By Martin Elfert
Earlier this week, I was visiting with my friend Barrett. Barrett is in his 70s, and he has used the gift of his decades to build up wisdom. In light of that visit, I’d like to risk breaking the rules of the advice column (I don’t have a question to get us started) and share a little bit of his wisdom with you today.
During our time together, Barrett and I talked of a lot of things (“of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings,” as Lewis Carroll would have it) before our conversation turned to the subject of those objects and places that have been worn down by loving use. We spoke of the stairs to a favorite building eroded by countless feet; of the cherished tool worn smooth by countless projects; of the lucky sweater turned threadbare by countless years.
Barrett remembered “The Velveteen Rabbit“, in which the child’s relentless use and relentless love of the toy is what allows it to become a real animal. And then he came up with a turn of phrase that has been stuck in my imagination ever since: Barrett said that the kind of traffic that wears down the stairs and the tool and the sweater, the kind of traffic that makes the rabbit real, is “holy wear and tear.”
Holy wear and tear. Our lives are full of holy wear and tear.
Sometimes we resent that wear and tear. When the family car stops running, when the book’s pages begin to fall out or — because human beings are in no way immune to these things — when the evidence of time and gravity appears on our bodies, there is what Billy Collins calls the beginning of a kind of sadness. Each of these things is a loss, a grief, a reminder of our limitation, of our finitude. And they deserve to be mourned as such.
But each of these things also stands as proof that we have lived life, that we are living life. Think of the places that the family car took you, of the ideas and adventures that the book opened, of the possibilities that your body allows. Each of these things calls us into gratitude and into wonder. And they deserve to be celebrated as such.
I have heard theologians argue that our ancestors were better than we are at recognizing that we live in a sacramental universe, of recognizing the possibility that everything (suffering and joy, beginning and endings, all that lies in between) is an outward and visible sign of the presence of love, of the presence of the Divine. Our ancestor’s were better than we are, to use Barrett’s language, at recognizing holy wear and tear.
In the Christian tradition, this is the season of Advent. It is the season of preparation for the Christ who was with us and is with us and is coming. It is the season of preparation for the Christ who wears the story of his life and his death on his body. This Advent, I wonder about getting prepared by being on the lookout for holy wear and tear.
Pay attention. Pay attention to the soles of your old shoes and the pattern of footfalls to which they testify. Pay attention to the fines cracks in the old teapot, that silent guest at so many conversations. Pay attention to the lines on your face and the laughter and the tears to which they are witnesses. Here and everywhere, evidence of a sacramental universe. Here and everywhere, evidence of holy wear and tear.
The Rev. Martin Elfert is an immigrant to the Christian faith. After the birth of his first child, he began to wonder about the ways in which God was at work in his life and in the world. In response to this wondering, he joined Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he and his new son were baptized at the Easter Vigil in 2005 and where the community encouraged him to seek ordination. Martin served on the staff of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane, Wash. from 2011-2015. He is now the rector of Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Portland, Oreg.