“The youth of grace must not lead to the old age of sin.”
That’s from a sermon by John Chrysostom, the “Golden-mouthed” preacher from the fourth century. That makes him really, really, old. It makes him almost as old as Keith Richards looks.
And of course, that’s probably the kind of thing Chrysostom is talking about here. He goes on to say:
The love of money, the slavery to wrong desires, or any sin whatsoever, makes us grow old in soul and body. Our souls become rheumatic, distorted, decayed, and tottering with many sins… The sinful lose their ability to see, to hear, and to speak, for they spew forth words that are foul.
But while I think extremely unhealthy lifestyles can have adverse effects on our, well, health, its truth goes far beyond “hard rocker syndrome”.
You can be a five-year old, and you will never look older – in the saddest possible way – than when you twist your mouth into a cynical smile. Cynicism seems wise, aged, because it suggests that you’ve seen all this before, you’ve heard all this before, you know from bitter years of experience that it doesn’t work, that nothing ever works.
The thing is, while at first this sense of being older and wiser seems so attractive, cynicism’s aging work doesn’t end there. So often cynicism starts with that sense of superiority over the hopeful, but it soon becomes the bitterness of hopelessness. Real cynics – long term cynics – so often seem to me to be bitterly sad, despondent. The quintessential example of this in the Bible, is the “Teacher” who wrote Ecclesiastes:
2 “Meaningless! Meaningless!”, says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless…
… 8 All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing.
9 What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. 10 Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. 11 No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why Chrysostom thinks the sinners go blind: when you’re a cynic, you come to feel like there’s nothing left to see. Cynics can become crippled, their legs become atrophied, because there’s nowhere left to go, when everywhere is really going nowhere.
The other really crippling thing for cynics, according to Ecclesiastes, seems to be how weary they become. Cynicism descends from superiority, to hopelessness, to just being really, really tired. If the cynic’s view of life is so close to the reality, why does it seem so tiring for them to maintain it?
Fortunately, Chrysostom doesn’t end his sermon there, any more than the Biblical story does. He goes on to liken the sinner to the prodigal son, who realised he’d aged too hard, too fast, and just wanted to go home:
Let us go back to our Father’s house, not lingering over the length of the journey… Only let us leave this strange land of sin where we have been drawn away from the Father. For our Father has a natural yearning toward us, and… He finds great pleasure in receiving back his children.
This is a hard thing for the cynic to hear, because it suggests there is somewhere to go: home. Tired, weighed down by the hopeless feeling of futility, it’s hard to start walking in hope towards home. Hope feels like gullibility.
Fortunately, Chrysostom understands that, and in the sermon promises that every step will be easier than the last one. Each step will become more hopeful. And those steps are primarily ones of giving God’s hopeful promises grace – the grace to believe they might actually be possible. That is the “Grace of Youth”. Here, right now, grace or cynicism is a choice.
You can be 80, balding, wrinkled, and you will never look younger than when you smile a toothless grin of wonder. And that smile will bring you closer to your Father, Who is forever young, forever wonderful.