Mingling of colours at a festival

One of the limits of reality
Presents itself in Oley where the hay,
Baked through long days, is piled in mows. It is
A land too ripe for enigmas, too serene.
There the distant fails the clairvoyant eye

And the secondary senses of the ear
Swarm, not with secondary sounds, but choirs,
Not evocations but last choirs, last sounds
With nothing else compounded, carried full,
Pure rhetoric of a language without words.

Things stop in that direction and since they stop
The direction stops and we accept what is
As good. The utmost must be good and is
And is our fortune and honey hived in the trees
And mingling of colours at a festival.

From 'Credences of Summer' (Section IV) by Wallace Stevens


Last week I had two things very much in my mind and body - that is to say in my whole being - the first was our Harvest Festival and the second was the death of my friend Ronald (the picture here is of him dancing in Malta in 1970) in Avignon. The service you can read here and my brief address here. As most of you know I missed the former to conduct the latter. Harvest and death may fit together in many ways but this week the commingling of themes was co-ordinated around the reading I had in mind for our Harvest Festival, section IV of Wallace Stevens' poem 'Credences of Summer' (reproduced above)

My feelings about both subjects spun around the pole of what Stevens called the 'limits of reality'. This limit he saw at Oley in Pennsylvania at Harvest time. I don't make any claims to know what HE meant by this but, as Stevens himself said, he felt that the poet fulfills himself 'as he sees his imagination become the light in the minds of others' (cited in Serio, Cambridge Companion to Wallace Stevens p. 3). Last week it became a light, a pure shining in my imagination that helped light my way to a profound sense of meaning during this difficult time.

Most religious funerals try, of course, to side step in some way the 'limits of reality'. After all, for the most part, they are concerned to say with, as the prayer-book says 'sure and certain hope' things about an invisible really-real world beyond our own. But, as most of you know, for me this really-real other world has simply ceased to be a persuasive idea - I cannot imagine it as at all inevitable. Of course such a fading away of this other-world as a grounding reality for our own can easily lead to either agnosticism or full-blown atheism. But this response has never seemed to me to be either a sufficient or appropriate response to what it is to be a human-being standing at the slowly fading end of the Greco-Judaeo-Christian religion.

What follows is merely an attempt to pass on to you what, for me at least, this different way of being religious after religion feels like. It is, inevitably, a very personal story but at least it is not couched in technical terms. I do not claim that everyone felt what I felt but I was the service-leader and that may be said to count for something though never everything. All I can hope for is that, like Stevens, what I felt in my imagination may become a 'light in the minds of others'. Importantly I use the word 'imagination' here not to mean just a disembodied mind but the whole embodied-self in this world. In this attempt to light a light I still might fail but, as Samuel Beckett said ('Worstward Ho'), 'Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.'

In a very obvious way I first ran into the 'limit of reality' the moment we all walked into the Chambre Funeraire in Avignon to see Ronald for the last time, a limit that was emphasised all the more when the coffin lid was brought across the room and firmly screwed down. Here I could have sidestepped this detail by using the verb 'secured' but 'screwed' is the right word and for me the screws and screwdriver carried with them an earthy, grounded, reassuring and settling normality that I later realised had gently restrained me from trying to peer over the horizon into some imagined other-world.

As I stood there, with Stevens' poem vividly present in my imagination, I felt strongly that we, his wife, son, brother and friends were standing around him like hay 'piled in mows', we were the collected harvest of his life and that room, and later the crematorium itself, began to be transformed for me into 'a land too ripe for enigmas, too serene'; a present-land so ripe with fruits of life and love that, not only was there simply was no *need* to peer into the distance with 'the clairvoyant eye' but that, had I been tempted to use it to peer into the distance, I feel  I would have failed to find anything richer, more serene and more graced with 'sudden rightness' than this moment here and now. 

