Sitting Closer to the Front

I remember vividly the year I moved from my home near Cincinnati, Ohio, to New Jersey to start my career as an instructor at the Seeing Eye School in Morristown. It was 1964, I was 21 years old, and I was very excited about learning how to train dogs to guide the blind. I also began attending a local church, often sitting in the last pew, from where I observed that the older folks (those with the gray hair) sat nearer the front of the sanctuary, while the younger people (those with the most hair) seemed to congregate in the back. Forty-five years later, I have joined the "gray hair club," have a little less of it, and find myself sitting on benches closer to the front. I mean this literally, unfortunately, since my hearing is not what it used to be. But more importantly, my meaning is metaphorical and, for me, spiritual. Let me explain.

During my 43 years at the Seeing Eye School as instructor and training manager, I worked long days and felt so utterly responsible to the people and animals under my care (not to mention my young family with three children) that I found it difficult to make time for personal spiritual growth and centering myself in the Light. I did not realize how much my thoughts were filled with my responsibilities until I retired. I now understand that God was always there for me and that it was I who was not always there for God. Perhaps I was sitting a bit too far in the back.

Since my retirement in September 2007, friends have asked me how I like retirement after such a busy, fulfilling career. I find myself replying that the greatest gift I have received is time. Not just one hour tacked onto another, but time spent intentionally, joyfully, and in pursuit of deepening my family relationships and spiritual life. Without the responsibilities of work, way has opened for me to experience the presence of God and the Light Within in everyday life. Even the simplest family pleasures or duties take on—or, more correctly, reveal—their spiritual dimension. My wife, Jane, and I purposely keep our afternoons open so we can meet our 11-year-old granddaughter, Miranda, at the bus stop if her mother is running late. I now experience this time with family as a precious, spirit-nurturing gift.

One of my most intentional—and joyful—daily activities since retiring is a walk after breakfast. I usually walk about three miles in our small town, stopping at a beautiful pond with a waterfall for reflection and prayer. Some of my deepest moments and insights have come to me during this time, and I often feel that I am walking with God. It is encouraging to know that as I am growing older, I am still growing spiritually. Moving up a few benches, perhaps.

Meeting for worship was always an oasis for me during my busy career, but now, in retirement, its capacity to nourish my spiritual growth is greater than I ever expected. Worship and waiting have led me to action: delving into the works of Quaker "giants," visiting among Friends meetings in the area, and sharing my experience of the Light—all of which have found loving support and guidance among Friends. Most recently, I have begun developing a program about Thomas Kelly’s A Testament of Devotion and how it has affected my life and career at the Seeing Eye. It was Kelly’s spiritual classic that first brought me to Quakerism in 1966 and led me to become a member of Summit Meeting in 1971. Last February, I shared my spiritual journey with Thomas Kelly for the first time at Quakertown Meeting in Quakertown, N.J.

And did I mention gratitude? I have time now not only to express it more, but to actually feel its positive power. Gratitude for my loving family. Gratitude for my work: the dedicated staff at the Seeing Eye, the inspiration of the many blind students I have met over the years, and not least of all, the example of the amazing dogs—thousands and thousands of them—who have become devoted, loyal life companions. Gratitude for the nourishment that I have received in the Holy Silence of meeting for worship, and for my anchor committee during this time of personal transition. Gratitude for the gift of gratitude! I know that God’s presence has touched my life in many ways. I am aware of it, and thankful for it, now more than ever.

I see now that, for me, aging is the process of moving closer to the front, sitting closer to the Light. I look forward to more precious family time, walking with God every day, growing in the Spirit, and sharing the message of the Light with everyone—no matter where he or she may be sitting.

Peter Lang

Peter Lang is a member of Chatham-Summit (N.J.) Meeting. This article first appeared in the March 2009 issue of Spark, the New York Yearly Meeting newsletter, and is reprinted with permission.