Falling Leaves and the Fate of Mortals

New Hampshire, October 2016 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things,
but to love things heavenly; and even now,
while we are placed among things that are passing away,
to hold fast to those that shall endure. . .

–– Collect for the Sunday closest to the Autumnal Equinox

 

The Book of Common Prayer has a collect, or gathering prayer, for each Sunday of the year. Many of the collects reflect the themes of their liturgical season, but only one of them seems to make an explicit connection with one of the four natural seasons. At the beginning of Autumn, when leaves will fall, flowers wither, and birds depart, the Church prays that we who “are placed among things that are passing away” may not be “anxious.”

The origins of the prayer are, in fact, not seasonal, but political. It was composed when the stability of the late Roman Empire was under threat by barbarian invaders. Inspired by the text of Colossians 3:2 (Set your mind on things that are above, not on things of earth), it reflects the sense of the world as we know it coming to an end. When all that defines us is being swept away, what is the enduring rock to which we can cling?

With perfect brevity, the prayer sums up the spirituality of Autumn, the season of loss and letting go. In a year when my best friend, my father-in-law, and two nonagenarian mentors have all passed away, the season’s metaphorical message seems acutely personal. No matter how dearly we cherish the colors of fall, they are the prelude to decay––“the hectic beauty of death.”[i] Outside my window, the katsura’s golden cloak and the maple’s scarlet finery will soon lie on the earth beneath naked branches. It feels like loss.

Katsura and maple trees, Bainbridge Island, October 2017 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

In January of 1842, Henry David Thoreau suffered two bitter deaths, both terribly premature. His older brother John cut himself shaving on New Year’s Day and died ten days later of tetanus. He was 27. Two weeks later, Waldo Emerson, the endearing five-year-old son of Thoreau’s great friend and mentor, came down with scarlet fever. In three days he was gone.

In her revisionist study of America’s iconic naturalist––Bird Relics: Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau–– Branka Arsić sees his life’s work grounded in deeply personal experiences of loss. His private grief led him to contemplate the “perpetual grief” in nature, as matter continuously mutates from one form to another, and find in it, as Arsić argues, “an “endless/formless mourning that recreates as it grieves.”[ii] Through his close observations of natural processes, Thoreau came to understand death and loss as the means of life, and not its annulment. Decay and decline are not deviations from a normally healthy state, but an integral, inevitable part of the performance of mortal existence. As he wrote in his final essay, October, or Autumnal Tints:

“Will not the land be in good heart
because
the crops die down from year to year?
The herbage cheerfully consents to bloom, and wither,
and give place to the new.”[iii]

The growth and decay of New England leaves became a presiding image for Thoreau’s reflections on a world where passing away is a necessary part of an enduring cycle of renewal. Published six months after his death, his concluding work celebrated the autumnal cycle as a mirror of the human condition:

“It is pleasant to walk over the beds of these fresh, crisp, and rustling leaves. How beautifully they go to their graves! How gently lay themselves down and turn to mould!––painted of a thousand hues. . . . They that soared so loftily, how contentedly they return to dust again, and are laid low, resigned to lie and decay at the foot of the tree, and afford nourishment to new generations of their kind, as well as to flutter on high! They teach us how to die.”[iv]

Vermont, October 2016 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

In Autumn: A Season of Change, Peter J. Marchand similarly concludes that there is “as much life as there is death in the browning of meadows and the drying of leaves. . . .” 14

For the apparent disappearance of many plants and animals, autumn is often seen as an end. But the seasons are part of a continuum, a revolving process of birth, death, and renewal—and if such could be said to have any beginning or end, then fall could just as well be viewed as a beginning. . . . The seeds of another season have already been planted—sown on the wind and the wings of birds and the coats of animals to find new life in new places. Another generation is already awakening in the wombs of the great mammals. And in all the hidden sanctuaries of autumn—in the crevices of dormant trees, in the cold safety of piled leaves and decaying logs, in the sediments of stream and pond bottom—myriads of insect larvae are beginning their incredible metamorphic journey into spring and adulthood. Energy is flowing and nutrients are circulating. These are the processes by which nature’s bounty is reinvested in a burst of new growth, reproduction, and dispersal, to arrive at yet another autumn and another season of change.[v]

 

New Hampshire, October 2016 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

But if this cycle of perpetual renewal frees us from the burden of mourning the fall of every leaf, what about the “falling-sickness” of our own mortality? What will become of me when I fall into the arms of Mother Earth? Do I simply decompose into primordial materials for the making of some entirely new form of future life? Is my unique consciousness swallowed into eternal anonymity, like a raindrop in the sea? Or is there an “I”––with identity, memory, personhood––who survives the transit into whatever’s next?

Arsić understands Thoreau’s “I” as dying to any sense of persisting identity, so that there is no essentialist, interior self to maintain its distinctive subjectivity in an afterlife. Rather, the whole universe is alive with thoughts and relations which re-occur in new ways and inhabit new forms. What survives are the thoughts and experiences, the presences, which are not the possession of separate, autonomous individuals. The universe as a whole is doing the thinking and being, not any of us in particular. Or as Arsić puts it in her twist on Descartes, “where there are thoughts there is no ‘I’.” The sovereign self surrenders to the greater flow of consciousness whose source is beyond the self.[vi]

We tend to think of ourselves as an “I” who surveys the world from a protected tower. But what if we are not so insulated from the things and presences in which we live and move and have our being? What if, like Walter Benjamin’s flâneur[vii], “I” am spellbound and possessed by external objects, no longer a private isolated self but a receptive convergence of the multiple sensations of a world saturated with communicative presence? When Thoreau, in taking a walk, felt himself “grandly related” to everything he experienced, he became what he saw, in a world where every object is alive and returns our gaze.

“Hence,” writes Arsić, “Thoreau can not only say that he is interested in thoughts that the body thinks but he can also risk a more startling claim: ‘All matter, indeed, is capable of entertaining thought’ (Journal: c. Fall 1845). Contemplation, then, is not something brought to matter by the mind; rather, in Thoreau’s account, all matter is treated as contemplative, alive, and thoughtful.”[viii]

This takes us pretty far into the philosophical weeds, but have we also wandered away from Christian orthodoxy? The “resurrection of the body” implies that the unique particularity of every human being will be re-membered by God on the Last Day. Personal identity will not utterly vanish into the All. Heaven will not be a congregation of amnesiacs. Something of our embodied being––our stories, our relationships––will have a future in the economy of God.

However, Christian theology also admits a radical discontinuity between this life and the next. We do not share the ancient Greek conception of immortal souls who simply shed their physical bodies to carry on in eternity without interruption. For there to be resurrection, there must first be annihilation. “So death will soon disrobe us all of what we here possess.”[ix] As St. Augustine said, to climb up “through my mind towards you who are constant above me. . . I will pass beyond even that power of mind which is called memory.”[x] If memory means “the story by which I define myself,” that’s a lot to let go of. How many of us are really prepared for such radical surrender?

