Reading through Christus vivit recently, I found a section labeled “Dreams and visions” (§§192-197), a six-paragraph-long exegesis of Joel 3:1: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” I would like to share a brief thought—or tell a brief story; and Pope Francis says in this section that the young tend to tell shorter stories than the old!—about a memory of my own that I connect, in reading the Holy Father’s words, to what he says about the relationship between the old and the young.
First, one paragraph from the Holy Father:
The elderly have dreams built up of memories and images that bear the mark of their long experience. If young people sink roots in those dreams, they can peer into the future; they can have visions that broaden their horizons and show them new paths. But if the elderly do not dream, young people lose clear sight of the horizon. (Christus vivit §193)
Often when I read statements like this about the elderly and about relationships between the old and the young I think about my grandfather. He was a World War II veteran who had an almost archetypal midcentury businessman’s working adulthood–Harvard MBA, house in North Jersey, a stint working in South America. He was not a perfect person (for one thing, he worked as a fossil fuel executive, after it should have become clear what that industry was doing to our shared home), but he was someone I came to greatly love. Unfortunately, this was not the kind of love that comes from intimacy, exactly; my grandfather was not somebody I was as close to as I now wish. He was not literally my grandfather but the father of a family friend; earlier in my life the primary intersection between his life and my own comprised periodic visits to his home in which I interacted mostly with his son. Later, as his son and my mother became closer and eventually married, our families’ lives became more intertwined, but by this point he was already dying of Alzheimer’s Disease and got harder and harder to reach meaningfully just as I began to want to reach him more and more.
One thing that struck me very clearly in the last years of his life and that I still think back on whenever I read about the dreams of the elderly is way he said grace at each meal. He made sure to say it before even so much as a tray of supermarket sushi. My grandfather said grace in terms that I imagine are familiar to almost every Where Peter Is contributor and reader: “Bless us, O Lord, and these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty, through Christ our Lord, amen.” These are easy words to remember; say them ten or twenty times and it is unlikely you’ll ever forget them. Say them two or three times a day for seventy or eighty years, and then say them in front of your teenage grandson, and they become, so to speak, unmoored from their meanings and turn into a word-picture that exists in the same sense and possibly for the same purpose that music does. Bach dedicated every piece that he composed “To the greater glory of God, and that my neighbor might be benefited thereby,” and in Japan there is a religious concept called kotodama, the idea that words, qua words, have souls. I don’t know about the grace having a soul, but the way someone says it can certainly lay bare what is most important about that person’s soul. The word-picture of the grace constituted, for me when I heard it (and I was not yet a committed Christian at this point), a reverie on something just out of my reach but critically important.
While we’re on the subject of Japanese literary production, the writers of the Heian period a thousand years ago used the image of a “floating bridge of dreams” to describe the preservation of beauty in literature. The prayer heritage of the Church, which is a series of literary artifacts in that all prayers were at some point composed, creates just such a bridge, spanning centuries, into which (to mix a metaphor) we can sink roots as the Holy Father says. “We grandfathers and grandmothers need to form a choir,” Francis says a few paragraphs later in Christus vivit. “I envision elders as a permanent choir of a great spiritual sanctuary, where prayers of supplication and songs of praise support the larger community that works and struggles in the field of life.” (§195) What I remember when I remember my grandfather saying grace, is a voice in just such a choir. It’s my hope that today he is a member of a choir that will never be out of tune and never lose its voice.
Image: “Jacob’s Dream” by William Blake. From Wikimedia Commons.