“What do I know?”

Caravaggio, The Conversion of St. Paul (1601). Rome, Santa Maria del Popolo.

In the year 1570, Michel de Montaigne, age 36, was riding “an undemanding but not very reliable horse” through the woods near his Dordogne estate. It was a leisurely outing, a respite from his duties in local politics and the management of the family lands. He was accompanied by some of his workers, one of whom decided to show off by racing his powerful farm horse to the front of the line. But the show-off misjudged the width of the path. Instead of dashing triumphantly past Montaigne’s horse, he rammed it from behind, “striking us like a thunderbolt with all his roughness and weight, knocking us over with our legs in the air.” 

Montaigne flew a good ten yards beyond his fallen horse, losing consciousness when he hit the ground, “with no more movement or sensation than a log.” His companions thought him dead, and sought to carry his inert body back to his home. Along the way, however, he began to revive, “but only little by little and over so long a stretch of time that at first my sensations were closer to death than to life.”

Over the next few hours, Montaigne’s thoughts “floated on the surface of my soul … not merely free from unpleasantness but tinged with that gentle feeling which is felt by those who let themselves glide into sleep.” For that blessed interval, the pain of his body did “not belong to us.” When that pain finally entered his conscious awareness, its severity felt like a second brush with death, but without the dreamy gentleness of his initial encounter with fatal proximity.

The last thing his mind recovered was the memory of his accident. At first he thought he’d been hit by a stray bullet. The Wars of Religion had reached the Dordogne, and the distant pop of primitive firearms was not uncommon in his neighborhood. Eventually, his memory of colliding horses returned, “but that perception had been so sudden that fear had no time to be engendered by it.” And whatever happened next—his horse disappearing under him, his flight through the air, the hard landing and loss of consciousness—remained an utter blank.[a]

Although Montaigne’s Essais are an essential part of the literary canon, I must confess that I had not read his account of this unfortunate fall until my later years—last month, in fact, about twelve hours after I flew off my bicycle to make my own painful fall to earth. Such a timely reading was itself an accident. I happened to have with me Patricia Hampl’s reflections about Montaigne in The Art of the Wasted Day, and when I opened the book in my hospital room the next morning, her chapter about his fall was the next one up.

My own Montaigne moment occurred after the penultimate session of the Olympic Track & Field Trials in Eugene, Oregon, where I was spending ten days in athletics heaven. Bicycling across the University of Oregon campus at dusk, I was surprised to discover—too late!—that the sidewalk suddenly morphed into three descending steps, the kind of impossible shape-shifting that only happens in bad dreams or cartoon catastrophes. I remember a violent bounce off the first step, but not what happened next. I probably squeezed the brakes, pitching the bike into a forward roll and throwing me into space, but I retain no memory of my flight path. I can only recall the moment of impact and the immediate sensation of pain in my right side and shoulder. Thankfully, my head was untouched. Unlike Montaigne, however, I did not drift in a painless state of gentle detachment. But I did have the experience of a certain doubleness in my awareness. While part of me was howling with pain, another part was busy assessing the damage, noting the details, and wondering at the strangeness of my new reality.

Thanks be to God, I was soon supplied with angels of mercy—three students, plus a nurse who had finished her shift at a Catholic hospital only two blocks away. These angels helped me hobble to the emergency room. After two days in hospital, I was on the highway home with my wife at the wheel. Three and a half weeks later, I’m pretty much back to normal life while awaiting the orthopedic verdict on a displaced clavicle.

“I am myself the matter of this book,” said Montaigne of his immense and influential collection of essays. Although his voice is very personal in its wide-ranging reflections on self and world, vivid stories about himself are rare in his writings. Many have attributed the inclusion of his riding accident to its significance as a turning point for Montaigne. A year after his fall, he would withdraw from the world for a life of reading, thinking, and writing. For the next 22 years until his death, he spent the majority of his days philosophizing in the stone tower adjacent to his house.

His near-death experience had produced a clarity of purpose. Close encounters with extinction tend to focus the mind on what truly matters. Since I’m not going to be here that long, how shall I spend the time that remains? But what happened to Montaigne was more than a sense of heightened resolve. It also sparked a new perception of how consciousness works. Hampl describes this pivotal shift:

“In being knocked off his horse, he experienced the doubleness necessary to empower personally voiced writing. He experienced the fall—but he also observed the fall. Both. In separate but related strands of consciousness he experienced, and he saw the experience.”[b]

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)

Hampl compares Montaigne’s fall to the conversion of Saul. While the Book of Acts (9:1-6) says only that Saul “fell to the ground” in the face of blinding revelation, Caravaggio’s biblical painting makes it a fall from a horse, dramatizing the image of transformation as a great tumble from the heights of control and self-assurance, terminating in a shocking, shattering thud. Thus did Saul become Paul, someone altogether new. 