If we are truly made in the image of the self-emptying God, then our insistence on maintaining the self as we know it only exacerbates the distance between human and divine. To overcome that distance requires a complete letting go, like the last autumn leaf, and falling into the no-thingness from which all are created.

Resurrection is then, in effect, a reprise of creation ex nihilo by the Love which “breaks, creates, and re-makes all meaning out of nothing.”[xi] Whatever it turns out to mean that God will be “all in all,” does it really matter how much of our individual construct of self survives the transition to the “other side?” When we are truly lost in wonder, love and praise, will self-consciousness matter, or even exist? Will it be important that “I” know that “I” am the one who is immersed in divine Being? Or will my former, earthly identity be rather beside the point in the interdependent, intertwined dance of God where we belong so completely to one another?

None of us will be shouting “Hey, look, it’s me!” in heaven.
We won’t even be shouting “Hallelujah!”
We will have become Hallelujah!

Vine maple, Washington Cascades, October 2017 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

To enter the abyss of God, says Catholic theologian Caitlin Smith Gilson, is “no longer to be the self that knows itself and its God by separateness, for there would be no separation and thus no knowledge of difference or identity in God.” Her argument resolves into a prayer of surrender:

You are the source of my most genuine wants,
and I wanted to be nearer than difference
and therefore I surrender to You
who desire my genuine desires
emphatically and inexhaustibly
more than I can ever want.
You desired me and I desired You
and we desired a union
closer than philosophy and reason
and even faith
could give.[xii]

 

 

 

Related posts:

Leaves

A Tender Doom

 

[i] Martha McCulloch Williams, “What Saith September?” (1892), in Peter J. Marchand, Autumn: A Season of Change (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2000), 14.

[ii] Branka Arsić, Bird Relics: Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2016), 379.

[iii] Henry David Thoreau, October, or Autumnal Tints (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2016), 37.

[iv] October, 89.

[v] Marchand, 135-6.

[vi] Arsić, 316.

[vii] Walter Benjamin adopted the 19th-century literary image of the flâneur (“stroller,” “saunterer”) as an image for the modern urban wanderer who loses himself in, or is possessed by, the impressions his world offers to him. In The Arcades Project (1999, p. 449), Benjamin cites an example of self-dissolved-into-world from Flaubert: “Today, for instance, as man and woman, both lover and mistress, I rode in a forest on an autumn afternoon under the yellow leaves, and I was also the horses, the leaves, the wind, the words my people uttered, even the red sun that made them almost close their love-drowned eyes.”

[viii] Arsić, 310.

[ix] “Evening Shade,” a shape-note hymn, text by John Leland (1792), The Sacred Harp, #209 (Bremen, Georgia: Sacred Harp Publishing Company, 1991).

[x] Confessions X, xvii, q. in Caitlin Smith Gilson, The Philosophical Question of Christ (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), 209.

[xi] Gilson, 211

[xii] Ibid., 207, 213.

In Paradisum: On the Death of a Friend

Bill and Robyn Fisher (July 2005)

I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t

you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write

–– W.S. Merwin, “Berryman”

In September of 2004 my friend Bill Fisher sent me Merwin’s poem, adding the comment, “It is as if he is saying, ‘If you have to be sure, don’t love,’ or perhaps, ‘don’t live.’”

Bill’s letter was in response to some crisis in my own life, one of those times when you wonder whether your story matters, whether you are being good enough or real enough or deep enough. Or as another poet, William Stafford, put the question: “Ask me whether what I have done is my life.”

In supplying thoughtful perspectives on my faltering attempts to do “my life,” Bill could be brutally honest about his own perilous quest for authenticity. He was well acquainted with the recurring dissonance between the voice within and the scripts thrust upon us by the outer world. And he was never afraid to share the painful parts of his own story if it could do some good for a friend.

“As I write these words to you,” he said in his letter, “I think of the last lines of a recent morning poem of mine: “To whom can I / still safely / confess my sins?” . . . I have to thank you for being one with whom I can still feel safe in my most radical vulnerability.”

Aelred of Rievaulx, a 12th-century English abbot, said much the same thing in his beautiful treatise on friendship:

“But how happy, how carefree, how joyful you are if you have a friend with whom you may talk as freely as with yourself, to whom you neither fear to confess any fault nor blush at revealing any spiritual progress, to whom you may entrust all the secrets of your heart and confide all your plans . . .  Speak then without anxiety. Share with your friend all your thoughts and cares, that you may have something either to learn or to teach, to give and to receive, to pour out and to drink in.”[i]

I could always speak without anxiety in Bill’s presence.
And I always learned something from him; I always received something.

We first met––60 years ago this month––in the 8th grade at Harvard School, a leafy Episcopal boys’ prep nestled against the Hollywood Hills. The peculiar atmosphere of the place bonded us like veterans of some ancient war, incomprehensible to anyone who hadn’t been there. Bill’s lifelong passion for teaching and writing might be traced to the bracing theatrics of our English instructor “swearing and throwing chalk and shaking a book in mid-air and shaming us, trying to open perhaps the smallest crack in our magnificent ignorance.”[ii]

Bill Fisher, Harvard School senior photo (1962)

We were classmates through high school and college, and remained close friends through all the changes and chances that followed. He was the best man at my wedding. As romantic idealists, we both found the Sixties a perfect time to come of age, and never quite got over it. Neither of us would ever be fully at ease in the kingdoms of complacency and compromise.

In a letter about the Occupy Movement in 2011, he said such manifestations of just and compassionate community had a value quite independent of any immediately tangible results. He recalled his first taste of utopian communitas at the Monterey Pop Festival in the Summer of Love (1967): “It was inebriating, and begged a simple question: Why can’t it be possible for us to interact in such a loving way––on the streets, in our commerce, among friends and supposed enemies?”[iii] The experience itself doesn’t have to last for the vision––and the questions it poses––to be enduring.

Addressing high school graduates in 2006, Bill offered his personal understanding of the Kingdom of God. “Or if you’re uncomfortable with the biblical term,” he told them, “you can call it ‘the morphic field of love.’” What he described to those students was something he himself had not always found, but had never stopped desiring: an environment where people “could reveal all of who and what they are, could explore themselves and their lives openly, without fear of being ridiculed, with every expectation of growing and realizing what they want and what they are, in their own lives and in their relationships with others.”[iv]

Born five days apart a few weeks after D-Day, Bill and I celebrated many birthdays together. The most memorable was our 30th, when we gathered at his family beach house with two other prep school classmates, also born in July 1944, for a weekend celebration with friends and lovers. For three days we shared fond memories and exuberant hopes. Turning 30 seemed a happy marker between youth’s giddy promise and the emerging fruitfulness of our adult lives. As “Hey Jude” came on the stereo, we toasted our futures by candlelight and vowed to gather again at 40.

