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.

Heart work and heaven work

Robert White portrait of George Herbert painted 41 years after his death.

Robert White portrait of George Herbert painted 41 years after his death.

Today is the feast day of George Herbert, the seventeenth-century Anglican poet and priest whose remarkable verse was inseparable from his prayer life. As one admirer put it, “Herbert wrote most of it, but God wrote quite a lot.” That’s a proportionality to which every creative, and every priest, might aspire.

Izaak Walton tells a story about a time Herbert set out for a walk with some friends. Suddenly, without saying why, he excused himself and returned to his church. His friends assumed he’d only be a moment, but they waited and waited and he still didn’t come back out. So they went up to a window and peered in. As Walton relates, they “saw him [lying] prostrate on the ground before the Altar; at which time and place (as he after told [his friend Mr. Woodnot] he set some Rules to himself, for the future management of his life.”

The “holy Mr. Herbert,” they called him around his parish. It was a term of affection. In his late thirties he had given up worldly ambitions to enter the priesthood, and he spent the rest of his life at a country parish in the English village of Bemerton. He died of consumption only four years after being ordained. But his famous manual of advice to country parsons proved a lasting legacy, shaping the self-understanding of clergy for generations to come.

And his poetry! Such astonishing verbal images in a century famous for great language, where words could be bent to the subtlest purposes without losing a speck of passion or truth. Herbert’s art, as the Puritan Richard Baxter put it, was “heart work and heaven work.”

He was both poet and priest; indeed, he showed that poet and priest have similar business, the sacramental work of paying close attention, and enabling others to do the same. Another poet, Mary Oliver, has put this perfectly: “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is, but I do know how to pay attention.”

Herbert liked puns. It wasn’t just a cleverness with language. It was the way he saw the universe: one thing becomes another, like bread becoming God. He often starts with a word or an image, and morphs it into a multiplicity of resonant meanings, or as one critic put it, “he breaks the host of language.” The one is broken into the many so that all the scattered fragments may one day again be made one when God is all in all.

In ‘Church Monuments,’ he’s sitting in church, his mind wandering, and he starts looking at the big marble tombs all around him. First he thinks of his own mortality, “this heap of dust,” but in a few more lines he makes us see the marble monuments themselves crumble into dust, pressing upon us the awareness that everything on this earth must pass away. We are all passing away. And then in one stunning final image, Herbert makes our dust to be the sand in an hourglass, where time is always running out.

flesh is but the glass, which holds the dust
That measures all our time; which also shall
Be crumbled into dust… (‘Church Monuments’)

And in the process he makes a nice pun: “flesh is but the glass” makes the biblically literate reader think of “all flesh is grass,” one of the most vivid evocations of mortality in all of literature.

Herbert believed in words. Language was held more dear in his day, and he used it as a ladder to bridge earth and heaven. Grammar itself became a finely tuned instrument of praise. In ‘Prayer I,’ there are almost no verb forms. It’s mostly nouns, conveying a changelessness transcending the busy world of doing: Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age, Gods breath … The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage … Engine against th’ Almightie, sinner’s towre, Reversed thunder … Heaven in ordinairie, man well drest … The land of spices, something understood. And in ‘The Call,’ it is nouns that dominate both the stresses and the structure of every verse: Way, Truth, Life  … Light, Feast, Strength … Joy, Love, Heart.

Some of Herbert’s imagery speaks of humankind misreading or misspelling reality, and it was the poet’s job to put it right, to give everything its proper name once again.

We say amisse
This or that is:
Thy word is all, if we could spell. (‘The Flower’)

When Herbert lay dying, he entrusted his poems to his friend Nicholas Ferrar. They were, he said, “a picture of the many spiritual Conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus my master, in whose service I have found perfect freedom.” As to whether to publish his manuscript, he left that to Ferrar. “If he think it may turn to the advantage of any poor dejected soul, let it be made public; if not, let him burn it.” Thank God for Ferrar’s good judgment!

The Herbert whom we meet in his poems is a person very much in process: unfinished, imperfect, always aspiring to something higher. He cared deeply about formation and growth – his own as well as that of his congregation. As poet and priest he used all possible art to move those with ears to hear.

Hearken unto a Verser, who may chance
Ryme thee to good, and make a bait of pleasure.
A verse may finde him, who a sermon flies,
And turn delight into a sacrifice. (‘The Church Porch’)

As the subject of many of his poems, he used his own life, his own wrestling with God, as a lens for examining the frailty of mortals and the workings of grace. And as his own audience, he used the very process of writing as a form of prayer and self-examination. His poems are both the record of a soul and a source of instruction.

Herbert was extremely honest – even ruthless – about his prayer life. His mind was a “case full of knives,” as he put it, and he was no stranger to doubt, particularly doubt about traversing the abyss between human frailty and divine glory.

He wrestled with God, he wrestled with his own frail and mortal nature. “My searches are my daily bread,” he wrote, “but never prove.” He doesn’t get proof. He gets something better – faith.

Perhaps his signature poem is ‘Love III,’ which Simone Weil called “the most beautiful poem in the world.” I often use it to begin the liturgy of Maundy Thursday, with the congregation taking the part of the guest, and a solo voice speaking for Christ the host.

In the poem, the guest is full of self-abasement: not worthy to be here, not worthy even to look upon the One who invites him to the feast. And yet, the calmly insistent voice of Love will not be denied. There is nothing the guest can say or do that can ever separate him or her from that Love.

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, obeserving me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked anything.

A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.

