When I was in my early 30s and a new rector, I called my father to read to him an unreasonable letter I had received from a parishioner. The letter had rattled me and I needed to sort things out. My father listened to me read the letter and then asked, “Is this the first time you’ve received a letter like this?” It was. “Well, the next time you get one, it will be easier to take.” Hearing that such letters may continue was frankly not comforting to me in the least. My father then commented that I seemed to have lost my sense of humor. At the time the letter wasn’t funny at all to me. “Your sense of humor is your best asset,” he reminded me.
I have received more letters similar to that one, several more from the same parishioner in fact, but each one has indeed been easier to process. The first time we have to deal with something is generally much harder than when we have some experience to fall back on. If I’ve gotten through something once, it’s easier to go through it a second time.
Lately, I’ve realized that being a parish priest has allowed me many rich experiences with others which have helped me immensely when I have faced similar times myself. When my daughter got married two years ago, having done several hundred weddings for others really helped me know what to expect. Getting to baptize several hundred babies sure helped when I got to baptize my first grandchild a few weeks ago. And, this past week, as my father received hospice care and died at home, having walked that path with so many others really guided me. Standing beside people’s bedsides over the years and listening to doctors deliver final sorts of news made it easier to hear that news about my own father. Having been with dozens and dozens of people when they died led me to know what that would look like. When the hospice nurse came in the middle of the night, she recognized me from other such times with parishioners where we had worked together to help people die peacefully. We both relaxed a little and gave ourselves to the event. The first time we do anything can be so threatening that we pay less attention. When we have some familiarity with the terrain, the journey can be richer.
Good judgment comes from experience, I have heard, and experience often comes from poor judgment. That witticism points out that life is a gracious and merciful teacher. It brings us along at our own pace. We deal with things often poorly and without much perspective. Circumstances play out and bring with them time for reflection. What have we learned? What sort of lessons may life and God be teaching us? Then we carry those lessons forward with us. Life isn’t so much gaining so much wisdom that we are never threatened by events as it is coming to trust that wisdom and peace will come. If I don’t exactly know how to handle something, I do my best and what I need is provided. Then I learn and grow. I’ll never handle everything perfectly, nor do I have to. But I can learn more and more to trust that things will turn out well if I will allow them. When I can learn to step willingly and faithfully into the path set before me, good things evolve, and God’s presence becomes more and more real.
Life takes lots of practice. Life gives us lots of practice. We’re not born with all the wisdom we need to make it through our journey. But wisdom isn’t some secret path reserved for the very few. Life is set up in such a way as to provide us experiences which will stretch us. As we faithfully attend to those experiences we find the wisdom we need to cope and even thrive. There is cumulative wisdom which grows within us and points us to the great pool of wisdom that is God himself.
If something is throwing you off just now, if you’re dealing with something for the first time, do your best, try to treat it lightly and respectfully, and trust that life is not all up to you. The grace of God awaits you, accompanies you, and grows inside you. All that you need, both now and in the future, is being prepared.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.