'What I do is me: for that I came.' G M Hopkins

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Time's Discipline

I visited one of heaven’s waiting rooms the other day. Old people’s homes all smell the same and it’s hard to fight against the swamping sensation that they’re soulless holding centres from which the inmates will finally be deported back whence they came. Dust to dust.

My elderly friend still has all her marbles and talks avidly about her years living in India as a young woman. At home she enjoyed the company of a bird which occasionally flew round the living room and finally came to a sad end concertinaed against the wall. The lady misses her feathered friend so her son-in-law painted an excellent likeness of the bird which now hangs above her bed: a songless imitation of the original, but the next best thing.

Will there be birds in heaven?

I went to see the wonderful Derek Jacobi playing King Lear in the Grand Opera House this week. He’s seventy-two years old and he can still produce a compelling stage performance. I don’t know whether the actor has ever considered the merits of sheltered dwelling, but as poor Lear he is cast out to face the elements, having been duped by the two ugly sisters who previously protested love to their father. The youngest daughter, Cordelia, refuses to play the ‘Which of you shall we say doth love us most?’ game and, Cinderella-like, she is excluded and banished to France.

Lear’s descent into madness is distressing and the examination of the relationship between an ageing parent and his daughters is relentless. Old age leads to a gradual loss of identity as the balance of care shifts and the elderly person begins to feel useless and unvalued. Lear asks, ‘Who is it that can tell me who I am?’ And the reply comes, ‘Lear’s shadow.’ Only death awaits those who feel such loss of substance.

In many a sermon I heard a warning that I could be run over by a No 39 bus outside the church and where would I spend eternity? Can eternity be spent? I think that there is actually a very slim chance of being hit by an omnibus, but there is a 100% chance that I will be dead. In King Lear, Edgar says,

‘Men must endure/Their going hence, even as their coming hither:/Ripeness is all.’

By ripeness he means readiness - a preparation that is mature in its acceptance that we have lived long enough and it’s time. Death is a fact of life and as we get older we will attend more and more funerals of our peers. How then do we live? In celebration of life! – filling each waking moment with words and people and nature and song.

‘It is the time’s discipline to think
of the death of all living, and yet live.’ (Wendell Berry)

Dwelling too much on death is a waste of the very time whose passing we mourn. Flowers set us an example in their glorious, if short-lived, explosion of colourful praise to the Creator. As I write my husband is pruning the roses so that when their moment comes they will bloom well.

If I had another life,
I would spend it on some
unstinting happiness.

I would be a fox, or a tree
full of waving branches.
I wouldn’t mind being a rose
In a field full of roses.

Fear has not occurred to them, nor ambition.
Reason they have not yet thought of.
Neither do they ask how long they must be roses, and then what.
Or any other foolish question.
(from Roses, Late Summer by Mary Oliver)