Don’t Stand Still

When I was growing up, Dad would sometimes take Mom and us kids to California in the summertime to visit his parents.  Grandpa and Grandma Ezaki lived on a farm in Kingsburg.  They raised grapes and peaches via irrigation because the sun would become so hot, it would bake the soil almost to the point of becoming superheated dust.  While visiting our grandparents, my three older sisters invented a childish game of endurance.  Starting at the farmhouse, they would run barefoot as fast as they could from tree to tree, the only available shade.  This was not at all easy, because the trees were few and far between, and the soil was so hot, it would actually burn the soles of their feet.  Youch!  The point is that once the girls began running, they could not afford to stand still until they reached the shade.  To do so would mean fried feet, because the baked earth was like a hot gridiron.  Once the girls started running, they had no choice but to keep on running, either forwards or backwards.  They could not stand still!

            In Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians, it seems that, when it comes to the spiritual life, the Apostle too finds standing still unthinkable.  He has already achieved much for Christ, but, as he sees it, resting on his laurels is out of the question.  Speaking of the resurrection of the dead, Paul writes:

It is not that I have already taken hold of it or have already attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it, since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ [Jesus].  Brothers and sisters, I for my part do not consider myself to have taken possession.  Just one thing: forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.[1]

            There are some sincere Christians who believe that, once they have accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, their salvation, their entrance into heaven, is assured.  That’s not Catholic teaching.  Nor is it the case with Saint Paul.  For him, Christian discipleship, the spiritual life, is a continual struggle, a constant striving to do as much good as possible, not in order to earn one’s way into heaven, but solely for the glory of God.  To stand still is to fall back.  As with my sisters, once the running starts, being motionless is out of the question.

            I am forced to ask one searching question:  Rather than continually striving for heaven, have I allowed myself to stand still in my spiritual life?  If my answer is yes, I may very well get burned!

            I can think of no better way to conclude than with one of my favorite poems, “A Psalm of Life,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  It was Mom who introduced me to this gem one day when I happened to be feeling sorry for myself.  Her choice of poetry could not have been more appropriate.  Longfellow’s wife had suffered a tragic death by fire, and he, naturally enough, went into a deep depression.  It then dawned on him, however, that life was too short to spend feeling depressed and that there was much for him to do.  The result of Longfellow’s epiphany was “A Psalm of life.”  Here it is in its entirety:

A Psalm of Life

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 – 1882)

What the Heart of the Young Man Said to the Psalmist

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,

“Life is but an empty dream!”

For the soul is dead that slumbers,

And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!

And the grave is not its goal;

“Dust thou art, to dust returnest,”

Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,

Is our destined end or way;

But to act, that each to-morrow

Finds us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,

And our hearts, though stout and brave,

Still, like muffled drums, are beating

Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,

In the bivouac of Life,

Be not like dumb, driven cattle!

Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!

Let the dead Past bury its dead!

Act,–act in the living Present!

Heart within, and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us

We can make our lives sublime,

And, departing, leave behind us

Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,

Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,

A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,

Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,

With a heart for any fate;

Still achieving, still pursuing

Learn to labor and to wait.

[1] Philippians 3:12-14.