But before our 31st year was done, one of our July fraternity of four died by his own hand. After his funeral in our prep school chapel, we who remained vowed to look out for one another, reject despair, and make the most of whatever time we were given. In the four decades since, Bill kept faith with that vow. I could not have had a better and more inspiring friend.

A few years ago, Bill began to show symptoms of Lewy Body Dementia. He went into physical decline, and suffered gradual diminishment of cognitive capacities, although we could still, until very recently, manage rich conversations about our favorite topics––music, movies, literature, art, politics, religion, relationships, and all the arcane trivia of a sixty-year friendship.

Bill was immensely blessed by the tireless support of his beloved wife Robyn, who took leave from her high school teaching position to be his caregiver. It was an immense journey for both of them, unimaginably daunting and at the same time full of grace. Her regular updates on the Caring Bridge website were moving, honest and often funny. That journey is her story to tell, but I am so grateful to know how much my friend was loved, and how not even the ravages of disease could rob him of his sweetness.

“If I’ve just lost the ability to be who I am,” he told her in July, “You remind me of who I am.”

The 17th-century Anglican poet/priest George Herbert, well acquainted with debilitating illness, warned the healthy to respect the dignity of the sick, and not “to judge calamities / By outward form. . . tremblings may / as well show inward warblings, as decay.”[v] In his final years, Bill was as alive as ever, but in a different way. His weakness was not, in one sense, a diminution of life, but a concentration of it into a reduced but saturated form.

The will to take on the physical and mental challenges of each day with courage, humor, and a high degree of curiosity exhibited more life, not less. Climbing the stairs, when he still had the strength for it, or just getting out of bed, after his legs had finally failed him, became more of a hero’s journey than the 93-mile trek he once made around Rainier’s Wonderland Trail. Piercing the fog of confusion with simple words of affection and delight displayed as much eloquence as any of his masterful writings.

The poet Jane Kenyon poignantly described the shrinking physical world of a woman in a nursing home, who is “like a horse grazing / a hill pasture that someone makes / smaller by coming every night / to pull the fences in and in.” No more “running wide loops,” nor even “the tight circles.” But the body’s decline is not the only thing going on. Surrender is prelude to transformation, and Kenyon’s poem turns into a prayer:

Master, come with your light
halter. Come and bring her in.[vi]

On Holy Cross Day, September 14, Bill suffered some kind of cardiac event, leaving him unable to speak or swallow. Just hours before slipping into permanent silence, he had told Robyn, “Thank you for being willing to treat life as a crazy adventure with me.”

I drove down to administer Last Rites as family and friends stood round Bill’s bed. His eyes were closed, his breathing gentle. We all laid hands of blessing on him, each thanking him for the gifts he had given us. There was no way to tell whether he could hear our words, but so much spoken gratitude surely bathed him with love, and the sense of communication felt very deep. I anointed Bill with oil and spoke the priestly words:

Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world. . .
May your rest be this day in peace,
and your dwelling place in the Paradise of God.

Later we got out the guitars and made music for Bill, who had been a dedicated folkie since high school. We sang “Angel Band” (“I’ve brushed the dew on Jordan’s banks, the crossing must be near”); “Thanksgiving Eve” (“What can you do with each moment of your life, but love till you’ve loved it away”); “Language of the Heart” (“You will always be, even though time would disown you, / For you have set us free, those among us who have known you”); and many others.

The next day I entered his room alone to sing him one more song, “Waterloo Sunset.” We had both loved the quirky music of Ray Davies, and the song’s image of crossing over the river “to feel safe and sound” seemed so fitting.

And I won’t feel afraid
As long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset
I am in paradise

Bill’s eyes never opened, but he seemed to stir, as if he wanted to harmonize one more time, the way we had done so often over the years. I gave him a final blessing and a kiss of peace, then left to make the long drive home. I knew it was our last goodbye.

Three days later, Robyn texted that it was now only a matter of hours. In my little oratory, I lit a tea light before a Byzantine icon of Madonna and Child, and kept vigil with prayers and songs. An hour before sunset, the flame expired, releasing the briefest wisp of ascending smoke.

The match dies, the flame is born.
The flame dies, the smoke is born.[vii]

Twenty minutes later the text came: Bill is gone.

The next night I went to hear the Seattle Symphony. I had bought my ticket long before, but the program now seemed more than happy chance––Mahler’s Second, whose theme is Resurrection! This massive 90-minute work gathers up the joys and sorrows of mortal life, pitting its affirming energies against the looming specter of negation. In the fourth movement, a mezzo-soprano pleads for relief:

Man lies in greatest need.
Man lies in greatest pain…
I am from God and shall return to God.
The loving God will grant me a little light…

In the stupendous finale, a hundred-voice chorus joins the soloists to protest the fate of human perishing:

O believe, my heart, believe:
Nothing to you is lost…
You were not born for nothing…

With wings which I have won
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated.

Soaring upward into the light was exactly the image I needed to sing my friend home. Bill got his PhD in medieval literature, and had taught Dante to high school students. I like to think that his close reading of the Commedia prepared him for the beatific vision at the end of the long and winding road:

thus did a living light shine all around me,
leaving me so swathed in the veil of its effulgence
that I saw nothing else. (Par. xxx.49-51)[viii]

 

Bill and Robyn in the high country (July 2005)

But Mahler allowed me little time for such digressions. The music insisted that I pay attention, not miss a note, as if my life depended on it. It was all here: life and death, tears and laughter, darkness and dawn. And in the end, every wound healed, every pain redeemed.

Rise! Yes, rise
My heart, in an instant!
That for which you have suffered
Shall carry you to God!

This heartfelt cry is answered by an explosion of orchestral sound, which Mahler himself described as a gift from beyond: “The soaring development and upward wave is here so immense, so unprecedented, that, afterwards, I did not know myself how I could have arrived at it. The whole thing sounds as though it came to us from some other world. And – I think there is no one who can resist it. – One is battered to the ground and then raised on angels’ wings to the highest heights.”[ix]

In speaking so directly to my own grief, the music offered a consoling vision of apotheosis, as if the tombs had been emptied and all creation gathered into glory. Was this the grace and truth of revelation, or just a passing feeling, a trick of language and the senses?

If you have to be sure, don’t live.

 

 

 

[i] Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship, tr. Lawrence C. Braceland, S.J., ed. Marsh L. Dutton (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010), 2.11, 1.4.

[ii] Bill Fisher, personal email (September 27, 2003).

[iii] Ibid. (November 19, 2011)

[iv] Bill Fisher, Commencement address at Tara Performing Arts High School, Boulder, Colorado, June 2006.

[v] George Herbert, “A Paradox: that the sicke are in a better case, then the Whole,” The English Poems of George Herbert, ed. Helen Wilcox (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 29.

[vi] Jane Kenyon, “In the Nursing Home,” Collected Poems (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press. 2005), 282.

[vii] I learned this when I filmed Ken Feit, I.F. (Itinerant Fool), who recited it as he lit and then blew out a match.

[viii] Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, tr. Robert and Jean Hollander (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 733.