As for Montaigne, he might not have invented the personal essay had he not first been knocked silly, discovering in the process that the self is not just trapped within its own individual experience, but is capable of a larger, less narcissistic, more reflective understanding of mind and world. As Hampl writes, Montaigne’s head wound “gave him a new, enlarged consciousness. In his Essais he found the purpose of this self: to see and then to say. The personal essay was born of a smack upside the head.”[c]

Montaigne’s fall changed the course of his life, but it also changed his relation to death. He struggled with the fear of it through the loss of his father, brother, best friend and five infant daughters, not to mention the persistent slaughters of the religious wars. But when, in the first hours after his fall, he hovered in a strangely tranquil state of letting go, death appeared to have a “friendly face.” It seemed no longer a feared stranger or an impersonal nullification, but a companion as near to us on our first day as our last. 

For the rest of his life, the embrace of our mortality would be a recurring theme. His essay, “To philosophize is to learn how to die,”[d] offers various perspectives to help us live with death:

To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a way clean contrary to that common one; let us deprive death of its strangeness; let us frequent it, let us get used to it … Whenever a horse stumbles, a tile falls, or a pin pricks, let us at once chew over this thought: ‘Supposing that was death itself?”

Why are you afraid of your last day? It brings you no closer to your death than any other did. The last step does not make you tired: it shows that you are tired. All days lead to death: the last one gets there.

‘Leave this world,’ Nature says, ‘just as you entered it. The same journey from death to life, which you once made without suffering or fear, make it again from life to death. Your death is a part of the order of the universe; it is part of the life of the world.’

I want Death to find me planting my cabbages, neither worrying about it nor the unfinished gardening. I once saw a man die who, right to the last, kept lamenting that destiny had cut the thread of the history he was writing when he had only got up to our fifteenth or sixteenth king!

Que sais-je?

And what has my own fall produced in me? I am not Paul. I am not Montaigne. But after that close encounter with the precipitous boundary of my existence, can I remain the same person I was before my short flight into the unexpected? 

The meanings of that Oregon night are still sinking in. Time will tell what I will make of them, or what they will make of me. As Montaigne always said, “Que sais-je?” [e]



[a] Michel de Montaigne, “On Practice,” in The Complete Essays, trans. M. A. Screech (London and New York: Penguin Books, 2003), II:6, pp. 416-427.

[b] Patricia Hampl, The Art of the Wasted Day (New York: Viking, 2018), 214.

[c] Ibid., 215-216.

[d] The Complete Essays, I:20, pp. 96, 107, 103, 99.

[e] Montaigne’s motto (“What do I know?”) reflected his suspicion of certainty and final conclusions, and his inquisitive open-mindedness.

The Increase of Existence: The Poetry of Marilyn Robertson

Deschutes River, Oregon, April 2121 (Jim Friedrich)

Poetry’s work is the clarification and magnification of being. Each time we enter its word-woven and musical invocation, we give ourselves over to a different mode of knowing: to poetry’s knowing, and to the increase of existence it brings, unlike any other. 

— Jane Hirshfield[i]    

Spirituality and poetry share a common task: “the increase of existence.” This is holy work, and much of it involves coming to terms with time. Whether we waste it, use it, lose it or save it, it is never ours to keep. It is a gift that comes and goes. Whatever is meant by the increase of existence, it cannot be a matter of longevity. That would deny the fullness of time to those who die too soon, and I believe the universe to be kinder than that. No, the increase of existence is not in its length, but in its depth, what T. S. Eliot called “a lifetime burning in every moment.” [ii]

Russian theologian Sergei Bulgakov described this depth as a relationship with the eternal: 

“For [the human person], eternity is not a specially qualified time that will arrive after temporal life, as an event in time itself; rather, it is the depth of [our] own being, a depth known in time and ceaselessly revealing itself. Eternity is [our] rootedness in God, and this eternal life both begins and is accomplished in temporal life.”[iii]

In a recent New Yorker cartoon, a small boy tells his bemused parents, “You’re just lucky you don’t have your whole life looming in front of you.” I wonder if that becomes funnier, the older you get. Certainly the nature of time feels different when it starts to run out. Some of us would not mind a little more looming in our later years.

Marilyn Robertson, Santa Cruz, California, January 2018 (Jim Friedrich)

My oldest sibling, Marilyn Robertson, is a poet. In her latest collection, “Small Birds Passing,” time is on her mind. “I like the moreness of time at low tide,” she writes. “Time for a stretch, a sigh. / Time for nothing perfect.[iv] But the stillness of the unhurried moment, the sense of “moreness,” is not inherent to time itself. It is rather the product of our own attentive awareness.

Days won’t wait for us. 
Hours drift away.
Time never got the hang of lingering.

Yet what if we dropped everything,
Stood still.
Looked around.

That red leaf.
Those cloud-sheep.
All the small birds passing.[v]  

In the first hour and the last, and all the moments in between, pay attention. Sink into the depth of things. Increase existence. Such temporal depth does not come naturally to a society obsessed with speed and surface. We need teachers. 

