To live in this world you must be able to do three things — a natural, this-worldly understanding of immortality
|Trees and a bench at Wandlebury on Monday|
As I walked in the presence of the apparently dead winter trees, these “pillars of light”, I found my thoughts centre once again on a poem by Mary Oliver — on this occasion, “In Blackwater Woods”. It was very much in mind because I had another funeral to conduct in just a couple of days and I often use its concluding nine lines in funeral services as words of committal.
Look, the trees
their own bodies
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
the long tapers
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
("New and Selected Poems": Volume 1)
I also had in mind another passage that I often use in funerals just before the committal, namely George Santayana’s (1863-1952) interpretation of Benedict Spinoza’s (1632-1677) understanding of immortality:
When a man’s life is over, it remains true that he has lived; it remains true that he has been one sort of man and not another. In the infinite mosaic of history that bit has its unfading and its perpetual function and effect. A man who understands himself under the form of eternity knows the quality that eternally belongs to him, and knows that he cannot wholly die, even if he would; for when the moment of his life is over, the truth of his life remains. The fact of him is part forever in the infinite context of facts [existence] (from the Preface to Spinoza's Ethics and De intellects emendation, J. M. Dent and Sons, 1910, No. 481 in their Everyman's Library)
When I got back from my walk in the late afternoon all of my thoughts about the winter trees, Oliver, Santayana and Spinoza were suddenly pulled into focus for me by some words of Henry Bugbee (1915-1999) from his book “The Inward Morning” (University of Georgia Press, 1999, pp. 161-163):
Men have sought the light of eternity, and they have often thought to look away from things. Yet is this light something apparent, or is it a light in which things appear? Are not things dense and dark as it is necessary for them to take this light? And what is revealed by this light, to what does it supply relevant illumination, if not to things standing forth wonderfully in it? (Footnote: Things exist infinitely: I do not mean ‘on and on interminably,’ but something closer to what may be expressed in saying: ever and ever, forever and always, it is so. Mahler comes close to it in his way in Das Lied von der Erde, the closing song.)
[. . .] It seems to me that I want to say we must hold with things to the extent of not invoking anything behind or beyond them of which they are the appearance. As I put it years ago in my doctoral thesis, reality makes a stand here and now in existing things. [. . .] ‘Beyond’, ‘behind,’ are these not more properly construed as images of the obscurity in our souls? But as we learn to take things in their darkness, as we can acknowledge them in the intimation of their finality, then we can stand upon the threshold of receiving the ultimate gift of things, and obscurity within us gives way to utter light.
Only as things are dense and opaque do they stand forth in the light of eternity, and take the light. To take that which exists as existing and not as a symbol for something else; to find something to which one gives full heed, and not merely to push right through it in search of a beyond, or to have from it only a message at once directing the mind away from it and on to other things; such is the experience of things as eternal, in the making. To experience things in their density is to experience containment in reality. But the agile mind and the distraught soul militate against true perception; for true perception requires stillness in the presence of things, the active, open reception of the limitless gift of things.
Together, the trees and these texts preached to me what seemed to be a gospel of natural, this-worldly hope and it is something of this hope I am going to try to bring before you today for your consideration.
Death is one of the most powerful moments in which I am taught finality. It is to be taught the truth that all individual things — whether myself, those whom I love, the trees and everything else — burst forth astonishingly and beautifully into existence out of a mysterious darkness, are in the world bathed in light for a while and, then, are gone again into the mysterious darkness.
As do we all, I come back, time and time again, to what Mary Oliver calls this “black river of loss”. It is perhaps inevitable that within our own culture, one shaped for millennia by dreams of the existence of another, perfect and really-real world, our “agile minds and distraught souls” have so often been tempted at these times to look to another world in order to find an eternal and lasting light and reality in which everything is saved and nothing is lost.
