Time to Welcome Summer (and refuse the darkness)

The author watches the Solstice sunset from Friedrich Point on Lake Pepin, Minnesota.

For 150 years, James Thomson’s The Seasons was one of the most widely read books in the English-speaking world. Its ornate classical style and lack of emotional inwardness fell out of favor in the Romantic era, but it still sits on my shelf along with other great ruminations on the circle of time, like Edwin Way Teale’s quartet of road trips through the American seasons, the “spiritual biographies” of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter compiled by Gary Schmidt and Susan Felch, and the four diminutive volumes of seasonal poetry selected by Robert Atwan.

Essential summer reading.

Thomson’s Summer begins:

From brightening fields of ether fair-disclosed,
Child of the Sun, refulgent Summer comes . . .
Hence let me haste into the mid-wood shade,
Where scarce a sunbeam wanders through the gloom,
And on the dark-green grass, beside the brink
Of haunted stream that by the roots of oak
Rolls o’er the rocky channel, lie at large
And sing the glories of the circling year.

But the poet’s encyclopedic survey of the world beneath the summer sun is not simply an inventory of its pleasures and beauties, for Nature is not uniformly benign. Storms, floods, drought and earthquakes are part of the mix. Et in Arcadia ego. Thomson’s description of a plague (“the great destroyer”) feels ripped from current headlines. Pandemic mutes “the voice of joy,” sickens human communities and empties public spaces. People shelter in place, hoping to escape the “awful rage” of pestilence, as “o’er the prostrate city black Despair / Extends her raven wing.”

The sullen door,
Yet uninfected, on its cautious hinge
Fearing to turn, abhors society:
Dependents, friends, relations, Love himself,
Savaged by woe, forget the tender tie,
The sweet engagement of the feeling heart.

Who among us is not “savaged by woe,” cut off as we are from tender ties and seasonal rituals? But the poet, trusting the Providence “of powers exceeding far his own,” does not leave us there. He envisions the evils of this world subdued within a larger harmony, and even in the time of trial faith knows, impossibly, that all shall be well. “Nature from the storm / Shines out afresh; and through the lightened air / A higher lustre and a clearer calm / Diffusive tremble;  while, as if in sign / Of danger past, a glittering robe of joy, / Set off abundant by the yellow ray, / Invests the fields, yet dropping from distress.”

Summer 2020 does not arrive robed in joy. Tonight’s dark and deadly Trumpist rally in Tulsa, a demonic parody of traditional Summer Solstice affirmations of light and life, seems to augur a summer of darkness. But we must not succumb to the pestilence without­­­­––or the pestilence within. We must live as children of the light, refusing the gloom and resisting the storm. Already, voices are rising across our tormented country, demanding “a higher lustre and a clearer calm.”  And each of us, in ways both great and small, must continue to welcome the light, and to remember our joy.

Enough for us to know that this dark state,
In wayward passions lost and vain pursuits,
This infancy of being, cannot prove
The final issue of the works of God,
By boundless love and perfect wisdom formed,
And ever rising with the rising mind.

 

 

Poetry excerpts are from James Thomson, Summer (1727), part of his quartet, The Seasons (1730).

Lost at Sea: Retelling the Flood Story in a Pandemic

Row on, row on, another day
May shine with brighter light.
Ply, ply the oars, and pull away,
There’s dawn beyond the night.

–– Traditional sea shanty

 

At the Easter Vigil, we light a fire in the dark and tell our sacred stories. One of them is the saga of the Flood from the Book of Genesis. Tonight, as we stream the Vigil liturgy from our living room for our local parish, this is how it wants to be told. 

When we wonder about things, we tell stories.  One of our oldest stories describes a great flood that sweeps away everything in the world until there is nothing left but an endless sea. Some people say it’s a story about God getting fed up with the world’s violence and greed and wanting to start over. Others say the story is about everything being thrown out of balance by human sin––the harmonies break down, and God’s beautiful creation is swallowed up by chaos.

But tonight, when a new kind of flood is sweeping across the earth, washing away the world we know, maybe the story needs to be about the ark. We’re all in this boat together, hoping and praying we can survive the raging sea until the storms are over and we can anchor in some safe and peaceful harbor.

