My mother used to tell me there was no point in growing older unless we also grow wiser. And over the years, I have seen many older people who seemed – to me – to possess something of that wisdom. It was as though their perspective on life was in some way different, broader perhaps; they seemed to see things in a new light.
As I have grown older, I wonder if I have begun to understand something of this process.
Now, a few years short of sixty, I can look at myself and I can observe that I am the same person I have always been – and yet simultaneously, I am also someone quite different. It is as though I have slowly grown into myself; that is not to say the process is complete, but it is definitely underway. Things which mattered greatly to me as a younger person often seem inconsequential now; while things which mattered less then, matter more these days.
I can’t help thinking of sunlight. It is with us every day and needless to say we take it very much for granted. But the colour of sunlight is very different in the morning in comparison to that of the evening; the light of the evening brings a warm golden glow, especially as dusk is approaching – photographers call this period ‘the golden hour’ and the light in that moment is unlike sunlight at any other time.
With regard to my faith, perspectives and priorities have also changed. And, I would say, simplified.
Saint Paul seems to have had something of a similar experience. In his first letter to the people of Corinth, he speaks about various gifts and of doing various great things – but he cautions that if these gifts and these actions are devoid of love, then they are meaningless and nothing more than the noise of “a clashing cymbal”. Even, he writes, giving away everything to the poor, if done without love, then “it will do me no good whatsoever” (1 Cor.13: 3).
And this, I think, is the point of that wisdom which we hope will come with age.
We begin to realise that it is not so much the ‘what we do’ that matters, as much as the ‘how we do it’. And if our actions are not done with love, they are worthless. Love alone counts.
I have come to realise that on the day I finally stand before the Lord to give an account of myself and of what I have done and of what I have failed to do, this love will be the scales upon which all else is weighed and judged.
And so I have to ask myself – and I do ask myself – in all things, one simple question – have I loved? Is this thing done with love? Is love my motive in the doing of it? I am sure this is the question the Lord will ask me on that day.
Love means seeing with love and as well as acting with love. It means that we look to the other – the Gospel refers to ‘the other’ as “my neighbour” – with love; and that love is very clearly described by Saint Paul in his letter – you can read his description of it at the end of the thirteenth chapter. In essence, this love is patient, kind, never jealous, neither boastful nor conceited, holds no grievances and does not seek it’s own advantage; nor does it rejoice in wrongdoing (ours or that of anyone else); it makes allowances and it is trusting; it is filled with hope and endures all things; and it lasts always. That sort of love, practised perfectly and consistently, is the work of a lifetime.
In practice, this love also means we recognise our own littleness, when we see how far we have fallen short of the mark which Paul describes – and this sense of authentic humility helps us to love others, because we have then realised our own need to be loved.
This love makes us realise that when we stand before the Lord, it will be with empty hands – for nothing is ours but our misery and sin; everything else is grace and mercy – which allow us both to love and to be loved – and these are the gifts of the Lord.