Well, I’m 40 now. I passed that chronological milestone a little over a month ago, and in the days since, I’ve found wonderful opportunities for reflecting on the big questions such an occasion brings: What, exactly, is “middle age”? Why does my back hurt that way? Why do the years seem to pick up pace as you collect more of ‘em?
That last one makes me think not just of milestones but of mortality, too. I recall hearing theologian Stanley Hauerwas begin a talk by asking folks in attendance how they wanted to die. Pretty much the heavy metal-est way you can begin a theological talk. Maybe the way that most sermons should start too, now that I think of it.
He elaborated, saying that most folks nowadays say they want to die quickly and painlessly, in their sleep. They don’t want to see it coming. It hasn’t always been that way though. Folks from an earlier era – folks more acquainted with death as a quotidian thing, whether through strangling the chicken for the dinner pot or through whatever old-timey sounding disease they might suddenly acquire – didn’t want to die quickly because it wouldn’t leave time to make things right. To settle accounts, so to speak, to repent and make penance.
Making things right
I thought of that opening salvo a lot while watching Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman the weekend of my birthday. I use weekend on purpose here, as I had to watch it over two nights. It’s three and a half hours long! Being 40 also apparently means I can barely stay up past 10:30, so I had to stretch it out over Friday and Saturday night. The film has been criticized for being indulgent and rambly, but I think the long runtime is rather generous, especially if you think a film ought to afford you time and space to think about what it means to be human, instead of just a sense-deadening exhibition of special effects.
If you don’t know much about the story, here’s a sketch: Robert DeNiro plays Frank Sheeran, a real-life mafia thug from Philadelphia who, uh, takes care of business for mafioso Russell Bufalino and later for Teamsters’ boss Jimmy Hoffa. The film covers decades of his life.
As is standard in Scorsese’s mob movies, the screen is chock full of wise guys and other assorted ne’er-do-wells. On occasion the camera will freeze over the face of a mobster, and, via subtitle, the date of his death and the manner thereof is shown on the screen. So and so “was shot six times outside of a steak house in New Jersey,” and it’s shockingly clear: these kinds of people don’t live long, don’t get to make penance. Their lives are snatched from them hard and suddenly.
DeNiro’s Sheeran isn’t so (un)lucky, and he ripens to old age in a nursing home. The time is ripe for his confession, too, and he does confess, in a way, as his voiceover narrates the film. Then again, “confess” might be too strong a word, as he never really takes full responsibility or expresses true sorrow for living a violent life. A priest visits him, yet he still can’t bring himself to take responsibility, though he does ask that the priest leave his bedroom door open after the visit.
All that time is a gift – a graceful, undeserved one – even if the old mobster can’t receive it as such. It’s something more than chronological time, too, the sort of time that merely marks the passing of days. It’s kairos time, as ancient Christians understood it, time open to God’s action, time linked with eternity, time pregnant with the possibility of setting things to rights, time that gives the milestones meaning.
After three and half hours, after my own handful of decades, it’s becoming a little clearer what opportunity there is in getting older