Death stands above me, whispering low
I know not what into my ear:
Of his strange language all I know
Is, there is not a word of fear.
By Walter Savage Landor, who died this day, 1864, in Florence.
Landor maintains his refusal to be cowed by the prospect of death. This stone is carved as a Celtic cross with the Jesus (IHS) monogram in the centre and the passion flower climbing to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus and of humanity.
We are unlikely to be asked to die for the sake of our earth, more to live so as to let her flourish; there are many little steps we can take, in our diet, our use of electricity, our purchasing of more stuff than we need or can use. Many little steps do make a difference. If we choose to live with more respect and love for Mother Earth, we will discern what to do next.
When did the Church come into being? Egyptian Christians say the first Church was in their land, when Joseph led Mary and Baby Jesus to exile in what is now Cairo; others point to Pentecost, the day when the tongues of fire came down upon the 120 core members of the Church of Christ’s followers, women and men, including the Apostles and Mary his mother. You could suggest also the calling of the twelve, the sending out of the seventy, among many other key moments in the development of the community that took over Jesus’s mission; but one I had not considered was the taking down of the crucified corpse of the Lord, and the hurried burial in the garden tomb.
The Visual Commentary on Scripture recently published a reflection on this event, titled The Birth of the Church. At this critical moment, the Church had to come together to do what needed doing for his Body; the Church that was now his Body, led by two previously marginal men, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus.
Paul Anel addresses this short moment through three works of art, by Rublev, Caravaggio and Michelangelo, and both the reflections and the art can be found by clicking on the link above.
What about the angry psalms – often called the cursing psalms – where the psalmist is ranting and raving and just lets it rip against his enemies? What about them? Should we be embarrassed about them, and try to hide them in a dark corner where no one will notice them?
Two Hundred and forty six years ago, Dr Johnson and James Boswell were on the Isle of Raasay in the Hebrides, making for Skye and thence for home. No regular Calmac ferry then! Indeed they had waited in the islands for clement weather to allow the rowing boats to set out. Now the conversation grew serious; can one die contented? Johnson’s answer is comprehensive, and reminds me of the old catechism answer: God made me to know him, love him and serve him in this world, and to be happy with him forever in the next. We rely on his mercy for the latter.
More of Boswell’s idiosyncratick spelling!
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 12. It was a beautiful day, and although we did not approve of travelling on Sunday, we resolved to set out, as we were in an island from whence one must take occasion as it serves. Macleod and Talisker sailed in a boat of Rasay’s for Sconser, to take the shortest way to Dunvegan. M’Cruslick went with them to Sconser, from whence he was to go to Slate, and so to the main land. We were resolved to pay a visit at Kingsburgh, and see the celebrated Miss Flora Macdonald, who is married to the present Mr. Macdonald of Kingsburgh; so took that road, though not so near.
All the family, but Lady Rasay, walked down to the shore to see us depart. Rasay himself went with us in a large boat, with eight oars, built in his island; as did Mr. Malcolm M’Cleod, Mr. Donald M’Queen, Dr. Macleod, and some others. We had a most pleasant sail between Rasay and Sky; and passed by a cave, where Martin says fowls were caught by lighting fire in the mouth of it. Malcolm remembers this. But it is not now practised, as few fowls come into it.
We spoke of Death. Dr. Johnson on this subject observed, that the boastings of some men, as to dying easily, were idle talk, proceeding from partial views. I mentioned Hawthornden’s Cypress-grove, where it is said that the world is a mere show; and that it is unreasonable for a man to wish to continue in the show-room, after he has seen it. Let him go cheerfully out, and give place to other spectators.
JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir, if he is sure he is to be well, after he goes out of it. But if he is to grow blind after he goes out of the show-room, and never to see any thing again; or if he does not know whither he is to go next, a man will not go cheerfully out of a show-room. No wise man will be contented to die, if he thinks he is to go into a state of punishment. Nay, no wise man will be contented to die, if he thinks he is to fall into annihilation: for however unhappy any man’s existence may be, he yet would rather have it, than not exist at all. No; there is no rational principle by which a man can die contented, but a trust in the mercy of GOD, through the merits of Jesus Christ.’
This short sermon, delivered with an earnest tone, in a boat upon the sea, which was perfectly calm, on a day appropriated to religious worship, while every one listened with an air of satisfaction, had a most pleasing effect upon my mind.
From “Life of Johnson, Vol 5 Tour to the Hebrides (1773)” by James Boswell.
‘In the psalms we have theology expressed poetically.’
To sing break-heartedly of light
Like dying sunflowers
Gathering to themselves their life,
Defying that which is their source.
Small suns, we grasp your wantonness
And would reverse your death.
Our poorness seize your gold.
But go you must,
Dear small reflections
Of so great a God,
We would you stay.
Sheila Billingsley, August 2019.
