“Jack and Diane,” a 1982 hit rock song by John Mellencamp about “two American kids growing up in the heartland,” celebrates the sensory pleasures and optimism of youth. The song’s refrain, however, reminds us repeatedly that the fun won’t last:
Life goes on
Long after the thrill of living is gone.
Almost 180 years earlier, 19th-century Romantic poet William Wordsworth expressed a similar idea less pithily but far more eloquently in his 1804 poem “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”:
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day.
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
The Rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the Rose,
The Moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare,
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.
Wordsworth laments that when he was a child, the world used to shimmer and sparkle. Now that he’s an adult, though, the luster is gone. He sees children at play and wonders what happened. Where did the “glory and the dream” go? Why can’t he experience anymore this sense of wonder that has fled?
He explains why in this famous stanza:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
When we are children, fresh from God and our heavenly home, our souls are easily able to perceive and respond to the “visionary gleam” that we’re still close to. That’s why we delight in everything we encounter. But the more we age, the more years we spend away from where we came, the more our recollections of our origins fade and become “shadowy,” and the harder it is to feel enthralled by the world around us.
The toils and tribulations of life do weigh us down and press at least some of life’s wonders from our weary bones. All can seem quite dull and tedious when we become bogged down by work, routines, cares, burdens.
Is there nothing we can do to recapture the joys of our childhood? John Mellencamp’s less-than-satisfactory suggestion is to
Hold on to sixteen as long as you can.
Changes come around real soon
Make us women and men.
So, adulthood is the end of wonder and delight? That’s it?
Not for Wordsworth, who is more consoling and encouraging. He points out, for example, that our loss is replaced by some gains, such as “soothing thoughts that spring/Out of human suffering,” a “faith that looks through death,” and a “philosophic mind.” Also, we still have our memories to sustain us:
Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither…
Conjuring up memories certainly can be comforting, but there’s an even better way. As our deacon said in today’s homily, do this one thing: Attend Mass every week. While you’re there, really listen. Also, receive the Eucharist mindfully and prayerfully. Why? Because this rite reminds us of our own divinity, and that reminder makes the world sparkle again.
In her article “Does the Eucharist Change Us?” Alice Camille describes how the liturgy of the Catholic Church transformed her from a girl who never smiled to a joyful adult.
I know what she means. After just three years of weekly participation in Holy Communion, I’m sure that I’ve changed. I’m happier, more patient, more compassionate, more generous. Because of all these changes, the world is more interesting and more meaningful. The sky is bluer. Food tastes better. Birdsong sounds sweeter. I feel love more deeply. Lows aren’t as low. Highs are even higher. Wordsworth might say that I’m reconnecting with the child fresh from God whom I was decades ago.
Participating in the mystery of Holy Communion and physically uniting with Christ every week certainly makes everything begin to seem a lot less mundane and lot more extraordinary. Maybe that’s what a deacon who was teaching my lay ministry class meant when he said he finds it odd that we refer to certain periods of time in our liturgical calendar as “Ordinary Time,” for nothing at all has been ordinary since Jesus Christ walked on this Earth.
May we become what we consume.