That’s where we are now, in the middle of the story––cooped up in this ark with a bad case of cabin fever, wondering if the flood is ever going to subside so things can get back to normal. It’s not easy, being stuck in this boat. It’s strange and stressful for us. Meanwhile, the sea gets rougher, the storms wilder.

It’s like that Psalm we say in Holy Week:

Save me, O God! The waters have risen up to my neck.
I am sinking in a deep mire. The waves wash over me.
Do not let the flood swallow me up! (Psalm 69)

That’s how it feels, here in the middle of the story, in the middle of the flood. We have our fears. We have our doubts. We have our losses. And frankly, some of us are getting sick and tired of this stupid ark. Been in the storm so long, Lord! How long? Too long.

But this isn’t where the story ends, with us lost at sea, sinking into oblivion. The One who made us will not forget us. The One who loves us will not forsake us. Already, God is imagining a future for us. Maybe it will be something better.

God never said we won’t be afflicted.
God never said we won’t be disquieted.
God did say we shall not be overcome.

When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not thee overflow,
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

Dancing with Death: Mortality in Cinema

Caravaggio, St. Jerome Writing, 1605-06

In the midst of life we are in death.

–– Burial Office, Book of Common Prayer

It is life that is the danger.

–– Pascal Garnier, C’est la Vie

 

Many of us are not accustomed to thinking about mortality on a daily basis. There’s no skull on my desk as I write. But the pandemic has changed a lot of things. A single sneeze or a stranger’s touch is now a memento mori. Death lurks everywhere––the supermarket, the subway, the street. Where can we go to flee from its presence?

While sheltering in place, I took a break from virtual choirs and amusing videos to screen a pair of films where death draws near during a pandemic: Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) and Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971). In each film, death is an embodied figure to whom the protagonist is inseparably bound. However, for Bergman’s medieval knight death’s visage is terrible and stern, while for Visconti’s ailing artist the gaze of death is youthful and alluring.

Death (Bengt Ekerot) in The Seventh Seal

Tadzio (Björn Andresen) in Death in Venice.

The Seventh Seal takes place during the Black Death of the 14th century, when bubonic plague killed as many as 200 million people in just five years. Antonius Block is a knight who has just returned home from the Crusades only to find Death waiting for him there. Whether by war or by plague, the knight’s fate is inescapable. He is doomed no matter what he does. It is not accidental that this film was made in the wake of the Second World War, and in the shadow of nuclear annihilation.

Another medieval knight, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, blames God for the injustice of the human condition:

How is mankind more blessed by you
Than sheep who cower in the field?
For slain is man just like the beasts,
Locked in prison cages, and given sickness
And great adversity, often for no good reason.
What governance is in this prescience,
That thus torments guiltless innocence? [i]

But Bergman’s knight isn’t even sure God exists. Death appears to him, but not the Divine––at least not in any way he recognizes. Although Bergman was an atheist, believers will discern God in the traveling players: Jof, Mia and their baby, a “holy family” who embody the life force carrying on despite every mishap. God may also be seen in the sacrificial act of the knight, who helps the players escape Death even when he himself cannot. And in the sweetest moment of this anguished film, the family share their strawberries and milk with Block, who receives it like a sacrament, a taste of unconquerable life:

“I shall remember this hour of peace: the strawberries, the bowl of milk, your faces in the dusk, Michael asleep, Jof with his lute. I shall remember our words, and shall bear this memory between my hands as carefully as a bowl of fresh milk. And this will be a sign and a great content.”

 

Antonius Block, the knight (Max von Sydow), plays chess with death.

As Block makes his way toward the refuge of his castle stronghold, he sees Death at work everywhere, working furiously through both plague and human cruelty. The knight tries to postpone the inevitable by engaging Death in a chess match. Death is amused, but not outwitted. Always the supreme ironist, he lets the knight get all the way home before finally taking his life. No one gets out of here alive.

And yet, in the famous dance of death at the film’s end, six of the film’s characters are missing. The “holy family” still wander the earth, untroubled by death because they belong to grace. And three who died (a woman executed for witchcraft, Jof’s wife, and an enigmatic maid) are also absent from Death’s chorus line, perhaps because they had chosen acceptance over fear when their end came.