Animals keep trying to tell me 
how to live: 

cat, sunning herself 
on the grape arbor, 

dog, bouncing along the path, 
in love with everything, 

and rabbit, 
the ardent listener, 

her soft antenna ears 
always tuned to the present.[vi]

In “One Thing,” Moon joins Rabbit in modeling a spiritual practice:

One thing about a rabbit, or the moon,
is that they don’t waste time fretting about
what to do with the rest of their days.

They are living them, one after another,
those tidy packages of hours with their beginnings,
their middles and their ends.

Rabbit, hopping along a path through woods,
into briars and out again without so much
as a scratch on its soft jumpy body,

and Moon, sailing across the infinite ocean of sky,
spilling her poetry of light
into every window she can find. 

And yet, no matter how adept at sounding the depths of the given moment, poets and pilgrims of a certain age cannot help glancing toward life’s horizon. There are too many goodbyes in our latter days, too many deaths, to let us forget the “tears of things.”[vii] 

All the farewells in a lifetime.
All the ships that sail away, becoming pinpoints.
Becoming specks.

“You just missed her.”
“He said to say goodbye.”

All the clicks of latches, shutting of lids.
“Stand back. The doors are closing.”

There are roads. We have feet.
What we leave behind will soon forget our names.

All the losses. All the last words.
The telephone ringing, ringing in the night.[viii]

The last line could signify the news of death, received by phone at an untimely hour, but I hear it as a call to someone who is no longer there to pick up. The unanswered phone is a heartbreaking image of disconnection—the permanent loss of a precious voice. And then what? Is everything, in the end, gone for good? Or does the eternity we experience in the “depth known in time” persist for us beyond the grave?  In “After,” the poet admits our essential unknowing in this matter.  

After the fire,
what will I be?

A thing with feathers?
Or that little pile of ashes

just there, where
the water heater used to be.

And though the poet in her reticence prefers to let the “Thick pages of theology fly / out the window,”[ix] she nevertheless intimates the possibility of resurrection. The title of the collection’s last poem, “The Story So Far,” locates the octogenarian poet in the middle, not the end, of her divine comedy:

old flowers 
tossed on the compost

doorway of loss
blown open by a sudden wind

water jar broken three times
still beautiful

in the heart of the mother
one hundred poems

we are not dying
we are just waking up



For more of Marilyn Robertson’s poetry, see my 2017 post, Running on Fast Forward.

[i] Jane Hirshfield, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (New York: Harper Collins, 1997), vii.

[ii] T. S. Eliot, “East Coker” in Four Quartets. The poet goes on to say, “We must be still and still moving / Into another intensity / For a further union, a deeper communion …” In other words, deeper and deeper into God.

[iii] Sergei Bulgakov (1877-1944), The Lamb of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 2008), 135. This classic in Christology was originally published in 1933.

[iv] Marilyn Robertson, “Low Tide,” in Small Birds Passing (2020). All her poems and excerpts are from this chap-book.

[v] “Taking Time.” 

[vi] “How to Live.”

[vii] This poignant phrase is from Virgil’s Aeneid, Book I.462. The Latin, lacrimae rerum, lacks the preposition which English requires, creating the ambiguity in translation of “tears for things” vs. “tears of things.” Seamus Heaney’s rendering speaks to the immensity of our grief in this time of pandemic: “There are tears at the heart of things.”

[viii] “Endings.”

[ix] “You Say”

“I will not willingly die for the economy”

Mark Harris in his printmaking studio (May, 2019).

Mark Harris is an artist/priest I’ve known over 50 years. In our twenties, we did campus ministry and experimental worship together in Ann Arbor at a coffeehouse featuring concerts by Neil Young, Doc Watson, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and David Ackles. In our thirties, we collaborated on an all-night Epiphany liturgy in a circus tent. Now entering his eighties, Mark takes issue, brilliantly, with the Republican suggestion that America sacrifice its elders on the altar of capitalism. As another elder, protest singer Faith Petric, once wrote in “Grandma’s Battle Cry”––”I’ll shield you with my brittle bones! I’ll nourish you with rage!” Mark originally published this “J’accuse” on his blog, Preludium, and he has kindly allowed me to share it here. As Mark makes clear, COVID-19 isn’t just about health and economics. It’s about values.

 

A little personal clarity. I’m 80 years old this year, provided I make it to May 21st.

1. If I am in hospital and the medical folk make a decision that others, younger than I, need to be treated first, or me not at all, I get it. Triage is a sometimes miserable ethical fact. Got it. Perhaps in some way my death could be a noble or valuable or even holy contribution to the life of the world.

2. If I am out there in the world (but of course social distancing) and the bumbling system of supply and manufacture of needed medical gear fail, and I end up in the hospital and am triaged out of care, I get it. But I won’t forget that the “greatest country in the world” screwed up. There is no reason for these shortages except poor planning and bad use of resources. I will die of systemic governmental and business failure. There it is. But it will not be noble, or valuable or holy that I died. It will be stupid.

