On my patio, a tiny snowman spent a good part of the holidays this year. Perched on the stone wall, he had the requisite stick arms, eyes and a nose, and for a short while a little Santa hat borrowed from an ornament.
Long after our three-year-old granddaughter returned home, the snowman remained a reminder of good times that flew by.
But as the weather warmed, the little guy started to shrink and collapse. Each day, he looked more pathetic. When a thaw arrived, he became merely a puddle, and the next day, merely a memory and a reminder — although we don’t really need one — that time vanishes before our eyes.
Blackfoot Chief Crowfoot, a Plains Indian who lived in the 1800s, said this: “What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.”
And it’s a little snowman that delights and then disappears.
When Father Steven Moore died, right before Christmas, I remembered a card he sent when my mother died. Typical of Father Steve, it wasn’t a routine Hallmark card with the usual platitudes, but far more unique and lovely. Its words have lingered, probably recalled before in this same space: “All those who live this life will live it too briefly, and all those who leave this life will leave it too soon.”
Those words can seem incredibly sad. Or they can seem consoling. I choose to find them comforting, because they convey the sense that we are “all” in this together. No one in this life escapes the sense of incompleteness. No one escapes without regret. We’re a bundle of good memories and bad.
The Jesuit Father Karl Rahner said it best: “Here in this life, all symphonies remain unfinished.”
So, a burden lifted: these feelings are part of the human condition itself. Accept it, and move on to enjoy this day.
One thing that helps me when I’m engulfed in the sense of impermanence is prayer. It’s consoling to remember that we are mortal and fleeting — a flash of the firefly in the night — but the Holy One who loves us and calls to us is eternal.
I’m consoled, too by the words of someone who volunteered in the No One Dies Alone program at Providence Hospital. He was present to people dying without family or friends.
What is it like? I asked. What do you sense about death as you accompany the dying?
“I don’t know what happens,” he replied. “All I know is that they fall into the hands of a merciful God.”
In Jesuit Father John O’Hara’s prayer guide, “At Home in the Spirit,” he defines prayer in a useful way: Prayer, with a capital P, is “a profound attitude of heart in God’s presence.” Prayer with a small p is “an activity by which we try to cultivate Prayer.”
Prayer — with a small “p” — is a practical commitment of time and presence; if we’re rewarded with that profound attitude of heart, it’s a gift God gives and maybe a fleeting one at that. It’s the cultivation God asks of us.
At the beginning Lent, we acknowledge we are dust — shadows losing ourselves in the sunset. It’s a good time — fleeting time — to begin prayer to cultivate Prayer.