(I wrote this piece a year ago, and since then, there has been a reconciliation with the friend in question, though this friend lives now a half a world away. I publish it as it is)
there hath pass’d away a glory from the earth.-William Wordsworth, Intimations of Immortality
As I write this piece I am contemplating a copy of the San Damiano icon of our Lord’s crucifixion. I reflect upon this ancient icon that purportedly spoke to St. Francis, giving him his calling in life to “rebuild Christ’s Church,” for a good reason: the two motifs of passion and resurrection are displayed, one on top of the other. The crucified Christ is most prominent, his near-naked body nailed to the cross, with blood streaming forth from his hands, feet and side. And yet, true to the conventions of iconography, his face is serene, his eyes gazing afar off, fixed on eternity. His suffering humanity and his glorious divinity are displayed, with a sense of submission to the will of the Father. At the top of the icon, less prominently displayed but impossible to miss as you look at the crucifix, we contemplate another scene: the resurrection and ascension, as Christ triumphantly enters heaven, and a hand of blessing reaches down-the hand of the Father, blessing what he has done for us. Christ comes to the bosom of the Father with his glorified humanity, thereby signaling the eternal union of divinity and humanity. One of us sits at the right hand of the Father.
But for now, I must return my gaze upon the crucified flesh of the God-Man, and meditate upon that for a while, as we all must contemplate our current state. These past two years, I have been afflicted with two loses: the death of a twenty-year friendship, and the death of a friend that I had known for seventeen years. Four years ago, I dined with both of these friends at Conrad’s in Pasadena, and now, one is gone due to circumstances that brought that friendship to an end, and the other due to the reality that all flesh is heir to: “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
Oh yes, the end of a friendship is a kind of death, and in many ways it can be as keenly felt as an actual death, for it is the death of a whole way of life, a way of relating to the world. In it, there comes the death of other relationships, experiences that were, and are no more. The death of a friendship can be as permanent as an actual death. I shared with this friend (whom I will refer to a Cam) such rich experiences, such stimulating conversations on life, faith and culture. There were strains, however, that perhaps doomed it. It was a long time in coming, and maybe it was a friendship that needed to end. But while it lasted, oh what glory!
The other loss was not quite so long-standing. It was sudden, and came so fast and unexpectedly that even now I cannot believe that he is indeed gone, even after attending his wake and requiem. Bill was one of a kind: a man who had the intellect that could have earned him an ivy-league education and several doctorates from Oxford, Cambridge and the Sorbonne, and yet, this UCLA drop-out was content to work as a grocer. This did not mean the end of his education, for he read extensively in patristic and medieval theology and attended public university lectures. Bill exemplified the essence of the everyman scholar, and his life is proof to me that true education cannot be calibrated by the amount of “seat time” one has in a formal graduate program. Bill was perhaps the most educated man I knew, having little by way of formal college education. His work as a grocer kept him connected to everyday people, which filled him with satisfaction. If one can sum up the life of a man, in Bill’s case it would be summed up in this way: he studied, worked, prayed, and lived fully. Our conversations about faith, patristics, and medieval thought formed me in ways that my graduate education barely did. If I have been of any benefit to anyone in my academic career, it was largely due to him.
Now, in the span of two years, two ways of relating to life and the world are gone to me. Two friendships I cherished have passed. Two glories have passed from the earth, or at least, in the case of one, from my immediate experience.
And yet dare I hope for immortality? Dare I hope for resurrection? Dare I hope to experience these realities with these friends? My gaze now moves upward, from the crucifixion to the small image of resurrection. We all crave immortality. Peter Kreeft writes that our deepest longings are but intimations of the reality of God’s existence. We are hungry, there is such a thing as food. We are thirsty, so there is such a thing as water. We desire, in our deepest souls, abundant life, abundant and eternal friendship, and these are but hints to us that there is an eternal reality that can satisfy these deepest desires. Our pains, our losses, are but intimations that there is a disruption in the world caused by sin and death, and that this world was not created to be a “vale of tears,” but to be a blessing. Our deepest desires are for life, and that is as it should be.
So we mourn the loss of life, the loss of friendship, because we know in our deepest hearts that things are supposed to be different. We grieve because we know that we are made for immortality, and that the natural way that human beings must relate to each other is through friendship. When friendship dies, a part of the world dies. When a friend dies, a part of us dies.
As I write this piece, with Bach’s mournful recitative Ich habe genuch (“I’ve had enough”) playing in the background, I think of the composer’s reflection on the brevity of life as he was smoking his pipe. He was reminded that life, and even our deepest relationships, are ephemeral, as the ever ascending smoke that rose from his pipe, looking glorious, and then dissipating into the air. This grieves me, and it should. And yet, my grief does not descend into despair. The San Damiano icon does not give me that option. The juxtaposition of passion and resurrection reminds me that “death is swallowed up in victory.” The ancient curse is not the last word. “Christ is risen” is the last word. With the resurrection comes the hope of the abundant life that is etched in our deepest longings. But at the same time, the anonymous monk who painted this icon ca. 1100 places the crucified Christ prominently before us for a reason. We still inhabit the vale of tears, the shadow of the valley of death, and so we suffer loss. We feel the pain of that loss, and grieve, but with the hope of eternal life.
So Cam, wherever you are, I raise a parting glass to you, my friend, asking pardon if I have offended you, and if perchance we may not embrace again in this life, I pray that we shall embrace in the End of Days, and the Beginning of all Beginnings. And you, Bill, I raise a glass to you: friend, gentleman, scholar, grocer, man of prayer. See you on the other side!