[ix] Anthony Monti, A Natural History of the Arts: Imprint of the Spirit (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2003), 162.

My body shall rest in hope: A Holy Saturday reflection

F. Holland Day, It is Finished (1898)

Over the next three days, Christians will undergo a ritual immersion into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The liturgies of the Triduum – the Great Three Days – are where we do our best theology and our most heartfelt common prayer. Richly layered, multi-sensory, dramatic and moving, the Triduum is a three-act liturgy like no other. By the time it’s over you may be someone else. You can read more about the Triduum in my 2015 post, “The Journey is How We Know.”

The Last Supper, Crucifixion and Resurrection all find expansive liturgical expression in the rites of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil, but the interval of Holy Saturday, when Jesus’ body lay in the tomb, has received relatively little ritual attention. It is a time to “wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought” (T.S. Eliot, “East Coker”). A time for the silent suspension of ritual. Still, I can’t help but wonder how to read the profound quiet of Holy Saturday.

So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb which he had hewn in the rock. (Matthew 27: 59-60a)

After the anguished drama of the Crucifixion, the shouting mob, the screaming victims, the weeping witnesses, the coolly descriptive neutrality of this verse delivers the shock of finality. Jesus is dead and gone. The presence who had shaken the world like an earthquake is suddenly no longer. All that remains is “the body”––and the profound silence of an irreversible absence.

Enguerrand Quarten, Avignon Pieta (1456)

Everyone who has seen a loved one die knows this silence, knows the numbing realization that a voice so familiar will never be heard again on this earth. As W. H. Auden imagines the first hours after the cross, “we are not prepared / For silence so sudden and so soon; / The day is too hot, too bright, too still, / Too ever, the dead remains too nothing. / What shall we do until nightfall?”

And a 6th-century hymn for Holy Saturday laments:

Great silence reigns on earth this day!
Great loneliness embraces all!
For death has had its ruthless way,
And caught the Lord and Love of all.

Although theology likes to declare victory over death and sin on Good Friday, and Christian imagination has envisioned Holy Saturday as a triumphant storming of the gates of hell by Christus Victor, we must not deny Jesus’ full humanity by exempting him from the fate of every mortal: the complete and absolute draining away of life. “He descended into hell,” the condition of non-being, non-relation, and non-communication which are the opposites of God.

Hans Holbein the Younger,
The Dead Christ (1521)

Whatever “the Father” was doing on Holy Saturday, the Son was lying in the tomb, enduring the same lifeless solitude and silence which are every mortal’s fate. As Hans Urs von Balthasar astutely notes, this was the final form of the Redeemer’s solidarity with the rest of us. Among the dead, “solidarity means: being solitary like, and with, the others.” Stripped of all life and power, Jesus still found a way to keep us company. As we all shall one day be, he was dead and gone, passively awaiting the next move by the Creator who always makes something out of nothing.

In this final and utter surrender to death, the Incarnate One made even the dire extremities of the human condition part of divine experience. He took the nothingness and silence of nonexistence into the heart of the Creator, where it was finally and decisively overcome. As Irenaeus said, “only what has been endured can be healed and saved.” No matter how lost we get, no matter how deep we fall into the abyss, Christ has already gone there before us, making that abyss into a road––the unexpected path to life eternal.

And so my heart rejoices, my soul is glad;
even my body shall rest in hope.
For you will not abandon me to the grave,
nor let your beloved know decay.  (Psalm 16: 9-10)

Matthias Grunewald, Isenheim Altarpiece (1512-1516)

 

Related post: Are we too late for the Resurrection?

 

 

 

Running on Fast Forward

Martha, Jim and Marilyn Friedrich, after the great Los Angeles snowfall (January 1949)

They were so young then, the four of them
sitting on a log in the sand, a row of apartments
in the background, each window facing the sea.

We must have been ten, in matching swimsuits,
riding the long rollers toward shore, dreaming
of soldiers handsome in their uniforms.

They look happy, our parents, as if they had
given away all their secrets and could relax,
not one of them thinking of tomorrow

or yesterday, or any peril that might befall
their children, tumbling about in inner tubes
over the thrilling ocean.

A breeze ruffles the hem of my mother’s skirt.
My father has taken off his shoes.

– Marilyn Robertson, “The Photograph”[i]

My oldest sister Marilyn wrote this poem about an old photo from the 1940s. She and a friend were off-camera, playing in the surf, while their parents kept watch from the shore. “The Photograph” is in a new collection of her poems she presented to her siblings, Martha and me, last weekend, on the occasion of her 80th birthday. I found some of my own childhood inside, like the time I fell out of a moving car at two years old.

In return, I gave her my DVD compilation edit of scenes from our childhood and youth, captured with the clarity of 16mm film by our father. I had added an interpretive music track ranging from “My Blue Heaven” to “Magical Mystery Tour.”

A retrospective mood is common enough on significant birthdays, but the documentary evidence of those home movies gave a vivid immediacy to our memories. Both still and moving pictures preserve long-vanished light. They become the past the instant they are shot. To look at them brings the joy of remembered presence, but also the melancholy of realized absence. Our parents are gone; so is our own past. Who are those bewildered little siblings in the old films, inventing their place in this world, improvising as they go? Did they really grow up to be us?

Eight members of the family––by coincidence, one for each of Marilyn’s decades––gathered for her birthday weekend in one of architect Julia Morgan’s rustic wood and stone houses at Asilomar (“refuge by the sea”) on the tip of California’s Monterey Peninsula. My sisters and I, along with various spouses and children, savored the chance to share memories, plans and dreams, as well as games, walks, and very un-Lenten feasts.

Present and future were as much on our minds as the past. But still, the theme of passing time was inescapable. We grow old, we lose loved ones, we know the meter is running. “Last Times,” another of Marilyn’s poems, considers the divided consciousness of mortal beings. Though “now” is all we ever really have, we can’t help but wonder how long we’ve got.

Halfway through December, a day comes when
I wonder how many more turkeys I’ll bake, worrying
over the gravy, the pan always hard to clean.

Or how many more times I’ll unwrap the crèche
from its colored tissue, lifting out the holy family,
the shepherds and their docile sheep.

I am running on fast forward.
If only I could change direction, like movies
my father ran backward in the projector:

smashed bricks gathering themselves
into a wall again, a smashed truck suddenly
good as new, rolling backward down the road,
clouds of dust sucked in by the tires.

The last time I saw that film I was a girl.
We’d beg him to run it again
and finally he’d agree: But this is the last time.

I make out the grocery list,
slip on my jacket, plan the week
as if the days will follow one another
through this house forever.[ii]

Marilyn Robertson, Jim Friedrich, and Martha Stevens at their father’s childhood home (Summer 1980)

On our last evening together we lingered well past bedtime, happy to postpone the inevitable scattering of the clan. We wandered out to the coastal dunes beyond the lights, where Orion hovered brightly beside the Paschal Moon. To the music of breaking waves, we recited Greek myths about the heavens. When we returned to the house, Martha, a brilliant storyteller, gave us an epic tale about a red-headed woman, Maud Applegate, who tracks Death across the wide world to beg for the life of her cowboy love, grievously wounded in a gunfight. When Maud finally spots her quarry climbing the steep trail to his mountain home, she shouts, “Hey, Mr. Death, wait up!”