3. If I am out there in the world and the President or the government, or whatever the powers that be, decide that social distancing and its value to the health and safety of the world is less important than the economic safety of corporations and business enterprises, I will die because someone decided that the triage decision is really about whether my life was worth attending to rather than the life of money-making entities. So when I get the virus, end up in hospital, find myself triaged there and die, I will die because Boeing and some damn cruise ship company would otherwise lose money, place, or even go under. Not because of too many people in hospital. Not because of lack of equipment. Because of the economy. I got it. I will die for the almighty dollar. They will say, no no, you will die because the wellbeing of so many relies on our keeping the economy going. You die so that others may live. But I know. I will have died for reasons of greed, not reasons of need. It will be evil.

If this third possibility takes place, I will hold those who made the decision to go for the economy and not for the health of the society accountable. If alive I will scream in your faces unmercifully. If dead, I will plea to return to haunt you, ruining your sleep, your digestion, and your health. I will be pissed beyond imagination.

Be warned. Old may be just a thing to you. Old is what I have. I use old creatively, and to mostly good ends. The years I have left promise to be some of my best, in terms of action for justice, truth and beauty. But if it ends for the “economic good” I say, screw it. I know about this reasoning. It is the reasoning that was used to weed out the gypsies, the Jews, the queer, the gay, and anyone else who stood in way of the State’s grasp for economic power.

I accuse: The proposition that death as necessary to the well being of the economy is a lie. More, it is evil.

Ask what I will give for the country, but don’t assume you can ask what I will give for the economy. That’s mine to give, not yours to take.

––– Mark Harris, who understands the difference between the cross and the dollar.

 

Related post: The Artist Formerly Known as Priest

The Weight of These Sad Times

The weight of these sad times we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

–– King Lear

 

When Queen Elizabeth I died in March, 1603, a plague was beginning to ravage London. By July a thousand were dying every week. A month later, the number was three thousand. By the end of the year, 15% of the city’s 200,000 inhabitants were dead. The epidemic would continue to ebb and flow in the city for the next few years.

The authorities did their best to enforce social distancing. Plays could only be performed when the death toll dropped below forty per week. Bear-baiting and other sports were banned. The infected were quarantined at home with guards sometimes posted at their doors. Caregivers who treated the sick had to carry red sticks in the streets so people could give them wide berth. Penalties for breaking quarantine were harsh: a whipping if you weren’t symptomatic, possible execution if you were. When people tried to wash away the red crosses marking the lintels of their infected houses, the Lord Mayor ordered the crosses to be painted with more indelible oil-based paints.

Dramatist and pamphleteer Thomas Dekker described the ordeal of being locked up in a house full of the dead and dying: “What an unmatchable torment were it for a man to be barred up every night in a vast silent charnel-house. . . Were not this an infernal prison?”[i] But such an eyewitness is rare. We have little firsthand reporting of what it was like to live with so much death.

Many plays were being written at this time, even with all the theater closings, but the plague was never their subject. Shakespearean scholar James Shapiro asks, “Was this because it was bad for business to remind playgoers packed into the theaters of the risks of transmitting disease or because a traumatized culture simply couldn’t deal with it?”[ii]

However, it seems no accident that Shakespeare wrote King Lear, his bleakest play, during the height of the epidemic, when the parish bells tolling across the street from his study were daily––sometimes hourly–– reminders of perpetual loss. The “weight of these sad times” was crushingly apparent in the play’s premiere before the royal court on St. Stephen’s Day, December 26, 1606.

In the original story adapted by Shakespeare, Lear is restored to his throne and Cordelia lives. But when Shakespeare made it a tragedy, he went beyond the conventions of the genre, which tried to leave the audience with some sense of hope, as survivors made their exit into an implied future. But the very first version of King Lear concludes in utter negation. There is no exeunt into whatever comes next. “The play ends instead with the frozen tableau of the dead king holding his murdered daughter.”[iii]

The King James Version of the Bible, written around the same time as King Lear, begins with the making of the world ex nihilo, out of “nothing.” Shakespeare’s play supplies a grim counter thesis: the unmaking of the world. It begins with “Nothing can come out of nothing,” and ends with “Never. Never. Never. Never.” The word “no” is spoken over 120 times; “not” occurs twice that number. And around 60 of its words begin with “un-” (unfriended, unfortunate, unnatural, unmerciful, etc.). “Call it what you will––resistance, refusal, denial, rejection, repudiation––this insistent and almost apocalyptic negativity becomes a recurring drumbeat, the bass line of the play.”[iv]

The courtly audience, still reeling not only from the plague but also from the recent failed attempt to dynamite the royal family­­––and political stability––into oblivion, must have been deeply shaken by the play’s despair. A day earlier, Bishop Lancelot Andrewes had preached to the same court a Christmas homily on Christ’s light shining in the darkness (“Ever in dark times, who therefore most needed the light of comfort”[v]). But there were no such comfortable words in the royal theater on St. Stephen’s Day.

