As an only child—and a homeschooled one at that—I was never much good at keeping the company of folks my own age. My primary circle was always composed of adults and, when given the choice between hanging out with kids or hanging out with their parents, I’d always opt to be with the adults and would grow mildly offended if ever anyone alluded to the fact that I was not, technically speaking, an adult myself.
Eventually, of course, I became an adult in my own right and so now my peers are adults and it would seem that my childhood problem is solved. However, a few recent experiences with the elderly have made me wonder if I’m not still drawn on a bit towards the generations ahead of me (or behind me? The spatial metaphors seem a bit off-kilter in this case . . .)
The first happened about a week ago at one of the daily masses in the parish just a ten minute walk from my apartment. I rarely get to its daily masses because the majority of them are at the ungodly (no pun intended) hour of 7am. As a grad student-insomniac-night owl, I only see such hours if I stay up all night, which is precisely what had happened this time. An end of semester push had kept me up ’til the sunrise and I decided to take up the rare opportunity of visiting this parish’s daily mass. I had made it to the early mass once before, under similar circumstances, but it hadn’t affected me nearly so much as it did this time.
With a few exceptions, the attendees of this mass are very aged: folks who appear to be in their 80s and 90s. One man—so thoroughly bent over that his body almost makes an “L” but with an always-raised head that can make his whole form look almost hunchbacked—lights the candles and assists throughout the mass. You get the sense that he’s been doing this since he was first an altar boy, many decades ago, perhaps in the very same parish. How many priests might he have seen come and go in his time? How many popes? And does he still remember the Latin responses of the old Rite? Indeed, nearly everyone there seemed like they’d done this forever, like the prayers and the kneeling (for almost all of them still knelt, knees cracking and mouths sighing) and the taking of the body and the blood were as natural to them as breathing.
And doubtless this was largely the effect of my own sleep deprivation but it suddenly felt as though what I was watching was not the movements of a middle-aged priest and his far older congregants, but rather it was as though heaven itself had come briefly to dwell in this near-empty sanctuary, as though the quiet but persistent activity of eternity was unfolding before me. I wasn’t quite a part of it—anymore than I’d exactly been a part of those adult dinner table conversations when I was five—but I felt privileged to just be near it and to watch it happen.
Then, about a week later, I’d been seized by the desire to visit one of the local parks—which sits on the edge of a large lake—to watch the sailboats go by and read on my Kindle in the sun before heading out of town for about a month. Upon arriving, however, I was somewhat dismayed to find that what had been a mild breeze in the rest of town had become a mighty wind at the water’s edge. There were no sailboats out but instead a fair number of kitesurfers were being drug back and forth across the lake. Finding the wind too much to take, I retreated back to my car and prepared to drive home when I realized that the car actually made a rather pleasant little box from which to observe the braver kitesurfers and to do some reading.
I felt a bit silly at first, sitting in my car and gawking as though the park were a drive-in movie, but I found that I actually benefited from the slight distance from the activity outside. Staring out at the kitesurfers through the window, I marveled at the strange humanness of the whole enterprise: who but us strange creatures would both learn to harness the power of wind and to put that power in the service of something so delightfully pointless. It reminded me of something that Fr. Robert Barron, drawing on Aristotle, says in one episode of his Catholicism project: there are some activities that we, as human beings, do because they are goods in themselves. And they are goods in themselves precisely because they are—strictly speaking—”useless.” Among these are play, friendship, artistic creation, and—notably—liturgy. “The liturgy is something we do for its own sake,” says Barron, “simply because it is good and beautiful.” What a piece of work is man, I couldn’t help but think, watching a kitesurfer catch air for a brief moment.
And then I realized that I was not alone in my car-locked gazing. On my right—and eventually on my left as well—were folks, much older than myself, who had driven to the park for what appeared to be the express purpose of watching the kitesurfers skitting over the choppy waves of the lake. The younger folks, all couples, braved the wind and walked to the water’s edge, pressed against each other as their clothes flapped. They sat at the edge of the lake for as long as they could manage and then they moved on. But those of us in cars, most of us alone, gazed out on the lake as they came and as they went. We looked and we thought. And I felt then, as I had always felt when I was a child, that I was perhaps what they used to call an “old soul.”