The Shepherd King by Fran Salone-Pelletier

Tthe title of Tara Westover’s page-turning memoir, Education, is an exact description of its content as well as its challenge to all readers. Westover describes her pilgrimage with as much precision as memory will allow. She invites her readers into a world of extremism wrought by radicalism and illness, each empowering the other into an extraordinary universe where fact and faith contend with each other. At the same time, both evoke and command choice and catastrophe.

Interestingly, my absorbed reading of Education occurred on the brink of the celebration of the feast of Christ the King—a day and date that marks the end of the liturgical year and announces the arrival of Advent. The readings for this day are both comforting and challenging. They allow God’s people to envision Jesus the Christ as a person immersed in the divine process of deep living. In the 25th chapter of the gospel according to the Matthean community, he appears to be reviewing his own earthly ministry as one who reigns as a shepherd king. To add to that picture, he is presented as a man previewing his role as judge on the heavenly throne. However, both past and future are connected by the present existence in which he is walking into his own passion and death. Resurrection will follow, but first comes the pain of passion and the power of dying.

The message is clear: from our first breath of life, we begin dancing in the shadow of death. Westover describes this incredibly in her memoir.

This is the solemn movement of Christ’s kingship and the rhythm of our own walk in his way. The challenging summons for us is to consider the critical question: “How do we balance life in the midst of death, and death in the core of life?” This question grew exponentially in the education of Tara Westover, and will do so in our lives, too, if we choose to live deeply. For all of us, balance is the key issue. When we lean too far in either direction, we risk a fall either into a cockeyed optimism that defies reality or a paralyzing pessimism that denies it.

Perhaps the best response rests on attitude rather than specific activity. There is no definitive checklist of things to do. There is only the constant honing of our consciousness. Another way to put it is to adopt the hospice philosophy: live until you die. Terminally ill patients are keenly aware of death’s presence. Many of them choose, with great deliberation, to live at death’s door and dance in its shadow. There is no denial in their choice, nor is there euthanizing euphoria. There is only profound reality. Like them, we need to look death in the eye and say, “I know you are here, but you don’t have me in your clutches. I am going to use your presence to help me come alive. You will be my memory of past events, good and bad, and my mirror into ever new possibilities.”

The second challenge emerges from the first. If we choose to live until we die, what is our focus, perspective, and viewpoint on living? According to Teilhard de Chardin, this is being “in the divine milieu.” In other words, God lives God’s life in us. When we are lost, God is lost. When we stray, God strays with us. When we are injured, God is wounded. In our sickness, God is ill. All that God is with us, we are called to be with others. We will be judged on our servanthood among the flocks of God’s people. This is the message that Westover discovered, even as she danced in death’s shadow.

Now our balanced life-in-death is raised to the ultimate. The challenge of judgment day clearly has less to do with what we have or have not accomplished than it has to do with recognizing Jesus alive and living his life in each of us. We will all be judged on our sight more than our insight. The critical questions will be: Did we see Jesus in each other? Did we act on what we saw? Was our life story riddled with the blindness that precipitates neglect? Is it true now?

If we do not see others crying and in pain and needing succor, or hungry or thirsty, or being enslaved or alienated or isolated or vulnerable in any way, how can we say we love our neighbors as ourselves?

Our blindness goes beyond seeing. It lies in the identification of Christ with all who suffer. He and they are one. Our blindness has critical, crucial consequences. If we lose sight of our brother or sister, we have also lost sight of God; we fail to love the God we profess to be our shepherding ruler. Inattentive to life, we have already chosen death. There lies our judgment.

Yet there is comfort even in the midst of the commanding challenge. There is mercy to temper justice. Our solace is God’s promise of rest and rescue. If no one else comes to save us, God is with us, shepherding rightly.

This is today’s hope and tomorrow’s promise. It is the basis of our faith and trust. Challenged to be the best that we can be, urged to keep our eyes and hearts open, we are also eased by the warmth of God’s shepherding love. We know that God reigns over all. God dances with us in the shadow of death, in the endings and beginnings. Thus, we are at peace. ♦

Fran Salone-Pelletier holds a master’s degree in theology. She is the author of a trilogy of scriptural meditations, Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives, from which this selection is taken. She is also a religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer, and grandmother of four. Reach her at

Image: Anton Mauve, The Return to the Fold
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