My community band practices in the basement of a synagogue, and there is a strange work of art on the wall. It’s rendered in wood, painted in bright colors, and it shows something I have never seen before: A whale diving into the deep, surrounded by brilliant fish. Nestled in the whale’s stomach is a man.
You are thinking it is Jonah, and I guess it is. But he is not a desperate, raggedy prophet in dire straits. He is an old man, clearly Jewish, with a noble profile and glasses, a kippah on his head and a fringed blue-and-white tallit on his shoulders. He is sitting on a little wooden chair at a little wooden table. Overhead (yes, in the whale) hangs a little wooden lightbulb, and by its light he is reading one of a stack of little wooden books. Just sitting there quietly reading a book, inside the whale. The whale looks slightly alarmed, but the old man is perfectly at home, learning.
I thought immediately of a Reddit post I recently saw, written by a young woman who was enraged at her father for spending his own money, at the end of his life, on a long-delayed college education. What does the old man need to go to college for? His life is almost over! The money should be preserved, not wasted on a man who’s almost gone. It was even worse than the Prodigal Son: She was not only demanding her inheritance ahead of time but also begrudging that her father should have any of it.
I thought of my own father. Partly because he looked a little bit like the bearded old Jew with his wooden books and partly because he did keep on learning, right up until the end. From books, to be sure. His bedside, when I went there to tidy things up to sell our old house, was smothered in books. But he was not necessarily pushing himself academically in his final years. I think he died watching TV (not that there’s anything wrong with that—he was tired).
What I mean is that the last several years of his life tested him mightily. The family fell to one crisis after another, and finally my mother lapsed irretrievably into dementia, and he had to learn to pour love into her and get nothing in return but mumbles and flutters. He had to learn so much. He was so old, but he had so many things to learn before he was delivered from this life.
During this time, he told me that the Lord was taking more and more things away from him, and he was glad, because it was getting him ready for death. He smiled when he said this. He was grateful it was happening—the getting ready, not the dying. He did not seem to feel, against all odds, that it was a dark time, even as his life dwindled away.
This is what it fundamentally means to be a Christian: It means to know that what we are doing is getting ready. What we are experiencing, all the time, is learning…Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.
Image: Jonah by Rosalind Welcher, on the walls of the Congregation Ahavas Achim in Keene, NH; photo by Simcha Fisher