Two hours in heaven

Musicians in the Pôrtico de la Gloria (12th century), cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

Musicians in the Pôrtico de la Gloria (12th century), cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

Belief is hard – at least when you dwell within the bubble of secular modernity, where reality seems to function well enough without invoking divinity as a causal mechanism. As long as there is money in the bank and a storm hasn’t knocked down the local power lines, as long as I am healthy and not spending any time in foxholes, it might slip my mind that life is a gift rather than a possession. God doesn’t make it any easier by being invisible or in disguise, and preferring to be subtle when it comes to manifesting presence.

In The Poetic Imagination: An Anglican Spiritual Tradition, William Countryman sees the ebb and flow of divine presence as “the central rhythm of Anglican spirituality.” Like the elusive behavior of waves and particles, the Holy seems to leap unpredictably between available and unavailable, known and unknown, intimate and distant, withheld and given. This can be hard on believers.

Oh that thou shouldst give dust a tongue
To cry to thee,
And then not hear it crying! all day long
My heart was in my knee,
But no hearing.
Therefore my soul lay out of sight,
Untun’d, unstrung:
My feeble spirit, unable to look right,
Like a nipt blossom, hung
Discontented.

– George Herbert (“Denial”)

There is no other sound
In the darkness but the sound of a man
Breathing, testing his faith
On emptiness, nailing his questions
One by one to an untenanted cross.

– R. S. Thomas (“In Church”)

When Herbert or Thomas felt God’s absence, they still remained in relationship with divinity. They missed its nearness. They longed for an intimacy lost. For the totally secularized, God is not merely absent. God is not even missed. The sense of longing inherent to the human condition has been transferred to more tangible, less ultimate objects. For those who do not reside within the practices and discourses of a faith community, is a relationship with the transcendent recoverable? The arts have been proposed as a substitute for religion. But instead of replacing God, the arts often seem to incarnate the divine, even for those who would never think to describe their experience theologically.

In A Natural History of the Arts: Imprint of the Spirit, Anthony Monti cites Sir Thomas Browne on the way music restores us to a spiritual mode of awareness:

There is something in it of Divinity more than the ear discovers: it is an Hieroglyphical and shadowed lesson of the whole World, and creatures of God; such a melody to the ear, as the whole World, well understood, would afford the understanding. In brief, it is a sensible fit of that harmony which intellectually sounds in the ear of God.[i]

In more contemporary language, Frank Burch Brown writes that the Sanctus of Bach’s Mass in B Minor “so shines and overflows with the musical manifestation of divine plenitude that in the experience of many a listener heaven and earth seem to converge, revealing the ultimate reality of their ecstatic union/communion.” [ii]

Image Journal, an exquisitely produced quarterly exploring the intersection of “art, faith and mystery,” employs both beauty and thought to counter the modernist dogma of belief’s imminent extinction. And at last weekend’s Seattle concert in celebration of the magazine’s 25th anniversary, I experienced the “musical manifestation of divine plenitude.” For two glorious hours, four choirs and a reader of poems pushed back the veil of doubt and distance so that a fortunate crowd of listeners could dwell – effortlessly, ecstatically – in the radiance of holy presence.

The design of the program had a litugical structure. There were seven sections – a sacred number – conducting us through the stages of spiritual journey: Cloud of Unknowing, After Paradise, The Contemplative Life, Longing for the Messiah, Mothering God, Blessed Are Those Who Mourn, and From Darkness into Light. Each section’s theme was introduced by a contemporary poem wrestling with the presence/absence of what Denise Levertov calls “the Other, the known / Unknown, unknowable.” [iii] And each poem was followed by a triptych of choral pieces from medieval to modern, from Hildegard and Palestrina to Arvo Pärt and John Tavener. Seattle Pro Musica, Opus 7 Vocal Ensemble, the Medieval Women’s Choir, and the Women of St. James Schola took turns lifting their voices in the resonant space of St. James Cathedral.

Sometimes the presence entered gently, as in the lyric by Jeanne Murray Walker: “Listen! Already God descends, waking us, / with his new breath, from sleep, / … like a mother.” [iv] Sometimes it clapped like thunder, as when the supplicating harmonies of Tavener’s “God is with us” were met with the sudden roar of the organ in heaven’s unambiguous reply.

The most stunning moment for me came at the end of James MacMillan’s Christus Vincit. The triumphant text – “Christ conquers, Christ is King, Christ is Lord of All” – started quietly with the sopranos, joined by the basses rumbling a rhythmic plainsong like breaking waves. The interplay of high and low, feminine and masculine, was punctuated by generous silences, allowing us to savor the fading reverberations. Then a single soprano began to rise above the other voices, with melismatic ornaments resembling the grace notes of Celtic song. Alleluia, she sang, over and over, her voice rising in a vocal mimesis of the ascending Christ. The other singers fell away as she soared on: Alleluia! Alleluia! And then, reaching a high B that seemed beyond the reach of mortals, she sang “All-le – “, but instead of the final syllables, there was sudden silence, as if she had vanished into eternity before the word could be finished.

In such an atmosphere, it was unbelief that became impossible. No more weeping by the rivers of exile, no hiding of faces from an alien Creator, no wandering in the wilderness of doubt and loss. We were home at last. God was not a dubious idea, but an immediate experience.

Alas, we are never permitted to linger long around the throne of presence. Once the vision fades, we must go forth to redeem the time being from insignificance.[v] But those two blessed hours provided a rich and lasting sustenance for those of us who continue along the pilgrim way.

[i] Anthony Monti, A Natural Theology of the Arts: Imprint of the Spirit (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2003) 121

[ii] Ibid., 122

[iii] Denise Levertov, “Sanctus,” from concert program

[iv] Jeanne Murray Walker, “And He Shall Dwell With Them,” from concert program

[v] W.H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio in Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976) 308