by J. Robert Hilbert, SJ
“birds build—but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.” -- Hopkins
At a funeral not long ago, as I stood by the graveside I had a distinct sense of my own burial. I felt, for a few moments, as though I were some other priest praying over the remains of Bob Hilbert while a few friends and family stood around. The main element of the feeling was an awareness that the funeral will represent only the briefest of interruptions in the life of even my closest associates. The hole I leave will be quickly filled and I will be only a rapidly dimming memory.
My mother died in December 1989. She suffered a severe stroke, was hospitalized just two weeks and died. One of the deep blessings of those two weeks was the gathering of the family around her, her four children, most of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It was a time of sharing grateful and graced memories, of happiness for the life that had been, even as we were saddened at its end.
As we spent those days and nights around her bedside I was struck by the realization that there can be no such gathering at my death. Hers was the biblical blessing of seeing children and children’s children unto the fourth generation. The memories shared, the emotion expressed, showed that she was deeply part of them and truly lives on in them.
Part of the cost of celibacy is that my own life has no such fruitfulness. At my death there will be none to bear my image into continuing generations. The physical impact of my life will simply cease.
There is yet another element of poverty for such as I, an element I was reminded of as I read the recently published journal of Fr. John Eagan, “A Traveler Toward the Dawn.” John was a classmate and friend; I went to Milwaukee for his funeral four years ago. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, gathered. John had spent nearly 30 years teaching at Marquette High in Milwaukee. He had also been associated with a parish and with some adult CLC groups. He had a buoyant spirit, was popular and influential, loved with deep affection by many, many people.
In some contrast, I have lately been aware of my own rootlessness—in the sense of not belonging to any particular place or group. Since the age of 17, nearly half a century past, I’ve not had a long-term home.
A reminder of this came last year at a high school basketball game, at which I thought I recognized a cheerleader with the visiting team. During the halftime break I asked her if she was indeed R__. She was, but clearly she did not recognize or remember me. I had been her neighbor from the time she was a toddler until she was 8 or 9 years old. She and her sisters and friends used to spend a lot of time in the little church hall where I lived, drawing and coloring. But that was eight years ago, half a lifetime for her, and she could no longer remember even that I had been there.
Older ones, of course, would remember me, but this encounter was nevertheless a striking reminder of how little impact my presence there or anywhere has had. I have shifted every few years from one assignment to another. Since joining the Jesuits I have lived in a dozen different places in eight states. Nowhere can I stand and have the satisfaction of seeing person or building or institution or book and knowing, “This is a mark of my passing, something or someone to show that I have been.”
At this point I can imagine many friends and people I’ve known protesting that I am of importance to them, that I have had an effect on their lives. In fact I’ve twice been startled recently by Jesuits I’ve encountered only rather briefly in years past referring to me as having been a strong influence on them. I know that my life is not utterly without impact. I know that I’ve been able to facilitate many people’s encounter with God. I have friends who like me, a community of Jesuit associates scattered around the Midwest who warmly support me, people who will truly miss me when I die.
Yet there is truth in the feeling that I cannot say of any place, “This is my home, here’s where I belong.” There is truth, too, in the feeling that I have not shared with an apostolic group long years of stable commitment to a particular ministry, gone with them through many struggles in a cooperative endeavor that also forms their own communal identity.
These are a few of the experiences that register heightened moments of that which is a constant and growing awareness as older age comes on. It is an awareness with various facets: Life is short, and feels much shorter from this end then it did from the starting out; achievement in apostolic purpose is small and slow and perhaps largely hidden; hopes and ambitions are achieved only in small degree, being frustrated or at least very limited by one’s own inadequacy, uncertainty, cowardice. And my energy has been divided, split between effort at ministry and pursuit of selfish ends.
Whence, then, is the acceptance and affirmation of my life to come? Eagan uses a captivating image toward the end of his journal, an image of his carefully constructed house of achievement for the Lord being blown to bits and replaced by the Lord’s own house of the God-life in him.
It is an attractive image that says much to me about the scale of importance in my view of my life. Yet something a bit different is stirring in my spirit. It has to do with the experience of this limited, imperfect life as somehow intrinsically bound up with the Infinite.
Only very hesitantly as yet do I affirm myself as valuable, significant. Yet the longing I have for fullness does not want to discard my achievement as meaningless or worthless. I stand before God, small, ragged, inept, holding out a few scraps of ministry product that I’ve worked so hard to make, tempted to hide them in shame for their meagerness and their clumsiness, yet aware that somehow they take their minute spark of being from the wonderful, incomprehensible mystery that is God, and so are not mine to hide but His to take, for from their origin they are blessed by Him.
The invitation—rather, the imperative loving call—is to let myself see within my feeble attempts to be of service the actual presence of the power of God, to know that my hesitant, inconstant and so little generous love is yet the Love that is divine gift flowing among us. As I can stand at the side of a person emaciated and stinking, near the end of terminal cancer, and know with deep awareness the oneness with our God evident in that dying person’s peace and beauty of spirit, so I must find in my own poverty of being and achievement the grace of that Presence that incorporates all that I have done and all that I am into the loving completion of his Kingdom.
There is in Karl Rahner’s “Foundations of Christian Faith” (p. 131) one of his less difficult sentences that may be pertinent here: “A person who opens himself to his transcendental experience of the holy mystery at all . . . experiences that this holy mystery is also a hidden closeness, a forgiving intimacy, his real home, that it is a love which shares itself, something familiar which he can approach and turn to from the estrangement of his own perilous and empty life.”
This essay was originally published in the 1990s for National Jesuit News and reprinted here with the permission of the author.