A Worthy

I’m sure I had seen it before, but not since I left that city to move to Dallas. I was back, a day with an old friend, walking Broadway from the northern tip of Manhattan down to the Battery. It’s about 15 miles and we were in no hurry. We stopped in churches. We stopped in front of locked church doors. We dropped in on coffee places. We looked at the old rocky part of the north of the island, then the increasingly shaped land and lanes and buildings as the day progressed. We looked at the new Columbia buildings, gradually taking over many blocks. We went into a Jewish deli run by an Asian family. Now we were down at Madison Square Park.
    It’s an interesting monolith, with names of cities on bands around it as it narrows to the top. The places named are places where this soldier and officer fought. He was born in Hudson, New York, a city up north on the river. He served in the battle of 1812. And then he went to Texas.

    “This guy is yours,” my friend said. We wondered if he died in one of those battles. He fought against Mexico, yes, but turns out to have died not in battle but of cholera.

    There are very few places named after him. One is Worth Street, one of the narrow streets that twist around each other in the southern tip of the island. Another is a city to the west of Dallas.
    Thus the penny dropped. His name is William Jenkins Worth. And it turns out that the Worth Monument, which we were studying, is actually not in Madison Square Park but beside it, on a piece of land known as Worth Square. His monument is the second oldest in the city.
    Fifteen miles is roughly a day’s walk on a pilgrimage. What is it one is seeking when one goes off to walk? It’s of course a mystery, one which, I believe, is held in the palm of God’s hand. Part of the mystery is to revisit the past, to cycle back and try to understand, to revisit and to see what one never saw before.
    Eliot says that the end of our exploring is to arrive at the place we started from. This is cosmically true: Aquinas, for instance, moves in his Summa out from God and then back to God. That’s the structure of any created thing, or at least of those created things that do not reject God. God made me, and in the end I hope to return to see him face to face.
    I didn’t start in New York and who knows if I will end in Fort Worth, but man, I did step back into a previous part of my life and discover historical connections with my current life.
    The end of our journeying is to discover where we started, and to know it as if for the first time.
    Out & About. I am to preach at St. Paul’s in Prosper, Texas, on Sunday, June 27, at 8, 9, and 11 a.m. At 10 a.m. we’ll have a class, “Biblical Wisdom on Friendship.” Open to anyone who wants to come, of course. I recently learned that Prosper was the surname of an early pioneer in these parts. His first name? Victor. (This info thanks to Oak Cliff Coffee Roasters, who have a Victor Prosper blend.)

How Old Is She?

We remember birthdays of important people. In grade school—before the Monday holiday law messed it up—my classes noted February 12 as Lincoln’s birthday, February 22 as Washington’s. Martin Luther King was then still alive, but after his assassination he got added to this pantheon, albeit on a Monday and not necessarily his birthday itself.
    (A professor of medieval history, new from England, was puzzled by these Monday holidays. I explained as best I could, wanting a long weekend, etc. “Americans.” She shook her head. “You are so lazy.”)
    “Today is the birthday of . . .” is a welcome news feature. But have you ever wondered, Which birthday? MLK was born on January 15, 1929. Was January 15, 2021, his 92nd birthday? Do birthdays keep increasing as the years go by, even if you have died?
    I think not. At a funeral we entrust the soul of the deceased to Almighty God and his body to the ground (or the sea, or the elements). God is taking care of him until the great day of general resurrection. But that care is not here, not in this created world.
    I am writing this column on my wife’s 66th birthday. She died when she was 57. So is today really her 66th birthday? It is the 66th anniversary of her birth, yes, but I’m pretty sure she’s not 66 years old.
    A young fellow asked me recently if birthdays get celebrated in heaven. If there aren’t going to be birthdays, he seemed to say, well, why go? Note the importance our culture places on birthdays!
    When we find a difference between church and culture, it can be a chance to learn something.
    The church’s custom from early days is to remember people on the day they die, a date that one might think of as a birthday into paradise. Some years ago, I started noting death-days in my personal calendar: relatives, friends, and also people important to me. T. S. Eliot, for instance, pops up on January 4, the day he died in 1965; Richard John Neuhaus on January 8 (Neuhaus died on Elvis’s birthday). Francisco de Vitoria appears on August 12. (We don’t know his birthday; he may not have noted it himself.) In the Episcopal Church, we remember C. S. Lewis on November 22 (died 1963, yes, same day as President Kennedy).
    Here’s what I say: Today is “the 66th anniversary of” Susan’s birth, “the day that would be” her 66th birthday. But she is not 66 years old. She is in God’s hands in a different way.

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The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."