Monday, April 9, 2012

living well is best

The 17th century poet and priest, George Herbert, once observed that "Living well is the best revenge."

George Herbert
Born into a well-heeled family, Herbert went to university with the thought of becoming a priest, rerouted his course into intellectual pursuits, served in the British parliament and only later returned to his earlier desire and became an Anglican cleric. Before his death at the age of 39 in 1633, he sent a letter to a friend and described his writings as "a picture of spiritual conflicts between God and my soul before I could subject my will to Jesus, my Master." He was depicted as a priest devoted to his parishioners in very concrete ways, bringing the sacraments to them when they were ill and providing food and clothing to the needy.

"Living well is the best revenge" is a pointed and witty and apt observation, but it is hard not to think that in his less witty personage, Herbert might have dulled the blade a bit (or sharpened it, depending on the point of view) and said simply, "Living well is best."

How many, I wonder, are like Herbert, holding up an exciting ideal in youth, being led in directions that do not seem at all to dovetail with that ideal, and finally returning, a bit bruised and a bit wiser perhaps, to the original course? I cannot help but think that it is the bruising that makes a sweeter, more credible and more useful upshot. In spiritual endeavor, it's only half a joke to suggest to the very young who are hellbent on heaven, "Go out and sin some more."

On the other hand, which one of us, at whatever age, who decides to take spiritual endeavor seriously is not as green as a maple leaf in early spring -- young and clumsy and unsure and loud? And when, at whatever age, can any of us claim to have escaped that clumsiness?

Living well is best, but how such a thing is achieved is utterly personal -- morphing and shape-shifting in every moment ... a responsibility that no other man or god can shoulder. Actualizing a brilliant dream is not a job for sissies.

I guess a piece of the answer is to be gentle but firm with the children who stare back at us from the bathroom mirror.

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