But for someone like me there are by now the strongest of indications that the existence of such a supernatural world and associated God is vanishingly unlikely and this means, especially as a minister of religion who must prepare and conduct funerals, if I am to find an eternal and lasting light and reality in which everything is saved and nothing is lost then I need to find it in this world. I need to find a way to show myself and others that the salvation we seek is salvation not FROM this world, as Christianity has understood it to be, but salvation IN this world.
It seems to me that Oliver, Spinoza, Santayana, Bugbee and, above all else, the winter trees through which I walked on Monday offered me a very tangible glimpse of what this salvation in the world is like. Here I simply wish to pass the gospel of hope and joy I saw for you to use, or dismiss, as you wish.
Let me return to the beginning of Mary Oliver’s poem where she is imagining that rich moment in autumn when the trees are just beginning to turn themselves into the “pillars of light” through which I was walking on Monday.
All around her are the distinct, utterly unique aspects of that season. There is the “rich fragrance of cinnamon” and also that sense of fulfilment as the trees seed the world with the possibility of new life in “the long tapers of cattails” that “are bursting and floating away over “the blue shoulders of the ponds.”
Her autumn walk and this poem are, of course, fully informed by earlier winters, springs, summers and other autumns through which she has passed many times. But, for me, one sign of Oliver’s greatness as a poet is her ability to remain in the presence of things as they are showing up to her in the here and now and not to turn away from them to, in this case, perhaps, the trees in other seasons and to other, easier and more obviously pleasant thoughts and insights. She, however, resolutely remains in the present and does not flinch from telling us that every year everything she has ever learned in her lifetime leads back to this moment, to the autumn bonfires and “the black river of loss whose other side is salvation, whose meaning none of us will ever know.”
And now here I am, in the cold season that follows the season of fulfilment, with death in my mind and a feeling that my own feet are in the black river of loss.
And then I’m struck by how hard it is to remain with these winter trees and not to push right through them in search of a more obviously pleasant and easy imagined beyond. I find myself struggling to overcome the powerful, culturally implanted idea that the eternal truth and real meaning of these trees is that they are really only symbols of something else and that their message is directing me elsewhere.
But, Oliver helps me hold my nerve and this keeps me firmly in the presence of the trees in the cold here and now.
Oliver seems fully to have understood something that Bugbee points to a little earlier in his book when he notes that the concrete reality of this or that thing is experiential, and that this tree, or this person or any other thing before us, is not there merely as a specimen or member of a class, but present in their utter, solid, infinite uniqueness in this moment now (cf. The Inward Morning, p. 161). And I can see that what is true of these trees is, of course, also true of those whom we love and Paul Wienpahl (1916-1980), to whose writings I owe so much, reminds me that any given person (man or woman) . . .
“. . . is not merely a woman. She is this woman, differing in all these enormously varied ways from that woman. Every single thing about her, every property, no matter how seemingly insignificant, distinguishes her from the other. To know her, then, is to overlook nothing about her” (Radical Spinoza, p. 66).
To perceive this, fully to heed those whom we love, the trees and all things, requires, as both Oliver sees and Bugbee saw, “stillness in the presence of things, the active, open reception of the limitless gift of things.” And so standing there I know I must not allow my “agile mind and the distraught soul militate against true perception” and be tempted to look away from these trees as they are now, away from the people whom I love as the people they are now, nor turn away from the black river of loss to which I know I will always, from time to time, return.
And then in a moment of epiphany the meaning of Bugbee’s words, “Only as things are dense and opaque do they stand forth in the light of eternity, and take the light”, come radiantly alive!
I can suddenly see that only when I am still in the presence of this changing, living and dying, finite tree as it actually stands before me in all its density and opaqueness, can I see it take the light of eternity and it will show up before me as a pillar of light.
I can also suddenly see that only when I am still in the presence of this changing, living and dying, finite person as they actually stand before me in their density and opaqueness, can I see them take the light of eternity and they too become a pillar of light.
And then, in another instant, I recall Santayana’s words and joyously hear them almost as if for the first time and know that only when I understand myself under the form (or in the light) of eternity as this mortal creature and not another can I know what belongs eternally to me, what eternally belongs to this tree, or what eternally belongs to those whom I love.
