I’ve often written about the years when I served with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps long ago in a remote Alaskan bush village where I taught at a Jesuit boarding school. A large staff worked at the isolated mission: Jesuits, Ursuline sisters and a large contingent of mostly right-out-of-college “Jesuit volunteers.”
Looking back from a vantage of almost 40 years, what I realize is what I share with so many my age: We were young and invincible once, and now the years bring the reality of mortality. It’s a reality we all face as we grow older, and how we deal with this reality is at the heart of our faith.
From that perspective, it’s a challenge. Lent and Easter are consoling times to face that challenge.
Living in a community in a remote locale produced tight friendships and even a few marriages, including my own. With no restaurants, pubs or movie theaters in the village, we learned to make our fun together.
No television meant that entertainment came in old movies shipped out from Anchorage, which we ran on an old-time reel projector. Netflix, computers and cellphones were still science fiction dreams then, and the Alaskan bush was far more behind the times than most of the rest of the world in the 1970s.
The dorms in which our Yupik Eskimo teen boarders lived had popcorn makers, and we’d haul garbage bags full of leftovers into the staff lounge for our after-hours movies.
How many times did we watch “The Sound of Music”? I can’t even count, but I deny that all those screenings had anything to do with the fact that I eventually named a daughter Maria.
Guys who would have scorned their mom’s card parties learned how to play bridge, not to mention canasta and cutthroat poker. Our rickety old gym saw school dances on Friday nights, and then pickup basketball games for volunteers after the kids were in bed.
The school had a plentiful supply of nearly antique wooden cross-country skis, and an enthusiastic Jesuit eager to get us all out onto the frozen river and the snow-laden hills.
Then, we were young, healthy, with lives ahead of us. We filled our days with laughter and optimism, and many of us forged bonds that have remained strong as we left, married, had kids, sought advanced degrees, made job changes and moved around the country.
So now, inevitably, as we’ve shared the joyous news of babies being born, and then grandchildren coming along, we now begin the season of sharing the passing of those we grew to love in our salad days. It seems too soon. We’re mostly 60, give or take a year or two, too early to see friends pass, but there you are.
The years sneak up, don’t they? It’s something you can never quite explain to the young. And that’s probably a good thing. It’s a luxury we possess early on, the sense that life spreads out before us with an almost limitless horizon, with choices and possibilities limitless as well.
But it’s also not such a bad thing to look at the horizon in the later third of life. The losing of friends is sad, but the horizon, now limited, has beauty in its temporality, each day more precious. There aren’t any to squander.
And we hold to our faith, made clear in the liturgy for Christian burial: Lord, for your faithful people, life is changed, not ended.