She not only finds Mr. Death, she also meets his mother, who proves very sympathetic, and the three of them form a surprising bond. Death eventually grants Maud the boon of sparing her man, but the cowboy turns out to be a cad, and in the end the red-headed woman goes back to Death’s place, to help out as best she can and ease the burden of his loneliness. It was a story both funny and strange, deftly told. We all listened intently, like children with upturned faces. Somehow a tale about befriending Mr. Death was just the thing for our little group of aging mortals.

My wife lost her father in January. Four other people dear to me have also departed in the last six months. Our family has loved ones struggling with cancer and Parkinson’s. The losses are mounting up.

“Oh the separations we endure!” laments my poet sister.

A young man arrives at the station,
two black stones in his pocket.
His beautiful face breaks into a hundred pieces,

then reassembles itself
as he boards the train, waving
goodbye, goodbye to the life that loved him,

watching it fall backward into the wind,
the bamboo gate, the garden
with its wooden bridge over the pond.[iii]

Goodbye, goodbye to the ones we love. And then it’s goodbye to the life that loved us. And yet, as Rilke insists, “there is Someone, whose hands, infinitely calm, holds up all this falling.”[iv] While it’s no use to deny our mortality, there remains a mysterious surplus to human life for which death has no accounting.

On Sunday morning we celebrated eucharist together (it helps to have two priests in the family!), and the readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent seemed especially apt. First came Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones, contradicting the human sense of loss with the divine promise that our story is never quite over. I am going to open your graves, O my people, and raise you up. I will put my Spirit in you and you shall live.

The gospel for the day was the raising of Lazarus, the Fourth Gospel’s overture to resurrection on the brink of Holy Week. Perfect. Two sisters and a brother. Death doing what it does. Then Jesus doing what God does.

On the way to the post office this morning
I thought about the odd things we believe.

Things we swear by, pray for, put our trust in,
or wear printed on the back of a T-shirt.

Tarot cards. Crystal balls.
Runes and rattlesnakes.

First stars, second sight––
not to mention elves and Armageddon.

Just look at me, believing that someone
might have written me a letter,

that the world is in good hands,
that a man once walked out of a stone cold tomb

into the light of day, leaving
poor old Death completely in the dark.[v]

 

 

Related posts:

Tick-Tock: Thoughts for New Year’s Eve

Are we too late for the Resurrection?

You say goodbye, I say hello: A Requiem sermon

 

 

[i] When a Color Calls Your Name: Poems by Marilyn Robertson (Santa Cruz, California, Limited Edition, 2017), 28

[ii] “Last Times,” ibid., 82

[iii] from “Separations,” ibid., 51

[iv] Rainer Maria Rilke, “Fall”

[v] “Belief,” Robertson, 53

“You say goodbye, I say hello”: A Requiem Sermon

Joe and Phyllis Golowka (1940s)

I’ve brushed the dew on Jordan’s banks, the crossing must be near.

– Jefferson Hascall, “Angel Band” (1860)

This winter, my dear friends Joe and Phyllis Golowka died five weeks apart in their 71st year of marriage. I was privileged to preach the sermon today for their Requiem Eucharist at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Cambria, California.

In his younger days, Joe Golowka led teen backpacking trips in California’s Sierra as part of the camping program for the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. I had the joy of being the chaplain on those hikes. At some point time caught up with Joe, and he decided to let a younger generation take over, but not before taking one last big trek. We made it a good one: a 10-day traverse of the Sierra Nevada, ascending the western slope along the Middle Fork of the Kings River, crossing two high passes at the crest of the range, and descending the steep eastern escarpment to the Owens Valley. It was one of those revelatory walks which, as John Muir once put it, open a thousand windows to show us God.

On our sixth day, we stopped around noon to make camp along a stream, Palisades Creek, so we wouldn’t have to make a steep climb to our next lake in the heat of day. Instead, we would get up at 4 the next morning, walk by the light of the full moon and a rosy dawn, and reach the lake at sunrise.

With the rest of the day suddenly free, Joe went fishing. He wandered down the stream until he found a pretty good spot, but after a while he got restless, and went looking for some place better. But the second place also failed to satisfy his longing for that holy grail of fishermen: the perfect fishing hole.

As the fairy tales teach us, the magic is always found in the third place––in this case, a slope of smooth granite where the stream rushed down into a quiet, shaded pool. As Joe approached, he saw golden trout leaping out of the pool into the cascade, only to be swept backward by the swift volume of water. Over and over again, the fish threw themselves against the stream’s powerful flow. But none of them could breach the crest of the cascading whitewater.

As Joe watched this spectacle of fierce desire, so thwarted yet so relentless, he felt the call to intervene on life’s behalf. He cast his barbless hook into the deep blue pool, and almost immediately, a trout tugged on his line. He pulled it out, slipped it unharmed off the hook, and tossed it upstream, beyond the cascade, where it could continue its hero’s journey. Again, Joe cast his line, and the same thing happened. Over and over, a trout would bite almost immediately, surrendering to Joe’s saving presence. It was as if the fish somehow understood that the fatal hook would prove to be the instrument of life, not death.

In the space of forty minutes, Joe caught and released thirty-four golden trout. Overcome by the sheer wonder of it, he finally had to stop. Miracles send a lot of voltage through your body. You need to step away and recover. He returned to camp shaking. When he finally shared his story at the evening campfire, it struck me that he had been privileged, for a moment, to share the work of our Creator and Redeemer–– rescuing the hopeless from the depths, casting living seeds into the future, turning a dead end into a gate of life.

And now, forty years later, Joe himself has gone through that gate, with his beloved Phyllis right behind him. They are in glory now, but what about us? Who will wipe the tears from our eyes?

Joe and Phyllis walked this earth for nearly a century. A presence we always took for granted has suddenly been withdrawn. The empty chair, the empty room, startle us with absence, and trouble us with longing.

There Is a time to be born and a time to die––this is the inescapable human condition––but acknowledging our mortal nature does not lessen our grief. Indeed, grief is the price of love, whenever that time comes when we must take the parting hand.

How we wish it were otherwise. Couldn’t we have had them just a little longer?

There’s an Irish song called “The Parting Glass.” They sing it in pubs at closing time. Its minor key and wistful words express the sorrow of ending the evening’s camaraderie as people go their separate ways into the night––a sorrow which feels like a rehearsal for the end of life itself:

Oh, all the comrades that e’er I had,
Are sorry for my going away.
And all the loved ones that e’er I had
Would wish me one more day to stay.
But since it falls unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not,
I’ll gently rise and softly call,
“Goodnight, and joy be with you all.”

