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.

A Deep but Dazzling Darkness

Totality, August 21, 2017 (Photograph by Jim Friedrich)

There is in God, some say,
A deep but dazzling darkness, as men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
See not all clear.
O for that night! where I in Him
Might live invisible and dim!

–– Henry Vaughan, “The Night”

I said to my soul, be still, and let the
dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God.

–– T. S. Eliot, “East Coker”

 

The day before the August 21 solar eclipse, I drove south to Oregon, east of the Cascades, taking dusty roads through pine forests and rolling grasslands to a panoramic spot on the center line of the eclipse track, far from the madding crowd. Only eight of us had converged there––from California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska. A few more pilgrims joined our “Eclipse Camp” early next morning, but it remained peaceful and quiet as we awaited the mid-morning totality. It would be the first time for all but one of us.

Sunrise at Eclipse Camp, a few hours before totality (Photograph by Jim Friedrich)

Most people have never seen a total solar eclipse. It’s a rare thing, and often hard to get to. The sun is 400 times larger than the moon, but it is also 400 times further away from earth, making the two spheres roughly the same size in our sky. So why doesn’t the moon block the sun more often?

For one thing, the moon’s orbit around the earth is elliptical, making it larger or smaller to the eye depending on its varying proximity to earth. Only at its perigee––its closest point––does the moon appear large enough to cover the sun perfectly. Another limiting factor is that the orbital paths of earth and moon are not perfectly aligned. Since the plane of the moon’s path around the earth is tipped with respect to the plane of the earth’s orbit around the sun, the two orbits only coincide from time to time.

For this convergence of orbital planes to occur precisely during the new moon––the monthly phase when it sits between earth and sun––moon and earth must repeat a lengthy cycle of variations before everything lines up again. The average wait for a solar eclipse at any given point on earth is 375 years. Some places have to wait 4500 years for a recurrence!

Trying to comprehend all the variables of celestial motion makes my head explode. But picture the moon between earth and sun, casting a cone of shadow which culminates in a circular point just large enough to cover the sun in the eye of an earthling standing at just the right spot. If the moon isn’t at its perigee, the sun-sized point doesn’t quite reach the earth, so the eclipse, even if perfectly centered, isn’t quite total. A little bit of sun overlaps the edges of the moon in what’s called an annular eclipse. And if the moon’s orbital plane happens to be above or below that of earth’s orbit, as it often is, the cone’s shadow point misses the earth altogether.

In a total eclipse, the sun-sized tip of moon shadow sweeps across the earth at a speed ranging from 1000 mph at the equator to 2000 mph at the poles. The eclipse track is about 3000 miles long, varying in width from 167 miles to almost nothing. Since both moon and earth are in continuous motion, the shadow of perfect totality never lasts long: 7 minutes and 40 seconds at most, but usually much shorter. Where I stood in central Oregon it was 2 minutes and 5 seconds.

As both physical fact and potent symbol, the sun has long been associated with the divine: the life-giver and earth-blesser, “whose light divides the day from the night and turns the shadow of death into the morning.”[1] For the premodern mind at least, this was not simply a matter of metaphorical resemblance. There was a perceived continuum between visible signs and invisible realities. Just as the physical sun illumines and warms the earth, so the heavenly sun (God) brings the light of knowledge and the warmth of love to a receptive creation. And anything in nature that produces wonder and love may be said to have something of God in it.

In such a worldview, writes Dante scholar Rocco Montano, “theologians started always from the assumption that there is a sustaining will and that in fact God operates in the world of nature as perfectly and unceasingly as in the world of grace.”[2] So it is not surprising that the sublimity of a total eclipse, registering so powerfully on the senses, has had an equal effect on religious sensibility.

The Bible contains multiple visions of eclipse-like phenomena: the sun goes dark and the moon turns to blood in prophecies of cosmic distress. And when Jesus dies on a Friday afternoon, a sudden darkness falls upon Jerusalem.

On a more existential level, John Donne, from his Anglican pulpit in 1624, described the human condition as “wintred and frozen, clouded and eclipsed, damped and benumbed, smothered and stupefied” until God should return “as the sun at noon, to illustrate all shadows.”[3]

Another 17th-century poet, Francis Quarles, employed eclipse imagery to convey his own experience of divine absence, which leaves him stumbling and lost in the dark.

Why dost thou shade thy lovely face? Oh why
Does that eclipsing hand so long deny
The sunshine of thy soul-enlivening eye?

Without that light, what light remains in me?
Thou art my life, my way, my light; in thee
I live, I move, and by thy beams I see. . .

My eyes are blind and dark, I cannot see;
To whom, or whither, should my darkness flee,
But to the light? And who’s that light but thee?[4]

The sense of eclipse can be cultural as well as personal. In the 20th century, Martin Buber famously lamented modernity’s secular disconnection from transcendence as the “eclipse of God.”

In his enigmatic 1962 film, L’Eclisse (“The Eclipse”), Michelangelo Antonioni never shows an actual eclipse, but in the last 7 minutes, just when you expect the story of two lovers to be resolved, the characters fail to appear at their usual meeting place. In fact, we never see Vittoria and Piero again. They don’t just go missing. They no longer seem to exist. All that remains, shot after shot, is their meeting place and its bleak surroundings, virtually stripped of human presence and completely devoid of narrative, as though not just God, but humanity itself has been eclipsed, leaving nothing but an unsettling absence. As Antonioni described this strange ending, a world of soulless objects “has devoured the living beings.”[5]

Totality with red solar prominences – towers of hot hydrogen gas (Photograph by Jim Friedrich)

But my own experience of total eclipse triggered no such negative resonance. It was, in fact, two minutes of pure wonder, like seeing the burning bush–– a visible experience in the physical world in perfect conjunction with a reality invisible and transcendent. For 125 seconds, when day turned to night and the solar disc, as in a film negative, became a black circle, I felt––well, pretty medieval, seeing God not only behind and beyond the natural world, but also embedded deeply within its material substance and temporal occurrence. What I saw seemed more than just a scientifically predictable conjunction of celestial bodies. What I saw was . . .

