Late last night I was suddenly awakened by the howling of a tremendous thunderstorm. Violent cracks and peals of thunder, sharp flashes of lightning, and the heavy, steady beating of rain pounded and raged outside my window. Wide-eyed and wakeful, I watched the storm for some time, stumbling out of bed to peer out at the fierce wind and rain whipping about the trees and drowning the lawn. One after another, streaks of lightning filled the sky, accompanied by cannonades of thunder so loud I knew the lightning must have struck quite close to me.
A little shaken and more than a little weary after watching this spectacular display of nature’s wild temper, I crawled back into bed and turned my face away from the window in hopes of getting a few hours sleep in spite of the war that was apparently raging outside.
This morning, I awoke to an immense stillness. Every tree, every leaf, every blade of grass was as perfectly still outside as if it had been part of a painting. The sky was a fresh, clear blue, punctuated by one or two wispy white clouds. The sun had just risen and was sending shoots of light all across the garden, setting the foliage a-fire as every drop of water hanging on the flowers caught the light and sparkled and glistened. But everything was absolutely silent and still. Even the birds were not awake and singing yet.
Such an incredible contrast, between the stormy wilderness of last night and the peaceful garden this morning, brought to my mind a poem I had read–oh, many years ago–by John G. Saxe. In this poem, a youth, full of hopes and dreams, approaches a wise old man and asks him what he should take as his motto in life.
“Give me a motto!” said a youth
To one whom years had rendered wise;
“Some pleasant thought or weighty truth,
That briefest syllables comprise….
And, reverend father,” said the boy,
Since life they say, is ever made
A mingled web of grief and joy;
Since cares may come and pleasures fade—
Pray, let the motto have a range
Of meaning matching every change.“
The old man ponders a moment, commenting that the lad has given him no easy task. Finally, he replies:
“What think you, lad, of this device
(Older than I–though I am gray),
‘Tis simple– ‘This will pass away.’ “
The old man explains that everything on this earth comes to an end. Good times may come, but they also will assuredly go. More importantly, however, even the bad times will pass away, too; when the boy meets with his darkest hour, it is not the end of all his hopes and dreams, warns the old man. “To grim Despair be not a prey,” he cries.
“When skies are clear, expect the cloud;
In darkness, wait the coming light;
Whatever be thy fate today,
Remember, ‘This will pass away.’ “
This plain phrase struck me the first time I read it; and it has grown on me since. As simple and even quaint as the old man’s motto is, it is proved true in veritably every stage of life–at least, I’ve found it so. Our youth, our friends, even our families change and pass away with time; everything earthly that is good is, alas, not eternal. And yet, the minute we must face the bleakest of outlooks, when we seem in the dark, when we can’t see our way, then, as Zechariah said,
“In the tender compassion of our God,
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and guide our feet into the way of peace.”