Oniontown Pastoral #8: When the Student Is Ready the Teacher Will Appear
My title here is widely attributed to the Buddha, but Bodhipaksa, host of the blog Fake Buddha Quotes, traces the idea to the 1886 book Light on the Path by Mabel Collins: “For when the disciple is ready the Master is ready also.”
Like any writer I want to be accurate, but in this case I’m busy learning and can’t afford to dwell on scholarship. In recent months, calmed and awakened by the pastures of Oniontown, I’ve found unexpected teachers, probably because I’m finally ready to receive their wisdom.
My teachers—the homebound, mostly—don’t recognize the lessons they’re lavishing upon me. I’m their pastor, after all, with a direct line to the Man Upstairs. When I pay them a visit, they expect to be on the receiving end of whatever insight and solace our time together yields. If only they could see how their fortitude blesses me.
Hopefully I have plenty of vitality ahead, but my teachers make me wonder if I will be strong in my final seasons, when the world grows painfully small. Afternoons bleed into evenings within the same four walls. Aches and frailties invite despair. Boredom and loneliness blanket even those blessed with visitors.
Wallowing would be understandable, but my teachers joke and ask after me and the St. John’s family. “It’s got to get discouraging,” I said to one man. “Well, sure,” he smiled, shifting in his recliner to ease a stab of hip pain, “but once you head down that road you’re done for.”
“What did you have for lunch today?” a parishioner with declining short-term memory often gets asked. “I don’t know,” he answers, “but it was good!”
Caregivers lift and wash and soothe hour after weary hour, unaware that they’re instructing my spirit in grace. How would I roll out of bed each morning with the knowledge that today will be just like yesterday? My teachers are heroic, their faces cleansing breaths of gentleness.
If my beloved Kathy no longer remembered our lives together, how would I cope? “You’re a hero,” I told a man who shows up at a nursing home every day to visit and eat dinner with his wife. “It’s what you sign up for,” he answered. For better or worse, indeed.
And could I endure infirmity, eyes dead to novels, ears deaf to sonatas, muscles slack, lungs spent?
Some of my teachers, their bodies like the elderly farm equipment castaways in the fields surrounding Oniontown, find ways to move forward without traveling anywhere at all.
One has model train tracks on a table in front of a window overlooking squirrels stealing from bird feeders. Imagine finding life in a locomotive with no destination!
Or how about turning old, brittle pedal sewing machines into shining end tables? One of my sweetest teachers did just this. On the morning his young daughter died recently, he and I sat at his kitchen table. Cancer and grief had knocked the wind out of him, but he mustered the stamina to look with me out a window.
“My God,” I said, “is that a Baltimore oriole?” I had never seen one up close before.
“They’re only here a couple weeks,” he explained, “and then they’re gone. They like jelly.”
Every time I drive to the church I see this man’s house. Less than a month after his daughter passed, he got his wish and followed her into the rest of everlasting peace.
Can I be like him and my other teachers? Can I witness beauty until my last breath? Can I endure and soothe, laugh and learn even when the future is four walls?
And when death is near, can I remember that someone may visit my small world—a student who is finally ready to receive the quiet treasure I have left to share?