Tuesday of the Second Week of Advent

December 10, 2019

Is 40:1-11/Mt 18:12-14 (182)

In a windowless room under nauseating fluorescent lights, the sleepy drone of an academic paper being read at a conference in Chicago, I receive a text from my brother to call him. “Cut your trip short and come home.” Within an hour, I was headed north I-94. Three days later, a cold Thanksgiving eve, my mother died. Outside, snow blows, gusty winds cry out, grass withers, and lengthy shadows migrate south. That was seven years ago.

In his book My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard reflects, after seeing his father’s dead body for the first time, “I was indifferent to everything. The zone that had come into existence when we first left the undertaker’s, and that seemed to make everything around me dead, or meaningless, had grown in size and strength. … I was numb … The world lay like a shadow around me.”

Four months after my mother died, my siblings and I sat on the floor in the upstairs room of my brother’s country house. The pre-dawn darkness of the snowy March Minnesota morning whisked outside. Grass remained withered, blanketed under crusty snow, and winter shadows remained. Last night, my father laid in the bed comforted by morphine. This morning, only his body lay there. After a decade of pancreatic cancer, his body withered. “Surely, people are grass” (IS 40:7).

A few days later, Knasugaard revisits his father’s body and reflects: “Now I saw his lifeless state. And that there was no longer any difference between what once had been my father and the table he was lying on, or the floor on which the table stood, or the wall socket beneath the window, or the cable running to the lamp beside him. … death was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks in the wind.”

Earlier in the novel, Knausgaard remarks “As your perspective of the world increases not only is the pain it inflicts on you less but also its meaning.” As we wither with the grass and fade with the flowers, as shadows descend upon us, as we come to terms with the healthy ordinariness of the passing of life, and as we may embrace a lessening of the world’s meaning amidst the incessant pain and struggle, perhaps we need not conclude it all meaningless. Rather, as many of us slowly and reluctantly acknowledge, the death of all life can be affirmed as the very appropriate movement of the world and all things, be they mundane or extraordinary.

Appropriate to this period of Advent and anticipation, Knausgaard reflects, life is akin to “a boat in a lock: life is slowly and ineluctably raised by time seeping from all sides. Apart from the details, everything is always the same. And with every passing day the desire grows for the moment when life will reach the top, for the moment when the sluice gates open and life finally moves on.”

A voice silently cries out “all people are grass, all flesh is grass. The grass withers, the flower fades” (IS 40:6-7).

Hans Gustafson,
Director, Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning, College of Arts and Sciences

Book reference: Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle (Min kamp): Book 1, trans. Don Bartlett (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2009).