While grief is fresh, every attempt to divert only irritates. You must wait till grief be digested, and then amusement will dissipate the remains of it.
From Life of Johnson, Volume 3 1776-1780″ by James Boswell.
It can be difficult to get alongside someone grieving. We want to take the pain away, but our attempts at comfort are rejected, quite possibly irritably. Johnson lost his wife young and never remarried; she had been the love of his life. Although he was a thoughtful, believing Christian, he was acutely aware of his own sinfulness, and had to make an effort to accept that God’s forgiveness was indeed extended to himself. He was melancholic and understood all too well how well-meant kind words can sound like hollow platitudes.
Waiting till grief is digested does not mean shunning a bereaved relative or friend, but something like a waiter in a restaurant: attentive waiting, not fussing. A hard role sometimes.
We pray that people who suffer from depression or burn-out will find support and a light that opens them up to life. Lord, graciously hear us.
This is the right season to remember people who suffer from depression, especially in the lands that know Autumn and Winter with our shortening, darkling days, with the cold in the bones, and even without covid, enough infections to stockpile tissues against. Light amid th’encircling gloom, indeed.
And burn-out is all too real for many who have kept going with caring for children, the sick, the frail, the elderly, and who have not had enough time to take care of themselves. Let us pray that we might show more consideration for carers, nurses and teachers, and all who have given without counting the cost. We pray that people who suffer from depression or burn-out will find support and a light that opens them up to life. Lord, graciously hear us.
James Boswell published this letter from Samuel Johnson after the Doctor died. Both men had melancholy times; Johnson more severely than most.
“I never was so much pleased as now with your account of yourself; and sincerely hope, that between publick business, improving studies, and domestick pleasures, neither melancholy nor caprice will find any place for entrance. Whatever philosophy may determine of material nature, it is certainly true of intellectual nature, that it abhors a vacuum: our minds cannot be empty; and evil will break in upon them, if they are not pre-occupied by good.
My dear Sir, mind your studies, mind your business, make your lady happy, and be a good Christian. After this, ‘tristitiam et metus Trades protervis in mare Creticum Portare ventis.’*
‘If we perform our duty, we shall be safe and steady.
Life of Johnson by James Boswell.
Jesus put it this way:
And when an unclean spirit is gone out of a man he walketh through dry places seeking rest, and findeth none. Then he saith: I will return into my house from whence I came out. And coming he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished. Then he goeth, and taketh with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is made worse than the first. So shall it be also to this wicked generation.
Luke 12: 43-45.
‘Be preoccupied by good’ sounds like a good Advent motto to me! Spelt out for Boswell quite clearly: mind your studies, mind your business, make your lady happy, and be a good Christian.
*While in the Muse’s friendship blest, Nor fear, nor grief, shall break my rest; Bear them, ye vagrant winds, away, And drown them in the Cretan Sea.’ Horace, Odes, i. 26. I.
Were the words I made to the bugle call in the morning.
But laughing, storming, scorning,
Only the bugles know
What the bugles say in the morning,
And they do not care, when they blow
The call that I heard and made words to early this morning.
There are jollier words put to bugle calls than these of Edward Thomas, a Great War soldier and poet. He was depressive, but he also knew that his chances of not coming home alive and well were real enough. He did die and is buried in France.
The sense that nobody cares for the infantryman is understandable; the War, laughing, storming, scorning, gathers him up and later drops him, broken.
Thomas’s prayer of acceptance of death is a morning offering par excellence: In manus tuas, Dómine, comméndo spíritum meum. Into your hands O Lord, I commend my soul.
Memorial Stained Glass window, Class of 1934, Royal Military College of Canada, Victoria Edwards
My youth was my old age,
Weary and long;
It had too many cares
To think of song;
My moulting days all came
When I was young.
Now, in life's prime, my soul
Comes out in flower;
Late, as with Robin, comes
My singing power;
I was not born to joy
Till this late hour."
W. H. Davies
Another Welsh poet today, this one writing in English. Davies was famously discovered as a poet when he was living in a homeless hostel, walking through London, selling a little booklet of verse from door to door. Before that he had shipped cattle across the Atlantic and tramped over much of North America: the Supertramp. Not a life conducive to singing power.
Never give up on life! Joy comes to many at a late hour, and with it perspective and understanding of the trials and depressions of youth.
The European robin sings through Autumn and Winter to defend its territory but is less vocal when moulting – growing a new suit of feathers.