It did not take long for posterity to shape a happier text. Lear was granted the merciful delusion that Cordelia was still breathing when he himself died. The survivors were given their exeunt into some happy future, having learned useful lessons from Lear’s mistakes. And from 1631 until 1838, audiences were treated to a happy ending, with Lear surviving and a married Cordelia inheriting his throne.

The play’s darker themes were rediscovered by modernity. As critic Maynard Mack wrote in 1965, “After two world wars and Auschwitz, our sensibility is significantly more in touch than our grandparents’ was with the play’s jagged violence, its sadism, madness, and processional of deaths, its wild blends of levity and horror, selfishness and selflessness.”[vi]

In our own time of deadly contagion, how do we engage with the miasma of fear while the media death watch invades our awareness as incessantly as the tolling bells of Shakespeare’s London? Do we keep our eyes, like Lancelot Andrewes, fixed on the divine light flickering in the darkness, or do we plunge, like the author of King Lear, toward a cathartic immersion in the unmaking of the old “normal,” hoping to emerge on the other side purged and renewed?

Boccaccio, in response to history’s deadliest plague, the Black Death of the fourteenth century, proposed a third way: avoidance. His Decameron is a fictional tale of ten young people who flee plague-ridden Florence for the Tuscan countryside, where they wait out the epidemic with “a certain amount of exercise before the two daily meals, usually in the form of walks; music, songs, and dancing after meals; and of course a great deal of congenial conversation throughout,”[vii] Only good news was allowed to be shared, and competitive games that might provoke anxiety were forbidden (perhaps like giving up March Madness).

According to medieval scholar Glending Olson, Boccaccio’s fictional regimen echoed medical tracts from the plague period urging people to “keep your humors well-disposed by embracing ‘cheerfulness,’ by not occupying ‘your mind with death, passion, or anything likely to sadden or grieve you, but give your mind over to delightful and pleasing things’ and spend ‘your leisure in gardens with fragrant plants, vines, and willows, when they are flowering.’”[viii] Such pleasure, then, was not so much escapist as therapeutic, reducing stress and––hopefully––thereby boosting immunity.

Given the inescapable presence posed by this current pandemic in our mobile and wired world, the dream of a tranquil refuge seems remote and perhaps unjust. Though some may claim exemption by virtue of wealth or privilege, we’re all in this together. The heroic dedication of health care workers, the kindness and generosity of neighbors and loved ones, the creative responses by churches and communities to unprecedented challenges inspire us daily with countless examples of love, courage, resilience and sacrifice.

However, unlike most natural disasters or economic downturns, COVID-19 does not feel like a temporary setback in our accustomed pursuit of happiness. It seems more like the unmaking of a world which may never return. And in a global society of obscene inequality, spiritual poverty, and suicidal pollution, that may not be a bad thing. They say the birds are singing again in Wuhan.

As Christian philosopher Cristóbal Serrán-Pagán y Fuentes wonders, “Is this global virus another wake-up call for humans to work together and collaborate in shared common projects for the survival of our specie as a whole? . . . This is the kairos moment for spiritual rebirth and for choosing a new transformed way of life. Otherwise we make harmful choices, we fall back and continue to do more of the same absurd things that we have been doing. . .”[ix]

The pursuit of a more just and nourishing world would be a blessed and laudable outcome of this strange and apocalyptic journey we are engaged in. But is there an even deeper theological dimension to this crisis as well, returning us to face the “ground zero” where all endings and beginnings converge: the place of unmaking and making anew, the place where Lear and Cordelia die, and hope is impossibly born? The place where “Never. Never. Never. Never” is answered by the divine “Ever”?

We are creatures who die, sometimes in great numbers. The terms and limits of mortal life, where death is always near, are usually suppressed or forgotten in the dailiness of life. Earthly existence always seems so convincing, right up until the moment it vanishes. But now, as the death toll rises and systems careen toward collapse, nearly everything begins to feel fragile and evanescent.

How do we ground our radically unsettling new situation in a deep and fearless spirituality of faith, hope and love? My friend Bill Coats––priest, prophet and theologian––recently wrote, “our implied consent in Baptism was our willingness to live in the midst of the random freedom of Creation. Which is to say that death is everywhere and yet in its midst we live.”

We’ll follow this thread next time. Meanwhile, stay safe, and maybe stick with Boccaccio for now. Walk in a garden. Sing. Dance. Practice congenial conversation.

 

 

 

[i] Quoted in James Shapiro, The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015), 23-24.

[ii] Ibid., 277.

[iii] Ibid., 303.

[iv] Ibid., 52. The statistics are from Shapiro as well.

[v] Lancelot Andrewes, “A Sermon Preached before the King’s Majesty, at Whitehall, on Wednesday, the Twenty-fifth of December, A.D. MDCVI. Being Christmas Day,” in Seventeen Sermons on the Nativity (reprint of original, Collingwood, Victoria, Australia: Triest Publishing, 2017), 20.