And here, I think, we begin to come upon what we may understand by Mary Oliver’s words concerning salvation on the “other side” of “the black river of loss, one whose meaning none of us will never know.”
The other side of the black river of loss is not an actual metaphysical other side — it is not another, different world but rather this world seen differently which is, in a way, another kind of world to the one we are used to seeing.
The other side of the black river of loss — the moment of salvation — is suddenly finding myself standing in this differently seen world in which, now bathed in the light of eternity, all things are endlessly showing up as the unique, beautiful transient things they are. I see all things arrayed as if in gold with that which is eternally theirs — I see that for ever and ever, for ever and always things stand wonderfully for each new generation and in each new moment.
We can never know the meaning of this eternal light in itself because it is only when we fully acknowledge the mystery of being the kind of finite, opaque and dense creatures we are that we suddenly stand forth in the light of eternity, and take the light. Only then do we begin to understand the quality that eternally belongs to us all, and we know that we cannot wholly die, even if we would; for we know that when the movement of our life is over, the truth of our life remains. The fact of us is a part forever in the infinite context of facts [existence].
In other words we now understand ourselves as forever part and parcel of nature's mysterious and miraculous unfolding. (cf Bugbee's comments on p. 136 of The Inward Morning — I reproduce them at the end of this post as a postscript)
Of course, this is an understanding of immortality almost unimaginably different from that offered by Christianity and it would be disingenuous were I not to make this clear. In relation to this, what I have not told you so far, is that the funeral I conducted this week did not use the words of Mary Oliver nor those of Santayana. I had offered them up to the family but, in the end it was decided that the committal should be made by an Anglican clergyman closely related to the deceased and he, understandably (and with my blessing), wished to say other words that will be familiar to some of us here today:
We have entrusted our sister to God’s mercy,
and we now commit her body to be burned:
earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust:
in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life
through our Lord Jesus Christ,
who will transform our frail bodies
that they may be conformed to his glorious body,
who died, was buried, and rose again for us.
To him be glory for ever.
(From the Church of England's funeral service in Common Worship)
I do not in any way wish to belittle or dismiss this Christian hope in the resurrection, but I have to be honest and clear that I do not, myself, have such a faith and so I cannot personally offer anyone such a hope. I feel it is important, as your minister, gently to be clear about this.
The immortality of which Spinoza, Santayana and I speak, is of a very different kind. As Santayana says in the same preface to Spinoza's Ethics from which you have already heard:
“He who, while he lives, lives in the eternal, does not live longer for that reason. Duration has merely dropped from his view; he is not aware of or anxious about it; and death, without losing its reality, has lost its sting. The sublimation of his interest rescues him, so far as it goes, from the mortality which he accepts and surveys. The animals are mortal without knowing it, and doubtless presume, in their folly, that they will live for ever [although folly seems the wrong word here — perhaps 'innocence' would be better?]. Man alone knows that he must die; but that very knowledge raises him, in a sense, above mortality, by making him a sharer in the vision of eternal truth.”
To some — even to Santayana — this can seem like a cruel truth and perhaps it is. But Santayana felt, as do I, difficult though it may be, that this truth can be loved and it “makes free those who have loved it.”
It seems to me that Mary Oliver is another one who has come to love this truth and in her poem she eloquently and beautifully shows us how to live freely and fully in this world by gracefully and gratefully doing three things . . .
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
Here is the question which Spinoza has taught me to ask of the Spinoza who wrote this: What thing is eternal and infinite other than perishable things themselves? And what is this love of that which is eternal and infinite toward if it is not a love toward those things with which we coexist in union? And what is this love, filling us with joy and unmingled with any sadness, but our realisation of the union existing between ourselves and the whole of nature? What is our love toward, if it is not toward the modally manifest? What is our union with, if not the finite? Apart from the finite and perishable nothing is manifest toward which love would be possible. Our failure to appreciate our union with the whole of nature is our failure to love the finite truly.