When one hears the term “sacred writings”, one thinks usually of the Bible or the Torah or the Koran or other writings central to a set of religious beliefs. For me, though, some of the writings that have helped me most on my own spiritual journey are outside the scope of traditional sacred writings. Yet their spiritual lessons have been rich and renewing. One such piece of sacred writing is Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town.
Our Town is set in the New Hampshire village of Grover’s Corners, a town made up of ordinary people leading ordinary lives. The biggest excitement seems to center on Simon Stimson, the choir director who also happens to be the town drunk. The play focuses primarily on two characters — George and Emily. Through the three acts, we watch them discover one another, marry, then deal with death. The other central figure of the play is the Stage Manager, a God-like figure who oversees the action of the play and offers commentary.
Each act speaks to me again and again. The first act speaks of youth and falling in love in the midst of ordinary life. We plan for the future in the midst of adolescent angst but at some point we meet someone and the world suddenly looks different. The Stage Manager invites us to recall such moments: “…I want you to try and remember what it was like when you were young….And particularly the days when you were first in love; when you were like a person sleep-walking, and you didn’t quite see the street you were in, and didn’t quite hear everything that was said to you. You were just a little bit crazy.”
The second act speaks of marriage. Among other things, the Stage Manager invites us to reflect on the passage of time in a relationship: “You know how it is: You’re twenty-one or twenty-two and you make some decisions; then whisssh! you’re seventy: you’ve been a lawyer for fifty years and that white-haired lady at your side has eaten over fifty thousand meals with you.”
The third act is the most complex and most powerful part of the play. Here the Stage Manager invites us to reflect on our own beliefs about an after-life as he observes those from Grover’s Corners who have died: “You know as well as I do that the dead don’t stay interested in us living people for very long. Gradually, gradually, they let go of the earth…and the ambitions they had…and the pleasures they had…and the things they suffered…and the people they loved. They get weaned away from earth…Yes they stay here while the earth-part of ’em burns away, burns out, and all the time they get slowly indifferent to what’s goin’ on in Grover’s Corners. They’re waitin’. They’re waitin’ for something they feel is comin’. Something important and great. Aren’t they waitin’ for the eternal part in them to come out clear?”
For me, the third Act hits me hard with the realization of how much we take for granted in life. We see this through Emily who has died but has an opportunity to go back for one day. In this excerpt, beautifully played by Penelope Ann Miller, she learns a painful reality:
Sadly, I often need to be reminded to take the time to just look at the ones I love. Our Town brings me back to that most important of spiritual lessons.
Reflections: 1.Share some of your own Sacred Writings. 2. Who/What have you taken for granted?