[vi] Maynard Mack, King Lear in Our Times (1965), quoted in Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare and Modern Culture (New York: Anchor Books, 2008), 268.

[vii] From Pampinea’s instructions to her friends in the Decameron, quoted in Glending Olson, Literature as Recreation in the Later Middle Ages (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1986), 180.

[viii] Olson, 175.

[ix] Passed along by peacemaking writer Jim Forest and cited in a March 13, 2020 blog post by Ryan Hall: https://paceebene.org/blog/2020/3/13/time-for-a-wake-up-call-in-response-to-the-coronavirus

 

O Sing to Me of Heaven: Requiem for a Friend

Stephen D. O’Leary at Point Reyes National Seashore, June 13, 2011 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

My friend Stephen D. O’Leary departed this life on January 24, 2020, just days after we sang together at the California Shape Note Singing Convention. Although he had recently been diagnosed with cancer and had just begun chemo, he was feeling pretty good that weekend. He said afterward, “I plan to keep singing until I die (which I hope will not be anytime soon), and even after.” Two days later, way too soon, he was gone. Today I preached this homily at his requiem, where many of his shape note friends gathered to sing his spirit home. 

In early January, on Twelfth Night, Stephen shared on Facebook an article which had caught his attention, about the possibility of robot priests––speaking machines which could offer blessings, prayers and comfortable words on demand. And of course Stephen had questions: Would a robot priest, he asked, require that God be “unable to distinguish between the bot’s prayer and the prayer of an actual human person, or . . . only that the person being prayed for by the bot must believe that the bot is an actual conscious being…?” Thankfully, no such questions are at issue in this liturgy!  Fr. Gagan and I are not battery-operated.

But such questions were so Stephen. His passionate and curious mind was always wondering about things in the most interesting and unique way. How we will miss his questions––and so much besides.

The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a line expressing in nine words the uniqueness we all possess: What I do is me: for that I came. Stephen did Stephen as well as he could, and each of us has our own stories about why he came, and what difference he made in our lives.

A few hours before he died, he posted a poem by George Eliot about the “choir invisible / whose music is the gladness of the world.” The “choir invisible” is the poet’s name for those departed souls whose lingering influence has made us better, and even now may still “Enkindle generous ardor, feed pure love, / Beget the smiles that have no cruelty, / Be the sweet presence of a good diffus’d, / And in diffusion ever more intense!”

“To make [such] undying music in the world” was the holy work to which Stephen aspired, even when his road was rough and steep.  We mourn his absence, lament the sudden withdrawal from the visible world of such a remarkable and dear companion. As we sing at the end of every shape note convention, just before we go our separate ways:

Your comp’ny’s sweet, your union dear
Your words delightful to my ear
Yet when I see that we must part
You draw like cords around my heart

But the absence of a loved one in bodily and temporal form is succeeded by new forms of presence. Although death changes the relationship, it does not 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.

Stephen is no longer in one particular place. He is now in every place or occasion where we remember him. He is present whenever we think of him, or speak of him, or tell the stories that bring him back. I’m pretty sure I’m always going to hear his unmistakable voice whenever we hit those high notes in shape note hymns like Stratfield or Villulia.

At the tomb of Jesus, the angel of resurrection told the sorrowing women, “The one you seek is not where you laid him. From now on, you need to be looking elsewhere.” Wendell Berry has said something similar about all the departed, who now are “hidden among all that is, / And cannot be lost.”

Resurrection faith tells us that a person’s continuing presence is not purely the product of our own subjectivity. Though we see Stephen no longer, he continues to exist as more than just memory or feeling or imagination. As he was when he was created, so he remains: a beloved child of God, but now embraced and glorified within a larger wholeness from which none of us will ever be separated. This wholeness, which has many names, is the Love Supreme which binds us all together. This interconnection, this communion, cannot be broken, even by death.

The Lakota people have the expression “all my relatives” to describe the continuing bond between the living and the dead. Martin Brokenleg, a Lakota Episcopal priest, puts it this way: “Our experience shows us that death does not break our kinship bond. We turn to one another for help and support regardless of which side of death our relatives are on.”

But knowing that death is not the end does not make the burden of loss any lighter. Even Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died.

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” This is the only time Jesus is criticized by his friends, so bitter is their grief. Lord, if you had only come sooner, you could have delayed his fate, his mortality, for a little while longer. You could have cured him. Why did he have to die now?

Well, Jesus doesn’t like death any more than Mary and Martha do. When he approaches the tomb of his friend, he is, the gospel tells us, “greatly disturbed.” In Greek these words carry a connotation of anger, so we might say that Jesus was just as mad at death as everyone else was that day.

And so, we are told, the One who would be revealed as the Lord of life rebukes death in the most dramatic way. He peers into the darkness of the cave tomb and cries, “Lazarus! Come forth!” And Lazarus does come forth, into the light, a living man, inhaling the freshness of a spring morning.