The Dance of Death in The Seventh Seal.

Death in Venice, adapted from Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella, follows a German artist, Gustav von Aschenbach, to Venice, where he hopes to restore his health and sooth his nerves. In the book he is a writer, but Visconti makes him a composer, modeled after Gustav Mahler, whose Third and Fifth symphonies amplify the film’s luscious imagery and deep feeling.

While enjoying the Belle Epoque luxury of the Grand Hotel des Bains, Aschenbach becomes obsessed with the beauty of Tadzio, an adolescent boy on holiday from Poland with his family. Mann aestheticizes the composer’s forbidden desire into a metaphor for immortal beauty and perfection, comparing the boy to the finest Greek sculpture. But in the cinematic version, the explicitness of a visible gaze is hard to defuse with metaphorical rationalizations, and the film was indeed controversial when it came out fifty years ago.

But as I watched through quarantined eyes, I could not escape the idea of the comely boy as the angel of Death, drawing Aschenbach out of himself toward a kind of oblivion. For the artist, mortality means incompleteness. There is never enough time to reach perfection, to say everything that wants to be said. So Tadzio’s evanescent, unattainable beauty mocks the artist’s failure to find a lasting container for the longings of his heart.

The story’s title and content support this interpretation. Death––the sense of an ending––is everywhere in Venice. A plague of cholera is approaching from the east, and despite official assurances that everything is fine, tourists have begun to flee, leaving a kind of ghost city behind. Aschenbach’s heart is beginning to fail. And Venice itself, ever threatened by rising seas, suffers the melancholy of a diminishing future.

In the film’s final scene, Aschenbach is sitting in a beach chair, watching Tadzio wade into the bright sea beneath a declining sun. From a distance, the boy looks back at him, then points off toward a formless blur of light, as though only the infinite can receive the fullness of our longing. As Mann put it, “To rest in what is perfect (ideal, complete in itself) is the longing of those who strive for what is excellent, and is not nothingness itself a form of perfection?”[ii] If the angel of death mocks our incompleteness, does it not also invite us into an ultimate wholeness beyond our imagining, what Mann calls “an immensity full of promise?”[iii]

Tadzio points to “an immensity full of promise.”

We see Aschenbach struggle to stand up, reaching a desperate hand toward the sea, Tadzio, infinity, God. Then his heart fails; he falls back lifeless into the chair. Visconti then cuts to a long shot of the beach. Aschenbach is now barely noticeable on the wide expanse of sand. Hotel attendants carry his body away. What happens to him after that, God only knows.

When a monk composed the chant, Media vita in morte sumus (In the midst of life we are in death), it was on a New Year’s Eve early in the 14th century. Little did he know that a few decades later, a third to a half of Europe would perish in the Black Death. But I doubt he would have changed a word to sound more comforting. Whatever our fate––calamity or blessing––Death keeps us company every step of the way. Can we learn to live with that?

My friend Bill Coats, theologian and priest, recently wrote:

“It is hard for us not to put life first. We live longer, we are healthier, our medical system assumes and acts as if we can live forever. But a pandemic, even with a plethora of scientific and medical information is, in the last analysis, about death. Of course, in a pandemic not all will die, indeed the vast majority will live even if and when the virus strikes them. Yet the environment in the meantime is open to fear and is predicated on the nearness of death. Our generally optimistic culture is hardly prepared for this.”[iv]

 

Bengt Ekerot and Ingmar Bergman on the set of The Seventh Seal.

Death is near. It has always been so for mortals. We can’t change that fact, but perhaps it is time to rethink our relationship. I like this photo of Bergman talking with Death on the set of The Seventh Seal. They seem so companionable. No one is threatening, no one is afraid. They look like friends. Maybe it will be like that, in the end.

 

 

Related post: The Weight of These Sad Times

 

[i] Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Knight’s Tale,” 440-451, Canterbury Tales.

[ii] Thomas Mann, quoted in Philip Kitcher, Deaths in Venice: The Cases of Gustav von Aschenbach (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 174.

[iii] Thomas Mann, Death in Venice, trans. Clayton Koelb (New York: W. W. Norton, 1994), 63.

[iv] The Rev. William Coats, personal correspondence, March 2020.

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