ago.”
“They weren’t blessed with a child, they were burdened with a curse.”
But this is because the world cannot understand.
The reason the world does not know us
is that it did not know him.
Beloved, we are God’s children now;
what we shall be has not yet been revealed.
We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him,
for we shall see him as he is (1 Jn 3:1b-2).
Christ’s deepest identity was revealed on the cross. He is the one who bears the suffering of the beloved. We conform ourselves to Christ when we do as he did, when we allow ourselves to be waylaid by the need of another. When someone, as we say, “becomes our cross,” the Father, through the agency and sure aid of the Holy Spirit, is asking us to become their Christ.
Readings: Acts 4:8-12 1 John 3:1-2 John 10:11-18