I love that last line. The singer doesn’t just say farewell and disappear. He pronounces a blessing upon those who remain: “Joy be with you all.” Yes, we honor our dead by the tears we shed. We honor them even more by embracing the joy they wish for us.

The Bible describes the company of heaven as a great cloud of witnesses, cheering us on from above. The novelist George Eliot called the departed “the choir invisible whose music is the gladness of the world.”[i]

Give your sadness all the time it needs, but remember to hold a space in your heart for the ways the departed will return to you––the choir invisible whose music is the gladness of the world.

For the absence of a loved one in a bodily and temporal form
is succeeded by new forms of presence.

I once asked a group of high school students to write their own epitaph, and this is what one seventeen-year-old girl proposed for her imaginary tombstone:

You say goodbye,
I say hello.

The people who matter have a way of sticking around. Although death changes the relationship, it doesn’t end it. The dead continue to occupy our thoughts. They remain present to us in stories, memories, emotions, DNA (in some cases), and whatever else they left us with.

Our beloved Joe and Phyllis are no longer in one particular place. They are in every place we remember them. They are present when their voices echo in our ears, or in those places where we shared special times together. They are present whenever we think of them, or speak of them, or tell the stories that were their lives.

When C.S. Lewis wrote about the grief process after the death of his wife, he said that as the acute sense of loss began to fade, he wondered whether he was starting to forget her by being happy again, or whether he might betray the rich complexity of her being by reducing her to a fixed set of memories.

But once he just stopped worrying about it, he found that, as he put it, he “began to meet her everywhere.” It wasn’t a voice or an apparition, or even a big emotional experience. It was, he said, “a sort of unobstrusive but massive sense that she is, just as much as ever, a fact to be taken into account.”[ii]

Michael Smith, a folksinger from Chicago, described a similar sense of presence in a song about his late father.

I brought my father with me
I hope that you don’t mind
I couldn’t find it in me
To make him stay behind…

There are some ways I’m just like him
Some ways he was just like me
And sometimes when the mirror’s dim
His face is clear to see
Tonight the winds of heaven
Blow the stars across the sky
I brought my father with me
I couldn’t say goodbye [iii]

We have all  brought Joe and Phyllis with us this morning. And they will remain with each of us in countless ways. I can’t go on a hike without hearing Joe’s voice, telling me to pay attention, to take in the beauty offering itself in every moment. Don’t just stare down at the trail! Look around!

We carry Joe and Phyllis with us. But we also grieve their absence. They’ve been a presence in our lives for so long, It’s hard to believe they are gone. Our hearts go out to their family, especially to their children. Losing one’s parents is one of the hardest things we ever do, no matter how old they were or how old we are. There is great sorrow in that. It is a time to weep.

But it is also a time to dance.
We lament today, but we also praise.

Thank God we had Joe and Phyllis in our lives for so long.
Thank God that Joe was what only Joe could be,
that Phyllis was what only Phyllis could be.
Thank God for what Joe and Phyllis could only be together.
Thank God for what they gave us.
Thank God for the ways they loved and mentored and befriended us.
Thank God for the ways they blessed us.

Joe and Phyllis will live on in memory and story, and we take great comfort and pleasure in that. But we also make a deeper claim here. Joe’s life, and Phyllis’ life, are not just something we remember––because their journey is not over and done. They still have a future––with Christ and in Christ in the company of heaven. God loses no one.

Death is not the last word, the final chapter. It is, rather, the passage into the unimaginable fullness of unending life in God.

Death, be not proud. though some have called thee 
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so; 
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow 
Die not . . .
One short sleep past, we wake eternally 
And death shall be no more . . .[iv]

So said John Donne, 17th century Anglican poet and priest, because he knew how the story goes: Love wins and death dies.

This is the story that God’s friends stake their lives on:
God has loved us into existence.
God sustains us every step of our life’s journey.
And even after our bodies give out,
God loves us too much to let us go.

This Requiem eucharist is above all a celebration of resurrection. In our hymns and our prayers we proclaim the God of life who has made death into the gate of heaven.

Everything we sing and pray today comes down to this: We are here to celebrate the entrance of Joe and Phyllis into the land of light and joy.

Some of you know how I love American shape note hymns. They were written at a time when people with shorter life expectancies had to look death in the face every day, and they still managed to proclaim the victory of life. Even at the grave, they made their song:

Why do we mourn departing friends,
Or shake at death’s alarms?
‘Tis but the voice that Jesus sends
to call them to his arms.[v]

Filled with delight, my raptured soul
Would here no longer stay,
Though Jordan’s wave around me roll,
Fearless, I’d launch away.
I am bound for the Promised Land,
I am bound for the Promised Land![vi]

Farewell, my friends, adieu, adieu,
I can no longer stay with you;
My glitt’ring crown appears in view,
All is well, all is well.[vii]

About the same time those hymns were written, Henry David Thoreau was on his deathbed in Concord, Massachusetts. A few days before he died, a family friend said to him, “You seem so near the brink of the dark river that I almost wonder how the opposite shore may appear to you.”

And Thoreau, who had spent his life carefully observing and describing what he saw in the fields and woods around Walden Pond, replied simply, “One world at a time.”[viii]

However curious we may be about what it’s like across that dark river between the worlds, we can’t see it from here. But I would venture to say that heaven is not so much a place as it is a relationship. We live in God and God lives in us. And that is true on both sides of the river. Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s possession.

If you want more details, the Scriptures provide so many vivid images of what it means to be in God’s presence:

Isaiah says that wherever the oppressed begin to hear good news, and the prisons go out of business, and the tears of the brokenhearted are replaced by the oil of gladness, heaven is already happening. (Isaiah 61:1-3)

St. Paul assures us that nothing––neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor presidents, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing. Not now, or ever. (Romans 8:38-9)

Today’s Epistle declares: “God will dwell with mortals, and they will be God’s family… Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” (Revelation 21:3-4)

And Jesus our Brother tells us, “It is the will of the One who sent me that I shall lose nothing of all those entrusted to me. . . and I will raise them up on the last day.” (John 6:39-40)

By the way, when I think of the Last Day, I imagine it’s something like the shock of your first morning on a backpack with Joe. You’re in a peaceful sleep, snug in your down bag, content to postpone the shock of the cold mountain air.

Then, as sudden as the angel’s resurrection trumpet, a hand shakes you awake, and a voice shouts, “Rise and shine! Come out of that fluffy cocoon. This is the day which God has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!” Those may not have been Joe’s exact words, but some of you were there on those mornings. You know what I’m talking about. The Day of Resurrection!

In a few minutes, we will collectively perform our central image for life in God:
We will gather around a table where Love bids us welcome,
to be richly nourished by the food of heaven.

There’s a place for everyone at God’s feast.
No one is excluded or banned or forgotten.
As they say at heaven’s gate, “Weary pilgrim, welcome home.”

One last thing.

