Nothing lasts forever.
So believed Heraclitus, a pre-Socratic philosopher of the 6th. century B.C.E., who famously hypothesized that change is the one unchangeable reality of the cosmos. No one “steps into the same river twice,” he is attributed with saying. And, how true this insight seems in the topsy-turvy world of the past few years, which seem like a roller-coaster ride through the uncertainty, turmoil, and impermanence of relentless change, and change in the wrong direction.
Over the last year, the loftiest values and sensitivities of our humanity have been maligned, insulted and brutalized. From turning a blind eye to immigrants fleeing persecution, to caging the children of refugees, to reducing resources to the poor and hungry, to gutting legislation that tries to make us wise stewards of the environment, to relentless efforts to undermine our responsibility to speak honestly, think critically about complex issues, and promote compassionate responses to human suffering … It’s been a difficult year of change.
But, change will come again and I know this in my bones because of a lifetime of rhythmic reflection on the spiritual ideals of Advent, the Christian tradition’s four-week preparation for the celebration of Christmas, the birth of Jesus. Advent probably began in 4th century France and has historically focused on the importance of remembering promises and hoping in new possibilities for a better world. Advent believes in the possibility of a kinder, gentler, peaceful and more just world. It is also a season for anticipating the human race’s ability to function in a way worthy of our status as children of God, an apt reflection as we celebrate the birth of a defenseless Jewish baby so many centuries ago, who grew to become a defender of the marginalized and voiceless and a promoter of the highest angels of the human heart and mind. The child lived a short life, growing up to become a carpenter and itinerant preacher, but has inspired centuries of others to take up the same mantle he carried, which he inherited from the Hebrew prophets coming before him.
The Christian celebration of Advent doesn’t look much like the “feel good,” Disney-fied, Hallmark-ed, and consumerized season of America’s secular Christmas season, because ancient people of faith have always known the sobering and disappointing truth that bad years – just like bad days – are part of the human condition.
Not every story has a neatly cornered happy ending, accompanied by the swell of violin strings and gently falling snow. But, those people of faith also knew in the depth of their being that change is coming as long as good people never tire of cooperating with God’s grace to respond to a troubled and conflicted world. Like a baton at a track meet, past generations have passed the torch of humanity’s highest angels from one generation to the next.
Many people in the Seattle area said goodbye to someone during Advent this year who devoted his life to passing this baton. Pat Howell, SJ, a 79-year-old Jesuit priest from North Dakota, who spent much of his career at Seattle University, succumbed to fast-moving cancer on Thanksgiving evening, November 28. Fr. Howell served in multiple leadership capacities over his long career of service, including the dean of Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry.
The last time I spent concentrated time with Pat was on June 5 when STM hosted an author reading on his last book, Great Risks Had to Be Taken: The Jesuit Response to the Second Vatican Council, 1958-2018. The reading occurred in the basement of Elliott Bay Books and only 18 or 19 people attended. As Pat was talking about the heady days of theological studies during Vatican II and the Council’s aftermath, it occurred to me that in his almost 80 years of life he had lived through many tempests, many as serious as those we are experiencing in the United States and the world. He transitioned from thinking like a pre-Vatican II to a post-Vatican II Catholic and Jesuit, went through the pontificates of several popes with very different visions of the church and the world, accepted difficult posts during trying times at many Jesuit institutions, taught countless students, and wrote hundreds of thousands of words exploring what it meant to be a person of faith thinking critically, loving tenderly and walking humbly with God through times both good and decisively bad.
Pat also endured a serious struggle with mental illness, something he wrote about honestly, sensitively and bravely in his book Reducing the Storm to a Whisper. In this open discussion of his own mental health challenges, he modeled a vulnerability that he hoped would demystify the diseases of the mind so that they might hold no more shame for us than the diseases of the body. He remained a passionate advocate for mental health issues, supporting parents with mentally ill children in a way that only he could do because of his own experience with it. It is impossible to tabulate the number of lives Pat touched and comforted because of this work because he never brought any attention to it.
While Pat talked at the bookstore, I realized that there was a time a book on Vatican II would have drawn a capacity crowd of people trying to understand the changes occurring in the Catholic Church. The audience was small and older in age. And, yet Pat seemed as energized and excited with a small band of folks as a great auditorium. He talked with his characteristic sense of intelligence, charm, and wit. If Pat longed for the glory days after the Council, you would have never known it. Through his trials and tribulations, and the disappointments and disillusionments that he encountered over a long life, he never stopped living in the present with a sense of hope, believing in a church that could and would one day live up to its most noble aspirations.
At one point while Pat talked, an image popped in my head of a lighthouse on a craggy shore of Maine during a bad storm. Born just a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Pat Howell lived through all kinds of turmoil and yet came out on the other side focused, centered, kind, gentle, humorous and playful, and exceedingly aware of everyone and everything around him, from the least noticeable person to the humblest of flowers. He was a dedicated gardener and had a particular fondness for tulips, which get planted in the cold earth, die and break open in the winter only to burst into glorious color in the spring.
Pat summarizes his positive approach to life in the last pages of Great Risks Had to Be Taken. He takes a quote from Georges Bernanos’ novel, The Diary of a Country Priest, that might serve as a cause of reflection for all of us: “Tout le grace. All is grace.”
With all of the joys and sorrows, glories and defeats, trials and tribulations of a life lived well regardless of the circumstances, even the darkest night of mental illness, Pat saw only grace. It is a glaring example of synchronicity that a man who maintained such a resolute heart of gratitude, despite a life with many challenges and the witnessing and experiencing of much human suffering, would die on the feast of Thanksgiving.
Pat Howell lived a life of grace and leaves a trail of grace behind him. Any of us who knew him well are better people for having experienced the grace he left in his wake. But, the spiritual ripple effect of a life well-lived is often hard to discern. You have to look for the subtle marks of virtue and value left in the lives of those who stood in the wake of grace behind such a person of character, goodwill, and intent, who lived life with and for others.
My greatest blessing in life has been knowing lots of Pat Howells – in inner cities, suburbs, and rural areas of the U.S., Asian nations, the Middle East, Mexico, and Central America, throughout the United Kingdom. They all had things in common, particularly the resilient ability to rise above the imperfection, cruelty, and pain of reality to become persons that inspire others and give them hope. They had the ability to serve as a lighthouse in a troubled, at times tortured world. They engender hope and possibility in all of us and pass on to us a desire to live well.
Often, the most impactful people in our world are not those who make regular headlines, who write great books or direct break-out films or songs. It is the grandma or grandpa, the dad or mom, the sister or brother, the neighbor, friend or co-worker who provided a steady presence of hope and possibility as change, heartache, loss, and disappointment buffeted the young lives around them. It is the Pat Howells of the world. These are the human beings who have kept the anticipation of Advent alive for Christian believers over the centuries.
Advent tradition teaches us to cling with anticipation and hope to the good people we have known, to trust that the power of their virtues and values will get reborn like tulips bursting from the dead ground of winter in the spring of the next generation. It forms us in the habits of heart and mind to hope that the loftier ambitions of the human heart and mind will one day become the norm.
Advent reminds us that Heraclitus got it right: nothing lasts forever in this world.
Except for the things that matter most.