But here language fails me.

“O splendor of God,” wrote Dante after passing beyond the limits of space and time to gaze upon the eternal mystery, “grant me the power to tell of what I saw! (Paradiso xxx: 97, 99)[6] Whether the Dante who beheld the face of God was only the character “Dante” in his Commedia, or the poet himself reporting personal experience, is a never-ending debate among scholars. Whatever the case, his prayer rings true, not only for mystical adepts, but for everyone along the eclipse track who looked up with an open heart and a receptive mind to see the most awesome sight in the natural world.

How weak are words, and how unfit to frame
My concept––which lags after what was shown
So far, ‘twould flatter it to call it lame! (Paradiso xxxiii:121-23)[7]

When the last tiny sliver of sun slipped behind the moon, it was lights out. Although the ambient luminosity had been gradually diminishing into an eerie olive pallor during the hour prior to totality, the deepest dark arrived in an instant. Only the distant horizons beyond the shadow’s center retained a dusky glow, like a fading sky after sunset.

I recollect no thoughts from those two minutes, nor any awareness of duration. I can’t even account for my feelings, because my powers of observation were directed entirely, wordlessly, toward the pitch black circle––like the pupil of a great eye––with its mysteriously glowing corona. My camera was rigged to shoot automatically, leaving me free to gaze with my whole being. I remember shedding some tears, shaken by the overpowering, even numinous force of the experience. Until the sun peeked out again with a brilliant diamond flash, totality was a distinct interval of “absolutely unmixed attention.”[8]

Totality ends as the sun re-emerges with a flash. (Photograph by Jim Friedrich)

When it was over, what lingered was the overwhelming sense that I had experienced both immanence and transcendence in a single image, its roundness like a sacramental Host lifted above the altar of the world. In retrospect, it doesn’t seem too much to claim that within the visionary interval of totality my deepest longing was met by an answering Presence.

Am I just romanticizing––or theologizing––a purely sensory experience of the sublime? It may be medieval of me, but I regard the immanent as a gateway to the transcendent, not its dualistic opposite. Though the divine eludes and exceeds all forms of knowing, God is still a communicator, and wants to be known in ways which are accessible to finite beings. I believe there is no clear separation between matter and spirit, but rather a continuum where tangible, sensory experience can lead us deeper and deeper into something larger and more hidden.

The mystics, exploring the farthest reaches of spiritual experience, describe a “night of the senses,” a “deep but dazzling darkness” where our ordinary ways of knowing are obliterated by the overwhelming excess of divine Being. Metaphysical poet Francis Quarles likened his own spiritual capacities to a candle. When the sun shines, his little flame is overpowered by the immensity of divine radiance. “I am thy taper, thou my sun,” he wrote. “Yet if thy light but shine, my light is done.”

Thy sunbeams are too strong for my weak eye!
If thou but shine, how nothing, Lord, am I?
Ah! who can see thy visage, and not die![9]

We can’t stare directly at the sun without going blind. Nor can we look upon the face of God without the linguistic and sacramental equivalents of eclipse glasses. But there are moments, the Incarnation being the supreme example, when the divine radiance consents to be eclipsed in order to be fitted safely to the human eye. Then we may gaze confidently upon its veiled beauty with open and adoring eyes.

Giovanni di Paolo, Paradiso xxviii (c. 1445)

In the 15th century, Giovanni di Paolo painted exquisite illuminations for Dante’s Paradiso. In his image for Canto xxviii, Dante is kneeling to adore the divine radiance, with Beatrice floating behind him. One of the poet’s many terms for visual contemplation, vagheggiar, expresses perfectly my own engagement with the eclipse totality: “to gaze lovingly.” For Dante the sun is not veiled, nor does he wear special glasses. His is a uniquely privileged gaze. Nevertheless, each of us is invited to do the same: to gaze lovingly at the mystery of the world as our own capacities allow.

When the totality ended, I said farewell to my fellow pilgrims (passing the peace with hugs all around) and headed north on the long dusty road back to the highway. As with all transcendent experiences, “the night of meditation passes, the flesh revives, and the world’s day returns. . . The feeble spirit finds itself beclouded once again with dust.”[10]

My ride home (Photograph by Jim Friedrich)

 

[1] From “Collect for the Renewal of Life,” Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (1979), 99.

[2] Rocco Montano, Dante’s Thought and Poetry (Chicago: Gateway Editions, 1988), 372.

[3] John Donne, Sermon preached on the evening of Christmas Day, 1624.

[4] Francis Quarles (1592-1644), from “Wherefore Hidest Thou Thy Face,” in A Deep but Dazzling Darkness: An Anthology of Personal Experiences of God, eds. Lucy Lethbridge & Selina O’Grady (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2002), 76-77.

[5] Seymour Chatman, Antonioni: Or, The Surface of the World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 80.

[6] Paradiso trans. by Robert and Jean Hollander (New York: Doubleday, 2007)

[7] Paradise trans. by Dorothy L. Sayers & Barbara Reynolds (Baltimore, MD: Penguin Classics, 1962)

[8] Simone Weil’s memorable description of prayer.

[9] Francis Quarles, q. in R.A. Durr, “Vaughan’s ‘The Night’,” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 59, No. 1 (Jan. 1960), p. 36.

[10] Ibid., 39.