Joe and Phyllis were both blessed to die at home, in hospice care, with family keeping vigil. My father-in-law, Arthur, did the same at the end of January, and I found a strangely beautiful grace in those last days. The soul’s departure is an awesome and holy thing to witness. It is life’s profoundest mystery.

When the time comes, people seem to know exactly what to do: their body gradually letting go as their attention shifts from this world to the next.

And as they depart from us, this is how we pray for them:
Receive them into the arms of your mercy,
into the blessed rest of everlasting peace,
and into the glorious company of the saints in light.[ix]

The contemplative monk Thomas Merton said that death is not something that just happens to us as passive recipients. It is, rather, something we do, an act of self-offering, what Merton called “the last free perfect act of love which is at once surrender and acceptance.”[x]

In other words, in the act of dying, we let everything go
and give ourselves over completely into the hands of God.
That is what Joe has done; that is what Phyllis has done.
And one day, you and I will do the same.

And God, as promised, will prove to be “mercy clothed in light.”[xi]

O glorious day! O blessed hope!
My soul leaps forward at the thought:
When, on that happy, happy land,
We’ll no more take the parting hand.
But with our blessed holy Lord
We’ll shout and sing with one accord.[xii]

 

Related post: Fathers, we must part

 

 

 

[i] From her poem, “O May I Join the Choir Invisible,” q. in All in the End is HarvestL An Anthology for Those Who Grieve, ed. Agnes Whitaker (London: Darton, Longman, & Todd, 1984, 1995), 83

[ii] C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, q. in All in the End, 105

[iii] Michael Smith, “I Brought My Father With Me,” on his album Time, 1994

[iv] John Donne, Holy Sonnets X in John Donne, The Complete English Poems, ed, C.A Patrides (London: Everyman’s Library, 1991), 440-1

[v] “China” in The Sacred Harp 163b (Bremen, GA: The Sacred Harp Publishing Company, 1991)

[vi] “The Promised Land” in ibid., 128

[vii] “All Is Well” in ibid., 122

[viii] Malcolm Clemens Young, The Spiritual Journal of Henry David Thoreau (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2009), 8

[ix] Ministration at the Time of Death in The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 465

[x] From posthumous publication, Love and Living (1979, p. 103), q. in The Thomas Merton Encylopedia (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), 107

[xi] Jane Kenyon’s sublime image is from her poem, “Notes from the Other Side,” in Jane Kenyon: Collected Poems (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2005), 267

[xii] “Parting Hand” in The Sacred Harp, 62

Fathers, we must part

Joe Golowka at 93

Joe Golowka at 93

Still, if it is a dream, let us indulge it a moment longer. Let us believe that some things last,
and some places and some people are not touched by change.

– Virginia Woolf[i]

When anyone spends nearly a hundred years on this earth, their departure hardly feels untimely. But it leaves a hole which is hard to get used to. They were always there––and now they’re not. When my mentor and fatherly friend Joe Golowka died in his sleep around dawn yesterday, a month before his ninety-ninth birthday, I knew it was coming. But I still felt the shock of sudden absence.

I first met Joe six years after losing my father. Heart attack, 62 years old. Fatherless in my twenties, I needed considerably more mentoring, and Joe supplied it with gentleness and warmth. His family welcomed me as one of their own, and I cherish many happy memories of hanging out at their house for barbecues, swimming and cheering on the Dodgers and Lakers. I had a priestly role in two family baptisms and a wedding, and the whole clan drove a thousand miles to celebrate my own marriage. Whenever I visit them, I don’t need to knock before entering.

Joe enjoyed many things, but his love for the California mountains was our closest bond. He started teenage backpacking adventures in the Sierra for the Episcopal dioceses of Los Angeles and San Diego, and we first met in 1972 when he recruited me to be chaplain for his annual excursions. I possessed a little backpacking experience at the time, and had been training my eyes and heart for nature by reading Thoreau and John Muir. But Joe soon became my best teacher in the physical and spiritual dimensions of wilderness walking.

He gave a master class in the art of paying attention. Don’t race down the trail. Take your time. Stop and look. Wait patiently for nature to show itself. Get down on the ground, climb a tree, try a different angle. From the tiniest orchid to the grandest sunset, he wouldn’t let you miss anything of what John Muir called “these vast, calm, measureless mountain days … opening a thousand windows to show us God.”[ii] Joe’s voice––Don’t forget to look!––still keeps me company when I hike alone. And hundreds of his other trail companions would tell you the same.

There is a Zen story about a monk who was meditating by the window of his mountain cabin when a thief broke in. The monk did not react, but just kept on meditating. His eyes were not on the thief, but on the full moon passing between the pines. The thief took what little there was, then slipped back into the night. “Poor fellow,” said the monk. “I wish I could have given him this beautiful moon.” Joe was like that monk. He gave us the moon, and so much more.

In 2003, I planned an eight-day solo hike in the eastern Sierra. Since I would finish many miles south of my starting point, I needed to leave my car at the hike’s terminus (the bottom of a 9-mile, 6000’ descent to high desert from 12,000’ Taboose Pass), and then get myself 17 miles up the highway to the trailhead at Big Pine Creek. As it happened, Joe was on a fishing trip in the area, and he offered to provide my shuttle ride.

In his mid-eighties at the time, Joe had reluctantly given up mountain hiking a few years before. But during his fishing trips in the Owens Valley east of the Sierra, he would sometimes visit his favorite trails, walking a short stretch to bid them farewell. So when I began my walk, Joe kept me company for the first mile, until we reached a bridge below a grand cascade. We stood on the bridge for a while, leaning on the railing in wordless contemplation of the roaring falls. Then we crossed to the other side, where the trail began a steep ascent into a forest of incense cedar and Jeffrey pine. Joe had gone as far as he could. He looked down at the trail for a moment, and offered his regrets. “I wish I could come with you”, he said. It wasn’t just me he was addressing, but the trail itself. How hard to surrender something you love so much.

To live in this world you must be able to do three things, says Mary Oliver.

to love what is mortal;
to hold it against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.[iii]

Nine days ago, my wife’s father, Art, died peacefully in hospice at his home, surrounded by his children and grandchildren. When his body began to give out last fall, he did not talk much about what lay ahead, but once his last days arrived, he seemed to know exactly what to do. His attention began to shift from this world to the next as he went inward, responding less and less to the empirical world in which he had lived and moved for 87 years. He was letting go. Going home.

I’ve almost gained my heavenly home,
My spirit loudly sings.
Behold, they come, the holy ones,
I hear the sound of wings.[iv]

In Art’s last hours, his family laid hands on him as I said the Last Rites: Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world . . . Then my wife Karen, wearing a stole she had just brought back from a Holy Land pilgrimage, anointed her father with oil. As evening fell he breathed his last, and departed in peace.

It is no denial of grief to mark the holiness of such a dying. Absent the tragedy of an untimely death, or the anguish of a painful one, we may glimpse even through our tears what a solemn and beautiful mystery it is to pass from the temporal to the eternal.

