Monday, 2 April 2012

The span of a life

Its 0.39 AM and I am officially 43!

I have had some interesting reading recently.

Yes - there is a volume by Ramachandra Guha called A Corner of a Foreign Field which is a history of cricket in India  ('an Indian history of a British sport)... but I have only been able to dip into the prologue of that (a delicious book by the looks of it though).

My reading has been more personal in a way.

I have now three photocopied memoirs of... my grandmother Alice Cravath Eicher (b. 1904), her father E. Austin Cravath (b. 1872), and his uncle Samuel Austin Cravath (b. 1836)!   The latter two were written in 1943 and 1901 respectively.

I decided to first read the memoir of my great, great, grand-uncle - Samuel Austin Cravath (his older brother George Cravath was the father of E. Austin).  What a story of a life!  His typewritten  life-sketch covers his ancestry (he believes his forbears were recorded in the US as far back as 1671 in Boston) and takes a sweeping view from his birth in what was the US 'frontier' at the time - the college village of Oberlin in western Pennsylvania - and ends with him writing from another frontier college town - Grinnell in the state of Iowa. The 'frontier' had kept moving west during Samuel Cravath's life time.  It is strange that I actually went to see a school friend graduate from Oberlin in the early 1990s - it was a far cry from what it was in Samuel Cravath's day - that's for sure.

There are so many fascinating stories and insights from this memoir.  Samuel writes about the tragic death of his father to malaria in 1937 shortly after Samuel's birth, and later the early death of his mother when Samuel was in his early teens.  He writes about how he grew up and the various steps that took him from being a farm laborer to going to college at Oberlin and then passing through a series of careers which included teaching, being a school superintendent, becoming a surgeon and running a newspaper.   What he does not note in this sketch is that he was also a post-master, bank director and trustee of Iowa College.  But the latter may have been post 1901.

I will write later (I hope) about this life.  What I want to record right now is something different.

The most jarring thing for me as I closed the 69 page type-written life-sketch was what was not there.  Through all the adventures, all the achievements (written in a modest, cool manner - as befitting a newspaper editor/publisher I guess)... through out the thread of his remarkable life, I found Samuel Austin Cravath curiously lacking in expressing some kind of a personal faith relationship with God.

As I reflect on it, I realize that this lacuna has really rattled me. Perhaps it would not have done so had I not  skimmed my grand-mother Alice and her father E. Austin Cravath's memoirs - where both are practically falling over themselves in describing their faith-stories.

I have not had the time to read through Samuel Cravath's memoir again with a fine-toothed comb, but looking back across this life-sketch, I sense a coolness to anything on religion.  A lot of this seems to be a reaction to what he describes as a quite a harsh early religious upbringing.

This gnomic statement where he reflects on his last year at Oberlin College is the closest thing I could make out as a direct statement of  Samuel Austin's faith - "I made up my mind that I had made my last argument against the Christian religion, and hereafter it should be my effort to convince myself of its truth rather than its falsity" (p. 31).

I think this is where the rub of my uneasiness lies:  Looking across the stretch of a life - one that had so many remarkable events - but not seeing Samuel attribute the many varied blessings to the Almighty.  In contrast to Samuel's memoir, I am reminded what the wisdom writer wrote so many centuries ago Trust in the Lord and lean not on your own understanding, in all your ways acknowledge Him - and we will direct your paths (Prov. 3.5-6).

As I have just stepped into my 44th year - having completed an amazing 43 spins around the sun - I cannot help but say "Thank you God!"

Any life story invites you to compare your own with it - to see how it stretches out alongside the other.  I have been doing this in my mind with what I understand of Samuel Cravath's life.  I am amazed at the way he  came out of adversity - at his industry and drive - at the way that he strung together a life with his wife Mary.  Their marriage sounds pretty close to ideal.  Samuel Austin Cravath actually closes his life-sketch with these elegaic words about his wife Mary: "We have enjoyed much together, so that even our sorrows have faded to recollections that have a phase of brightness rather than of gloom."

I wish I could have a cup of chai with S.A. Cravath.  I don't quite know what he would make of his great, great, grand-nephew - but I think we would have a lively conversation.  All I have of him is the 69 type-written pages that cover his life as lived till 1901 (he seems to have lived another 16 years more). He himself wrote in on the front page that this is just for publication or public perusal, but just for the family which it concerns.  I think I can include myself into that frame - since I am a descendant.  I am sure having a face-to-face conversation with him would help me understand his faith life more.  

I may not have all the answers about my ancestor's life, but what I do have is this day.  Its been given to me as a gift - and I intend to use it to please the wonderful giver - my loving Lord.  I am so grateful to have turned the strange (for me) age of 43 - but am excited about living out this life - and stepping into the life-to-come.

Soli Deo gloria!

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