21 February 2007

Numbering Our Days.*

Psalm 90 is traditionally ascribed to Moses, and there is no good reason to doubt that is actually the case. So wise and humble Moses and the faithful through the generations have sung,
Teach us to number our days,
That we may apply our hearts to wisdom.

“Begin with the end in mind” is one of the principles shaping Stephen Covey’s best-selling self-help book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and that is good advice whether one is starting a business, a round of golf, or a war. But it is just a variation on the ancient wisdom of the Church entrusted with the revelation of God. This “teach us to number our days” business is Moses’ poetic way of saying that we will all die, and he sees that the height – or depth – of foolishness comes in living as if that were not so, as if we would live forever. The way of wisdom is to begin and live with the end in mind.

Problem is, we live in a passionately death-denying culture. (Paradoxically, but predictably, it has also become, in John Paul II’s phrase, a “culture of death” – but that must wait for another Grail or sermon.) And before we can assess our days and prioritize our commitments with the end in mind, we need first of all to be reminded, to have it driven into our heads, that there will, in fact, be an end. And so, with Moses, we need to pray that the Lord would “teach us to number our days.”

The Lord does teach us, and he does so in and through our participation in the life of Christ’s Body, the Church. And in the yearly cycle of that life, we come, this year on the first day of March, to the Church’s annual memento mori: Ash Wednesday, when ashes are imposed on foreheads, and we each receive Moses’ wisdom, but in starker terms:
Remember, O man, that dust thou art,
And unto dust shalt thou return.

This is no exercise in guilt-inducing morbid introspection. It is a coming to grips with reality, with the intention that we will then better order our lives in accord with reality – which is to say, that we may live wisely.

In February, we buried the dear lady who had been our oldest member, Mary Hudgins, a woman who had her whole long life applied her heart to wisdom. When Mary was growing up, her father led the family every night in evening devotions from the Book of Common Prayer. Included in those devotions was this prayer, which well sums up the lessons of Ash Wednesday:
Make us ever mindful of the time when we shall lie down in the dust; and grant us grace always to live in such a state, that we may never be afraid to die; so that, living and dying, we may be thine, through the merits and satisfaction of thy Son Jesus Christ, in whose Name we offer up these our imperfect prayers.

May that become our prayer as well. I look forward to seeing you on Ash Wednesday as we together learn to number our days and apply our hearts to wisdom.
*From a previous year's parish newsletter.


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