Jerusalem, my happy home,
When shall I come to thee?
When shall my sorrows have an end,
Thy joys when shall I see?[v]

Jeffrey pines, Sierra Nevada

Jeffrey pines, Sierra Nevada

When Joe and I parted at that Big Pine Creek trailhead, he blessed me with an affectionate hug, and I began my long climb. As I trudged upward, he called out after me, giving the same admonition I’d first heard in his gruff voice thirty years earlier: “Don’t stare at the trail! Your feet can see the trail just fine. Look around, see everything, enjoy everything.” Then he turned and started back toward the trailhead. I stopped to watch until he disappeared into the trees.

In the space of eight winter days, I have lost two fathers. Joe’s departure was like Art’s––peaceful, in his own bed, surrounded by family. When I got the news by phone, it was snowing outside. Suddenly the power went off and the call dropped. It felt like Joe’s final message to me: Hey Jim, get off the phone and go outside. This snowfall is too beautiful to miss!

 

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Virginia Woolf, The Second Common Reader (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1960)

[ii] John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988), Chapter 2, June 23, 1869, p. 35

[iii] “In Blackwater Woods,” Mary Oliver: New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 178

[iv] “Angel Band,” text by Jefferson Hascall (1860), tune by William Batchelder Bradbury (1862). This is one of the songs we sang at Art’s bedside.

[v] c. 16th century, The Episcopal Hymnal 1982 (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1982), #620

Dreading and Hoping All: Thoughts about Halloween

img_2957

Nor dread nor hope attend
A dying animal;
A man awaits his end
Dreading and hoping all.

— William Butler Yeats[i]

The Lord is my light and my rescue.
Whom then should I fear?

— Psalm 27:1

 

When children assume alternative identities to roam the streets on All Hallows Eve (Halloween), they are performing an ancient ritual of interaction between the realms of the seen and the unseen, the living and the dead. The proliferation of characters from pop culture may have diluted the otherworldly explicitness of the more traditional ghosts, monsters and witches, but the strangeness remains. Whatever the costumes may be, for one night an entire generation disappears into a procession of fantastic and otherworldly beings, disturbing the settled normality of our neighborhoods.

The American Halloween traces its origins to Samhain (“summer’s end”), the Celtic New Year marking the end of harvest and the onset of winter. As the zero point between an exhausted past and time’s renewal, Samhain (pronounced SAH-win) was considered a critical moment for both nature and humanity. Life itself hung in the balance (would Spring ever return?), and the boundary between the visible world and whatever lay beyond it grew thin and porous. Spirits, fairies, and even the human dead were thought to be abroad at such a time, because everything was at stake and everyone wanted a vote in whatever happened.

The ancient Celts were ambivalent about the disruptive presence of so many immigrants from the Other Side. They lit fires and carried jack-o-lanterns to guide and warm the spirits in the autumnal night, but also to ward them off. They set out food and drink not just for hospitality but also for appeasement. They wore masks and costumes to imitate and honor the uncanny beings, but also to scare them away, or prevent them from recognizing and harming the vulnerable humans behind the masks.

In their uneasy relationship with the mysteries of death and transcendence, were the Celts so unlike ourselves? We sense in otherness both threat and gift. It stirs both dread and hope.

I know that some Christians, both past and present, have fretted about the “paganism” of seasonal rituals, as though deep attention to the rhythms and patterns of cosmos and psyche will deform rather than enrich our collective wisdom. But I think we would do well to consider the gifts of ancestral experience in the matter of living harmoniously with time and nature. How might we use pre-Christian dimensions of All Hallows Eve, for example, to take us deeper into an authentic spiritual practice of embodied, earthly existence?

Many years ago, as liturgical artist-in-residence at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, I designed an All Hallows Eve ritual incorporating the Halloween themes of mortality, anxiety and the otherworldly into a eucharistic celebration for All Saints’ Day. The luminosity of saintly lives would shine even brighter, I thought, against the deepest black of our mortal uncertainty and fear.

Our publicity described the event as “an autumnal ritual to mark the season of darkening with ancient customs, wherein life and light are reaffirmed. We will conclude with a festival eucharist for All Saints’ Day.”

Many participants came dressed as their favorite saint (broadly defined to include such non-canonical moderns as John Muir, Emily Dickinson, Mark Rothko, Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day). Those without costumes were provided with a symbol to carry, such as a lantern (truth-seeker), book (theologian or writer), musical instrument (musician), or protest sign (activist). Everyone wore a mask to help us disappear for the moment into an anonymous collectivity.

Some 200 strong, with drums, kazoos and other noisemakers, we processed outside, around the block, behind a large papier-maché sun, which would soon enact for us the season’s decline into winter. When we finally made our way into the church, our only light was the flickering glow of a few dozen jack-o-lanterns scattered around the interior.

Once everyone was inside, with the sun symbol lifted high at the head of the nave, the presider said:

As the sun departs from us, depriving us of light and warmth, call to mind the things which make you afraid or anxious, the things which darken your own lives and turn your hearts cold. Consider as well all the forces and follies which threaten the health of this planet and the well-being of God’s creatures.

And when the sun has gone, take off your mask, and face the darkness with all the trust and faith that is in you. We are not alone. The true Light of the world remains, hidden within the deepest night.

Audio of flowing electronic drones began the fill the vast Romanesque space as the sun made its slow way back down the nave and out the door. Once it had disappeared, the music faded out, and with thoughtful solemnity we all began to remove our masks. Our true faces revealed at last, we simply waited in the quiet darkness with prayerful attention.

Several minutes passed.
Then an unaccompanied singer, somewhere in the dark, broke the silence:

For all the saints,
who from their labors rest,
who thee, by faith, before the world confessed.
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, alleluia.[ii]

This initiated a series of theatrical blackouts depicting the saints. A spotlight would come on to show a performer employing words, music or movement to represent a particular saint. When the spot switched off, another saint was illumined in a different part of the church. There were nine saints in all.

After the final blackout, all these saints, now robed in white and carrying candles, converged toward the altar as an unseen narrator read from Revelation 7:

After that I saw a huge number, impossible to count,
from every nation, tribe, people and language,
standing before the throne and before the Lamb . . .

The saints were all standing together at the altar when the reader concluded:

They will hunger no more, and thirst no more . . .
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

Then the saints all raised their candles high and shouted with one voice: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last!” The organ began to play variations on Vaughan Williams’ great hymn for All Saints as our own hand candles were lit by the saints moving among us, until everyone was joined in a luminous refutation of eternal darkness.

The eucharistic feast of the redeemed had begun,

and God, as promised,
proves to be mercy clothed in light.[iii]

 

 

 

 

[i] “Death,” q. in Sandra M. Gilbert, Death’s Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006), 127

[ii] Text by William Walsham How (1823-1897), in The Hymnal 1982 (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation), 287

[iii] Jane Kenyon, “Notes from the Other Side,” in Collected Poems (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2005), 267