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.

The Desert and the Flood (Homily for Lent 1)

Death Valley flowers

Today’s Old Testament reading takes us to the end of the great Flood in Genesis. Many people have trouble with this story, because they read it as a tale of crime and punishment, with an angry father god who will get us if we don’t behave.

But the rest of Scripture won’t let us read it that way. The rest of Scripture, including the ending of the Flood story itself – the rainbow and the promise – shows us the face of God as the face of love. God doesn’t want to kill us. God wants to make a covenant with us. God wants to marry us.

So what is the Flood story really about? It actually generates a multitude of meanings, but one of the central ones has to do with violence. Genesis says that God looked upon the earth and saw that it was filled with violence. Sound familiar?

Violence is what happens when we put ourselves in the center instead of God, and try to make the world over in our own image. We are unable to honor or even see the existence of other beings as independent of our own desire. We lose all curiosity for anything outside ourselves.

Violence is intolerance of difference: other selves, other perspectives, other cultures are treated as obstacles to our desire, and must be made either to serve us or be swept away. This intolerance of difference, of otherness, may be seen in the rhetoric of terrorists, as well as its mirror image in the anti-Muslim ranting of certain American politicians. It is may also be seen in the recent outbreaks of overt racism in this country. Fear and hatred of those not like us has become far too common.

Such boundless self-assertion, says the Bible, is the foundational violence that threatens to swallow the whole earth. The Flood is not a punishment imposed from the outside; it is what we have made of ourselves.

When we are hostile to those who are not like us, who are not useful in the boundless expansion of our swelling desire, we destroy the balances and boundaries of which the world is made. You can see this violence in relationships, on the freeway, in the crucifixion of Nature, in the current phenomenon of endless war. If we let creation’s harmonious balance be smashed by human violence, we will all be washed away, the innocent and guilty alike. Not even the billionaire profiteers will be able to hide on that day.

A world drowning in its own violence.
Is this an ancient myth, or the daily news?

But the Flood story has a surprise ending. Instead of destruction, new possibility. Instead of anger, love. Instead of violence, reverence for all beings with whom we share the planet. God tears up all the sad old tragedy scripts and gives us a comedy instead. God invites us to join in the re-imagination of the world. God writes a new story in our hearts.

This is why the Epistle of Peter links the waters of the Flood to the waters of baptism. Both are the ending of an old story and the birthing of a new one. When our old selves drown in the depths of the font, we are reborn in Christ. No longer I, but Christ in me, as Paul says.

But before Christ could become our future, he first had to become himself. We are all tempted to live some other life than our own, to wear other people’s faces instead of becoming what God made us to be. Jesus was no exception. He could have lived some other life. Tradition says that he was tempted to dominate others and to escape the Way of the Cross.

“You don’t have to suffer,” Satan told him. “Not you. You were born King of the World. Think of the good you could do with all that power.”

But if Jesus had not lived with the poor and the outcast, if he had spent his time making rich and powerful friends, would he have been Jesus? If he had led a violent uprising to overthrow Roman tyranny, if he had devoted his life to reforming the religious establishment, would he have been Jesus? If he had turned stones into bread, or not risen from the dead, would he have been Jesus?

“Ask me whether what I have done is my life.”
writes poet William Stafford.[i]
Ask me whether what I have done is my life.

Well, what Jesus did was his life. So, we may wonder, how do we do our own lives? To answer that question, we must go, with Jesus, to the desert.

The desert is the emptiness where there’s no place to hide. In the desert, you come face to face with yourself, your demons, and your God. Nothing is defined there, nothing known in advance. Your scripts are no good in the desert. Your evasions are futile. Whatever makes you want to turn around and run back to the safety of your old illusions is the very thing that is trying to kill you.

Only in the desert is the silence deep enough for you to hear the whisper of your innermost heart. And what is your heart trying to tell you? Listen. Listen to your heart.

As Parker Palmer says:

“Before you tell your lives what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you … Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about – quite apart from what I would like it to be about… Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am…”[ii]

We’re always making up stories about ourselves. Sometimes we’re heroes, sometimes we’re victims. But all of these stories are fictions that make us deaf and blind to what our life is actually trying to tell us. What are the stories that you need to let go of in order to let your life speak? If you are going to give up anything this Lent, give up those tired old stories about yourself. They are no longer true.

When we are baptized, we die to our old fictions; we let go of the old stories by which we try to direct our lives. That’s why the Flood story is one of the great images for baptism. There are all those people of Noah’s time clinging to their own fictions, sinking down under the weight of their false identities just as we ourselves sink under the weight of our own fictions.

And when in baptism we are freed from the burden of our false selves, we rise, newly buoyant, to the surface; we are pulled out of the water and given a new story, a new name, which is our true self, our true life, which has been wanting to speak to us all these years.

That is the work we have come to do, as we begin our long Lenten journey, as we step out into that desert where every fiction will be stripped away. At first it will feel like loss, like too much giving up. We may even want to turn around and quit, like the Israelites who complained in the midst of their own desert journey: Let’s go back! It wasn’t so bad, being slaves in Egypt!

But with God’s help, we will keep going, deeper and deeper into that desert, determined to save the only life we can save,[iii] and there will come a day, some 40 days hence, when we will reach the other side. And there we will hear a voice, a voice that calls us each by name.

Come to the waters, the voice will say.
Come to the life-giving pool of the baptismal font.
Come to the Easter waters, and dive in.
Wash yourselves clean of the old fictions, the tired stories,
and rise again out of the watery depths,
newborn, with a new name,
a name which is: Not I but Christ in me.
And this new name, this new self,
is what our life has been trying to tell us all these years.

As Derek Walcott describes it,

The day will come when with elation you will greet
yourself arriving at your own door, in your own mirror,
And each will smile at the other’s welcome
Saying, “Sit here, eat, you will love again
the stranger who was yourself …
the stranger who has loved you all your life …
who knows you by heart.[iv]

The desert is wide, the journey long, but keep on keeping on, because it will lead you, step by step, into the heart of the Beloved who has loved you all your life, who knows you by heart.

And when we finally draw near the end of our Lenten journey, everything that the desert is about, everything the Christian faith is about, everything our very lives are about, will be intensified and distilled in the incomparable passage from death to life which we call the Paschal Mystery: the life-giving mystery experienced both ritually and personally in the Great Three Days of Holy Week: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil.

Right now, in these first lean and hungry days of the Lenten desert, the transformative joy of the Easter feast may seem unimaginable. But beyond the hunger and thirst, beyond the trials and temptations, the doubts and the stumbles, beyond even the faded Hosannas and the terrible shouts of “Crucify! Crucify!,” there will rise the jubilant Alleluias of the Easter Vigil, breaking at last the stony silence of defeat and death.

The great journey begins here. Now.
And when it’s over,
you will be somebody else:
Not I, but Christ in me.

[i] William Stafford, “Ask Me”

[ii] Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc. 2000) 3-4

[iii] Mary Oliver, “The Journey”

[iv] Derek Walcott, “Love after Love”