But his resuscitation is only a temporary stay. Lazarus will die again, sooner or later. And shortly after this miracle, Jesus himself will die, sharing the fate of every mortal so that God might transform that fate into something glorious. As we sing in The Sacred Harp (#163 on the bottom): Thence he arose, ascended high, to show our feet the way.

The raising of Lazarus may not have been a true resurrection into life eternal, but it was a vivid foretaste of the human future, when everyone who has fallen asleep in death will hear the voice of the divine Friend who knows us by heart, calling us each by name on that “great rising day.”

Some of us were at Angels Gate in San Pedro for the California Shape Note Convention, when Stephen, only a few days before his death, led us in singing “Farewell Anthem.”

My friends, I am going on a long and tedious journey,
Never to return, never to return. . .
Fare you well,
Fare you well, my friends,
And God grant we may meet together in that world above. . .

Stephen was not being literal––he did not expect to leave us so soon––but I imagine him smiling now to know he was bound for  glory with a song on his lips, and that so many who love him have gathered here today to join in that song with sweet accord.

I once heard a shape note singer tell about her mother’s death out in Sand Mountain, Alabama. A lot of singers were standing round her bed, keeping vigil with the old songs. But there came a moment when her mother began to sing a tune that none of them recognized. They couldn’t quite place it. And then they realized she wasn’t singing the melody. She was singing the treble part. She was singing harmony with voices from the other side, which only she could hear. The choir invisible.

Oh, sing to me of heav’n,
When I am called to die,
Sing songs of holy ecstasy
To waft my soul on high. . .

 

Then to my ravished ear
Let one sweet song begin,
Let music charm me last on earth,
And greet me first in heav’n.

 

Stephen O’Leary (right) and David Olson lead “Farewell Anthem” at the 2020 California Shape Note Convention.

Backpacking with the Saints (Part 2)

Death Valley National Park, Holy Week 2005

You do not go into the desert to find identity but to lose it, to lose your personality, to become anonymous. You make yourself void. You become silence. It is very hard to live with silence. The real silence is death and this is terrible. It is very hard in the desert. You must become more silent than the silence around you. And then something extraordinary happens: you hear silence speak.

–– Edmond Jabés

In Part 1 of my commentary on Belden C. Lane’s book about “wilderness hiking as spiritual practice,” we explored his first two themes: Departure and Discipline. Here we shall look at his third theme.

The Philosophical Promenade, Keith Beckley / Dennis Evans (Seattle’s I-90 Trail, March 17. 2014)

Descent (When the Trail Gets Rough)

As a longtime backpacker, Lane knows that not every hike is a victory march. In fact, if you don’t encounter obstacles, setbacks, tribulations and the occasional failure, you’re kind of missing the point. Dante, history’s most famous trekker, discovered on his very first day in the wild that the experience of “descent” is not only inevitable, but necessary. Over the years, Lane has learned to welcome the hard parts as his teachers.

“Backpacking as a spiritual practice is about making yourself vulnerable in order to be stretched into something new. It’s the need to recognize your limits, to be taken to the end of yourself where resources are exhausted and you stumble in blind faith toward that which is more than you. In the beauty-mixed-with-terror of a backcountry wilderness, you begin to discover that for which the mystics had no language.”

Fear, failure, and death are Lane’s categories of descent. As with his other subjects, he chooses appropriate saints to guide him. His companion in the way of fear is John of the Cross, the sixteenth-century Spanish mystic who spent nine months locked in a dark space too small to stand up in. Abused by his ecclesiastical captors and frequently beaten, he struggled with boredom, doubt and despair. When he was close to death, he made a miraculous escape in the dead of night. But his cruel experience of confinement ultimately clarified and deepened his praise of the soul’s “dark night” as the passage into the place where love abides.

To reach the place you know not, John realized, you must go by a way which you know not. Satisfaction, assurance––even divine presence––will seem to go missing in the dark night, because whatever you “know” and the consolations you’re attached to are being stripped away to make room for something unimaginably greater. As T. S. Eliot would put it four centuries later, “wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing.” Only thus did the suffering saint become the passionate singer of divine love.

When you are in the dark night, you don’t yet know it to be a passage into the light. The darkness feels real and absolute, full of terror. You are not yet the future self who has made it through. When Lane hiked the Maze, a bewildering and dangerous array of interlocking canyons in Utah, its confusing paths and frequent dead ends triggered an unsettling engagement with his personal demons. A confined, horizonless space where you can get permanently lost, or washed away by a flash flood, was the perfect place to descend to one’s inner depths.

