I just got off the phone speaking to a man who will be 96 in July if he is still alive. I spoke to this man because he was unable to speak to me. This man is in hospice care in Florida right now and today is doing very poorly. It may be moments now before his passing but he may make it through this hard spot and see another day. As he said to me, it could be two days, two weeks, two months, two years.
I spoke with him two days ago and had a conversation like the conversations we’d had this Fall when he was still in New Hampshire. I want to share his perspective which he shared with me.
He has been thinking a lot about death and dying and the afterlife over the years since his wife’s passing. In conversations this past fall, we spoke about views of the afterlife as having great rewards and young women, etc. He denied all of this afterlife certainty. How can we say we know these things? He was a Geologist and is a man of scientific inquiry and agnostic faith. When I spoke to him two days ago, he shared his perspective and I want to share it here. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians in chapter 13, near the end we read:
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.
We see through a dim crystal ball, he said. I heard this as “a glass, darkly”. And he said that that glass is like a prism which refracts one light, one great light. We’ve all seen refracted waves of this light and we rejoice in the refracted waves. These waves give us a glimpse, however darkly, of that great light.
We have faith because of the light given us. We have hope, because of the light given us. But most importantly, we love because of that light given us. And this is the most important part for this man. “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” He wants to maintain the word “charity” here and not replace it with “love.”
Love has become a sexualized word in our time. It has always been the one English word which depending on context could mean a sensual desire or an affection toward the poor, or an enjoyment of kinship. At least now, if this hasn’t always been the case, the sensual (eros) sense of the word love is the most frequently used sense. So this man wants to retain the word “charity.” Because charity won’t get confused with “free-love.” The difference between charity and love might for some, and perhaps for this man, be like the difference between Martin Buber’s I and Thou and I and it. Charity is a higher form of love, charity is what God (that great light) shows toward humanity and charity is what humans are called to show to one another. This word allows the word to be lifted from the confusion of sexualized and romanticized love and gives it a higher, consecrated purpose.
And this is important for this 96 year old man. Wars are fought because of certainty without charity. Faith and hope with charity will bring peace. Faith with hope not certainty, charity to all not coercion. We have been given the light that we have and they’ve been given the light that they have. Charity will guide us forward in the absence of a final top-down conclusion of who’s right, who’s wrong. Charity is that light which shines refracted through the prism of the universe.
This is the perspective that he communicated to me — it’s at least the best I could make from a phone call with many communication barriers involved. I can learn a lot from his thoughts on faith and his longing for charity in the world.
Light and charity. Throughout 1 John, these two are connected. “Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling” (1 John 2:10, NRSV). As a Christian I believe that the light which my friend talks about was unambiguously revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, who loved with a love than which none is greater — he laid down his life for his beloved. This is charity and this is light.
I conclude with the words of Aaron Weiss from the song “O Porcupine” who speaks to the certainty of that light when all else is uncertain:
“Sister in our darkness a light shines
and all I ever want to say for the rest of my life
is how that light is God,
and though I’ve been mistaken on this or that point,
that light is nevertheless God.”