He mentioned to me now, for the first time, that he had been distrest by melancholy, and for that reason had been obliged to fly from study and meditation, to the dissipating variety of life. Against melancholy he recommended constant occupation of mind, a great deal of exercise, moderation in eating and drinking, and especially to shun drinking at night. He said melancholy people were apt to fly to intemperance for relief, but that it sunk them much deeper in misery. He observed, that labouring men who work hard, and live sparingly, are seldom or never troubled with low spirits.
Life of Johnson, Volume 1 1709-1765″ by James Boswell
Doctor Johnson was a depressive. He seems to have taken a robust approach to combatting the condition, or learning to live with it. Constant occupation of mind does not mean spending your time thinking about your problems! He was always thinking, reading, writing, an approach that quite a few bloggers seem to follow. He did like his drink though, so must have observed at first hand that over-indulgence was not always the wisest way of spending an evening.
It would seem that Johnson was able to present a brave face to the world, if he had to choose to confess his melancholy to James Boswell. Hope is a virtue that believes that the world is good even when it feels the opposite of that. At such times, endeavour to do what you would do if everything was alright!
Last winter I went down to my native town, where I found the streets much narrower and shorter than I thought I had left them, inhabited by a new race of people, to whom I was very little known. My play-fellows were grown old, and forced me to suspect that I was no longer young. My only remaining friend has changed his principles, and was become the tool of the predominant faction. My daughter-in-law, from whom I expected most, and whom I met with sincere benevolence, has lost the beauty and gaiety of youth, without having gained much of the wisdom of age. I wandered about for five days, and took the first convenient opportunity of returning to a place, where, if there is not much happiness, there is, at least, such a diversity of good and evil, that slight vexations do not fix upon the heart. I think in a few weeks to try another excursion; though to what end?
Life of Johnson, Volume 1 1709-1765 by James Boswell
Here speaks the melancholic Samuel Johnson, tired of life but not of London, even if there is not much happiness there.
In connection with this subject of melancholy, George Eliot speaks somewhere of the “sadness of a summer’s evening.” How wonderfully true—like everything that came from that wonderful pen—the observation is! Who has not felt the sorrowful enchantment of those lingering sunsets? The world belongs to Melancholy then, a thoughtful deep-eyed maiden who loves not the glare of day.
It is not till “light thickens and the crow wings to the rocky wood” that she steals forth from her groves. Her palace is in twilight land. It is there she meets us. At her shadowy gate she takes our hand in hers and walks beside us through her mystic realm. We see no form, but seem to hear the rustling of her wings.
Even in the toiling hum-drum city her spirit comes to us. There is a sombre presence in each long, dull street; and the dark river creeps ghostlike under the black arches, as if bearing some hidden secret beneath its muddy waves. In the silent country, when the trees and hedges loom dim and blurred against the rising night, and the bat’s wing flutters in our face, and the land-rail’s* cry sounds drearily across the fields, the spell sinks deeper still into our hearts. We seem in that hour to be standing by some unseen death-bed, and in the swaying of the elms we hear the sigh of the dying day.
A solemn sadness reigns. A great peace is around us. In its light our cares of the working day grow small and trivial, and bread and cheese—ay, and even kisses—do not seem the only things worth striving for. Thoughts we cannot speak but only listen to flood in upon us, and standing in the stillness under earth’s darkening dome, we feel that we are greater than our petty lives. Hung round with those dusky curtains, the world is no longer a mere dingy workshop, but a stately temple wherein man may worship, and where at times in the dimness his groping hands touch God’s.
On Being Hard Up from Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow by Jerome K. Jerome. A hint of Laudato Si’ before its time.
* The land rail or corncrake has disappeared from much of Europe due to modern agriculture destroying nests. It will spend the night in corn fields, saying its own Latin name, over and over again: CREX, CREX.
“O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep, Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.”
Gerard Manley Hopkins
So let’s be a little more serious about the sorrow we looked at yesterday. Sorrow and depression are real. Hopkins bids us take comfort, even if we are tossed about by a whirlwind of spinning emotions and thoughts. We know our sorrow will at least have an end in death: life death does end. But does this mean that death brings an end to a frightful life, or that life puts an end to death? I would suggest both arguments hold true. And each day dies with sleep, ‘and another succeeds it’ is the subtext of that word ‘each’. We always have another chance to open our eyes and say with another of Wales’ poets, WH Davies:
Good morning Life, and all things glad and beautiful.
It may feel all wrong at this moment to be uttering such a prayer, but that does not mean that it is actually wrong to make an act of hope.
We would like to share a post by Christopher M Graney on the Sacred Space Astronomy Website. He writes: This story is mostly about science as the process of looking carefully at the world around us and trying to understand it and to come up with ideas about it, on its terms, not on ours. It is complex, not short, and best told with lots of pictures; so bear with me in this post, O Readers of Sacred Space Astronomy.