Thinking, talking or writing about mortality is understandably never popular, though more recently the topic has gained renewed interest. The ancients however were far more pragmatic. In Psalm 90, people are depicted as tender grass sprouting freshly in the morning of their lives, but wilting and faded by evening.
Observing the transience of the natural world, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver challenges our generation not to waste our one opportunity for life:
“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
(The Summer Day, 1992).
It was only when he believed himself to be very near death that writer and broadcaster Clive James slowed down enough to ‘smell the roses’, or in his case admire the wildlife in his daughter’s garden:
“Once, I would not have noticed; nor have known
The name for Japanese anemones,
So pale, so frail. But now I catch the tone
Of leaves. No bird can touch down in the trees
Without my seeing them. I count the bees.”
(Sentenced to Life, 2015).
To grow in wisdom, and to attempt to impart the wisdom of God to others, we need to pray along with the psalmist:
“So teach us to count our days
That we may gain a wise heart.” (verse 12).
The word translated ‘gain’ has overtones of ‘gathering in the harvest’; we might practise what this prayer means by consciously considering the wisdom of God in any difficult situation by reference to a variety of sources (scripture, tradition, reason, valued friends, faith community and so on). Contentment in the steadfast love of God (verse 14) and the deliberate, active gathering in of wisdom throughout the years, connects us with countless generations of those for whom God has been ‘a dwelling place’ (verse 1).
Source of wisdom of generations past,
Satisfaction, gladness and power to those who will come.
Give to us who live and love and struggle and delight,
Wisdom for the pathway
And your steadfast love to wrap around us.
1 Lord, you have been our dwelling-place
in all generations.
2 Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
3 You turn us back to dust,
and say, ‘Turn back, you mortals.’
4 For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night.
5 You sweep them away; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning;
6 in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.
7 For we are consumed by your anger;
by your wrath we are overwhelmed.
8 You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your countenance.
9 For all our days pass away under your wrath;
our years come to an end like a sigh.
10 The days of our life are seventy years,
or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
even then their span is only toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.
11 Who considers the power of your anger?
Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due to you.
12 So teach us to count our days
that we may gain a wise heart.
13 Turn, O Lord! How long?
Have compassion on your servants!
14 Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
15 Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
and for as many years as we have seen evil.
16 Let your work be manifest to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
17 Let the favour of the Lord our God be upon us,
and prosper for us the work of our hands—
O prosper the work of our hands!