The suicide of a father when Lane was thirteen, his mother facing death with Alzheimer’s, a mentor taken by cancer, the heart attack of a close friend––all the terrible losses came to visit in that arid canyon, whispering their ancient fears. But that’s not where the story ends, because the dark night doesn’t just take away. It also gives, and as John of the Cross discovered, it seems to know exactly what you need. Lane’s own story bears witness:

“There in the dark night, wandering through a maze, the impossible may happen. You find yourself moving beyond the fear and confusion you’ve been carrying for years. It’s no longer necessary to ‘fix’ what was unresolved in your parents’ lives. You can leave the past––there at the canyon wall, on the floor of the Maze, finally and for good.”

Mt. Whitney summit, 30 minutes before lightning and snow (September 5, 1998)

Failure is the next layer in Lane’s archaeology of descent. His pilgrimage to climb the highest American peak outside Alaska came short by 1700 vertical feet. California’s Mt. Whitney (14,505’) may not pose the same technical challenges as the glacial summits of higher or more northerly mountains. In summer the trail can be snow-free all the way. But the air is thin, the way steep, and the weather fickle. When I climbed Whitney twenty-one years ago, the sky went from sunshine to lightning to snow in half an hour.

Lane ascended Whitney with a friend in late spring, when lingering snow made footing unsure and an enveloping cloud reduced visibility to zero. He could barely see his own feet, and a sudden panic about falling into an unseen abyss forced him to turn back. His friend continued on, and later reported on the stunning views Lane had missed. To make it worse, some 12-year-old boy scouts back at base camp regaled him with their own tales of reaching the top. “Failure,” Lane writes, “felt like an indictment of my own worth as a person, confirmation of a deeper defect in character.”

His unsuccessful climb has stuck with him as a vivid metaphor for his own struggles to prove himself. Whether he was feeling out of place in a demanding graduate school, or worrying about being good enough as a teacher or writer, he felt the pressure of high expectations. Whether we’re trying to live up to our own ideas of perfection or somebody else’s, the pinnacle of “success” is a killer climb. What happens when you just can’t go all the way?

Martin Luther is Lane’s companion on this particular trail. Tortured by angst, guilt and a damaging penitential system, the great reformer learned the hard way that when we come short, when we mess up, we remain the beloved of God. “All of his life, Luther had feared an angry, demanding God, only to discover in the end that God had been wanting to love and forgive all along.” The life of grace has nothing to do with striving for perfection. It is, rather, an economy of perpetual forgiveness and compassion. God’s love is not earned, nor is it ever withdrawn. All we have to do, as Paul Tillich said, is to “accept our acceptance.”

For Lane, the most important mountains are the ones we don’t climb. “Every failure is an invitation to growth. Mistakes are occasions for grace, opportunities to choose a different path. They make forgiveness possible. Only in the absence of success can you know yourself to be loved without cause.”

Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada (August 21, 2012)

Lane’s trajectory of descent concludes with death, the point of no return. The literal end of our mortal span is not the only death we face. We all experience many little deaths throughout our life, as one stage or condition ends and another takes its place. And for the spiritually adventurous, there is the hardest death of all: the annihilation of the inauthentic self.

Letting go of the old life, the old self, or the old story is always challenging. Sometimes we have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the new life, even if it’s infinitely better. What Lane calls “the wild and reckless beauty” of untamed places can help us transcend our limiting self-descriptions and receive an identity far more luminous and vast.

“Inherently we sense that the uncaring majesty of wilderness has the potential of breaking us open to love. Each passage to a new self begins with an allurement that threatens to kill, even as it ignites a new fire within.”

A few years before his retirement from thirty years of university teaching, in the company of his dog and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, Lane ascended a wild section of Missouri’s Ozark Plateau to undergo a ritual death, releasing his hold on an identity which was passing away. On Mudlick Mountain, named for some of the oldest exposed rock in the world, he chose a primitive stone shelter as his “death lodge”––a place to bid farewell to the old life and prepare himself for the new.

“My hope was to trade the mind of the scholar for the heart of a vagabond poet. . . In my backpack I’d brought along the last few pages of a scholarly book I’d been writing. I read these to the dog and the hickory trees, offered thanks for the work I’d been given, and then burned the pages in the fireplace.”

Finally, like the prophet Ezekiel, he shaved his head to welcome old age and celebrate his imminent freedom from “impression management.” It’s a poignant image. The aging scholar consenting to vanish. The ashes of his writings now cold in the fireplace. His faithful dog––whose  last breath would come during Lane’s drafting of the death chapter––quietly living in the moment.

It’s like a quatrain from Li Po, an 8th-century poet cited in Lane’s book. On a mountain overlooking China’s Shuiyan River, Li Po wrote:

The birds have vanished into the sky,
and now the last cloud drains away.
We sit together, the mountain and I,
until only the mountain remains.

Sunrise view of Mt. Whitney from Trail Camp at 12,000′ (September 5, 1998)

 

Except for the epigraph, all quotations are from Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice by Belden C. Lane (Oxford University Press, 2015).

All photographs were taken on my own hikes.

 Lane’s final theme, Delight (Returning Home with Gifts), will be the subject of my next post.