The sunflowers are indeed ‘gathering to themselves their life’ as Summer strolls into Autumn. The seed heads will turn to black, attracting the birds when they are hung up in the garden in weeks to come; we cannot seize their gold, but we can remember them, and save a few seeds to reflect God next year.
Our final selection from EBB’s verses on The Virgin Mary to the Child Jesus. I disagree with the poet’s suggestion that Jesus never smiled, nor had the heart to play: that’s not a real human child, unless one that has learned not to through cruelty. Perhaps the poet is suggesting that Jesus in his earthly, human life had access to divine knowledge of his death by cruelty. That is to deny his humanity altogether. But we can no longer interview Barrett Browning, and we know that Simeon told Mary that a sword would pierce her heart, and she would have pondered these things in her heart.
It is enough to bear
This image still and fair,
This holier in sleep
Than a saint at prayer,
This aspect of a child
Who never sinned or smiled;
This Presence in an infant's face;
This sadness most like love,
This love than love more deep,
This weakness like omnipotence
It is so strong to move.
Awful is this watching place,
Awful what I see from hence—
A king, without regalia,
A God, without the thunder,
A child, without the heart for play;
Ay, a Creator, rent asunder
From His first glory and cast away
On His own world, for me alone
To hold in hands created, crying—Son!
That tear fell not on Thee,
Beloved, yet thou stirrest in thy slumber!
Thou, stirring not for glad sounds out of number
Which through the vibratory palm-trees run
From summer-wind and bird,
So quickly hast thou heard
A tear fall silently?
Wak'st thou, O loving One?—
When I was teaching in school, I once had a class of 13 and 14 year-olds for Religious Studies, an opportunity to reflect, always a priority for Agnellus Mirror. I found this set of notes the other day, their reaction to the question, tell us something, or things, that have changed your life.
It’s time to dust these notes off and share them. And to invite us all to reflect on how much of what we as adults do or don’t do, say or don’t say, helps or hurts the young people we share our lives with as parents, grandparents, relatives, godparents or teachers. Listen to the witness of these youngsters! Read between the lines!
Making new friends at school and leaving my old friends from my old school. My father lost his job abroad and had to come to London to find a new job. He got a job on the railways but he was in digs and we were still in Scotland, so we moved down.
My brother returning from boarding school.
My father dying in hospital.
Moving house because I have to make new friends and go to a new school; leaving my friends behind.
This passage from A Christmas Sermon by Robert Louis Stevenson was written in 1888, when he was convalescing in the Adirondack mountains. We’ve put it here because it is his honest look at himself when he was aware of his own fragility, and it follows on from the honest answer given by the trapper in yesterday’s reflection.
To look back upon the past year, and see how little we have striven and to what small purpose: and how often we have been cowardly and hung back, or temerarious and rushed unwisely in; and how every day and all day long we have transgressed the law of kindness;—it may seem a paradox, but in the bitterness of these discoveries, a certain consolation resides.
Life is not designed to minister to a man’s vanity. He goes upon his long business most of the time with a hanging head, and all the time like a blind child. Full of rewards and pleasures as it is—so that to see the day break or the moon rise, or to meet a friend, or to hear the dinner-call when he is hungry, fills him with surprising joys—this world is yet for him no abiding city. Friendships fall through, health fails, weariness assails him; year after year, he must thumb the hardly varying record of his own weakness and folly. It is a friendly process of detachment.
When the time comes that he should go, there need be few illusions left about himself. Here lies one who meant well, tried a little, failed much:—surely that may be his epitaph, of which he need not be ashamed. Nor will he complain at the summons which calls a defeated soldier from the field: defeated, ay, if he were Paul or Marcus Aurelius!—but if there is still one inch of fight in his old spirit, undishonoured.
The faith which sustained him in his life-long blindness and life-long disappointment will scarce even be required in this last formality of laying down his arms. Give him a march with his old bones; there, out of the glorious sun-coloured earth, out of the day and the dust and the ecstasy—there goes another Faithful Failure!
The Global Sisters’ Report ran this article by Franciscan Sister Laura Hammel which discusses her changing reactions to death: death of family and other dear ones, and most especially of the recent death of a sister who had shared her life for 45 years. When Sister Laurene Burns was in hospital, COVID-19 prevented members of her community from visiting; they brought her home to die with them. Insightful indeed. Follow the link!
The story of the boarding schools for indigenous children in Canada does not make easy reading. It’s an horrific affair, with racism and a lack of respect for children among the contributing evils.
It’s also confusing to attempt to find the truth of what happened then and what is happening now. Many records were lost or destroyed, many events were not recorded. The Archdiocese of Toronto, which had none of these these schools, has produced this very clear account, which may not answer all the questions, but perhaps may help us to identify the right ones and begin to answer them – and see where to go next. Click to read the report.