Leaving the Chambre Funeraire slowly we made our way to the Crematorium itself - a beautiful, modern, white, neutral space - and, as quietly we sat down together around Ronald's coffin my 'secondary senses of the ear' began to 'swarm, not with secondary sounds, but choirs' as Faure's Requiem began to fill the room. As it felt as if my imagination caught light from Stevens' light. It is a commonplace to say 'one listens to music' as we feel ourselves to be the listening subject with the music coming to us from outside, from beyond us. But here, still deeply commingled in 'the sudden rightness' of this ripe-harvest-landscape, the choirs were not 'outside', not secondary, but internal to the occasion which was embracing me - the music came from the whole commingled of which I was a part, a line of movement. In this commingling, Faure's music was not an 'evocation' of anything external, anything beyond, but a present music that was, therefore, also an expression of the 'limits of reality'. Because of this the voices I heard might meaningfully be called 'last choirs, last sounds'. In that moment the music carried with it nothing more than the presence of being and life itself - there was 'nothing else compounded' and because I could not make out the words themselves as the music was so quiet as such it 'carried full,/Pure rhetoric of a language without words.' It was, in the sense I tried to pass over to you two weeks ago, 'a song beyond me, yet myself.'

As we drew to close I lit a candle to represent life itself and, as light begets light, from it I lit a candle that stood for Ronald's life. From Ronald's candle his son, Stephen then lit four more standing for the love and compassion Ronald shared and gave to his wife, his family, his friends and colleagues; for his healing work as a doctor with children and with adults; for his creativity as an artist, a writer, teacher and academic; for his generous spirit of adventure which encouraged all of us to live life to the full. And then, in the spirit of love and at this limit of reality I extinguished Ronald’s candle saying that as we did this we could see that the Candle of Life still burnt as did the candles of love, healing, creativity and adventure that had been lit from Ronald’s flame.

In such ripe and rich land I felt was inhabiting inevitably things stopped moving in the 'direction' of the future and since they were stopped (quite naturally stopped for I did not stop them, they were stopped-in-themselves) I strongly felt it was possible to 'accept what is/As good'.

In my imagination I took another light from Stevens' conclusion of this section of the poem where he wrote: 'The utmost must be good and is/And is our fortune and honey hived in the trees/And mingling of colours at a festival.' It seemed to me that the fortune and the honey hived in trees was here our strength, love and companionship which we were here bringing out of hidden places to sustain and nourish each other - another harvest made possible by the life we shared with Ronald and were here, still sharing with each other.

At this point we were graced with a moment of sudden rightness that spoke of continuing life, of a kind of resurrection even, that was wholly present and required no other transcendent world to be deeply meaningful. The very kind lady who ran the crematorium had no English and she clearly hadn't, herself, been following the service. At the moment Ronald was to be taken to furnace door she noticed Ronald's candle was no longer burning. She very carefully took a taper and re-lit it leaving all our candles burning as Ronald left. An always present life, being itself would not be extinguished - or so this moment seemed to say.

And finally I experienced two minglings of colours at our festival. The first was the moment Ronald was finally committed to be burnt, something in France you are, thankfully, allowed to witness though from one side. As this happened in the light of my imagination (and I'm sure in fact) there followed a sun-like brightness which spoke so eloquently of the dynamic life of the universe which is always in constant formation and re-formation. It seemed doubly fitting to me that Ronald's brother Alan was there not only as a brother but as a scientist whose life's work has been in solar research laterly at the Institut d'Astrophysique Spatiale, Universite Paris XI, France.

The second mingling of colours was at our quiet gathering outside in the memorial garden with the warm Mediterranean morning sun highlighting the slowly turning autumn leaves blowing gently in the wind. I felt I was truly at a festival of life.

Now, what you might make of and/or do with of this very personal experience is not for me to say. But what I will say is that leading Ronald's funeral I felt for the first time in any liturgy I have conducted what I have been struggling to express by using the phrase 'transcending with out transcendence'.

One way of putting this negatively - which I will do simply so you can, by contrast, grasp the positive - is to say that I feel there is no 'other world' and that is to say, obviously, that reality has its limits. But when one succeeds (or feels one succeeds) in 'transcending without transcendence' there does appear 'another world', namely, THIS world perceived differently. This world seems to me to be a 'land too ripe for enigmas, too serene' whose limits are not a prison wall or a darkened veil stopping us from seeing heaven but rather a limit which definines, enabled and comforts, a limit which is nothing less than the embracing arms of Nature which in turn, and endlessly, gifts us 'honey', which allows us to 'hive' it, which lets the hay ripen and be cut down at Harvest ready to be milled, commingled with water and yeast, baked and eaten around tables of love. And all this is done in the bright clearing that appears in the mysterious darkness of we know not what and, in which, it is possible to celebrate life as the mingling of colours at a joyous festival of life.