The Beauty of Death

I wrote a new song this month. I’ve been working on it for a few weeks. I’ll post a video before too long. Let me know in the comments if you get the Henry Vaughan connection.

The Beauty of Death
© Feb. 2017 by Tim Chesterton

The beauty of death is it comes to us all,
To the rich and the poor, to the great and the small.
Every person on earth gets to hear that voice call;
In the end there’s no difference between us.

The justice of death comes to all at the last;
There can be no escape when the die has been cast.
We can run from our deeds but we’re just not that fast –
In the end they will still overtake us

The terror of death, it haunts all our days,
Though we try to avoid it, to keep it away.
But there still come those times of complete disarray
When the dark rises up to engulf us.

The wisdom of death is the light that it casts
On the things that don’t count and the stuff that won’t last,
While the days turn to years and they go by so fast
– too fast for the things that distract us.

The beauty of death is a gift in the end
For the wounds that won’t heal and the hurts that won’t mend;
In the place of a foe we discover a friend
As we lay down the burdens that crush us.

They say a good death is the meaning of life –
To gaze unafraid at that ring of great light.
To rest in God’s love and take joy in the sight
Of the beauty that’s spread out before us –
Of the beauty that’s spread out before us.

‘The World’, by Henry Vaughan (1621-1695)

I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright;
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,
Driv’n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov’d; in which the world
And all her train were hurl’d.
The doting lover in his quaintest strain
Did there complain;
Near him, his lute, his fancy, and his flights,
Wit’s sour delights,
With gloves, and knots, the silly snares of pleasure,
Yet his dear treasure
All scatter’d lay, while he his eyes did pour
Upon a flow’r.



The darksome statesman hung with weights and woe,
Like a thick midnight-fog mov’d there so slow,
He did not stay, nor go;
Condemning thoughts (like sad eclipses) scowl
Upon his soul,
And clouds of crying witnesses without
Pursued him with one shout.
Yet digg’d the mole, and lest his ways be found,
Work’d under ground,
Where he did clutch his prey; but one did see
That policy;
Churches and altars fed him; perjuries
Were gnats and flies;
It rain’d about him blood and tears, but he
Drank them as free.



The fearful miser on a heap of rust
Sate pining all his life there, did scarce trust
His own hands with the dust,
Yet would not place one piece above, but lives
In fear of thieves;
Thousands there were as frantic as himself,
And hugg’d each one his pelf;
The downright epicure plac’d heav’n in sense,
And scorn’d pretence,
While others, slipp’d into a wide excess,
Said little less;
The weaker sort slight, trivial wares enslave,
Who think them brave;
And poor despised Truth sate counting by
Their victory.



Yet some, who all this while did weep and sing,
And sing, and weep, soar’d up into the ring;
But most would use no wing.
O fools (said I) thus to prefer dark night
Before true light,
To live in grots and caves, and hate the day
Because it shews the way,
The way, which from this dead and dark abode
Leads up to God,
A way where you might tread the sun, and be
More bright than he.
But as I did their madness so discuss
One whisper’d thus,
“This ring the Bridegroom did for none provide,
But for his bride.”



More information about Vaughan here.

John Donne, ‘Nativity’ (1610)

Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,
Now leaves His well-belov’d imprisonment,
There He hath made Himself to His intent
Weak enough, now into the world to come;
But O, for thee, for Him, hath the inn no room?
Yet lay Him in this stall, and from the Orient,
Stars and wise men will travel to prevent
The effect of Herod’s jealous general doom.
Seest thou, my soul, with thy faith’s eyes, how He
Which fills all place, yet none holds Him, doth lie?
Was not His pity towards thee wondrous high,
That would have need to be pitied by thee?
Kiss Him, and with Him into Egypt go,
With His kind mother, who partakes thy woe.

‘To Care for What We Know…’ (a poem by Wendell Berry)

To care for what we know requires
care for what we don’t, the world’s lives
dark in the soil, dark in the dark.

Forbearance is the first care we give
to what we do not know. We live
by lives we don’t intend, lives
that exceed our thoughts and needs, outlast
our designs, staying by passing through,
surviving again and again the risky passages
from ice to warmth, dark to light.

Rightness of scale is our second care:
the willingness to think and work
within the limits of our competence
to do no permanent wrong to anything
of permanent worth to the earth’s life,
known or unknown, now or ever, never
destroying by knowledge, unknowingly,
what we do not know, so that the world
in its mystery, the known unknown world
will live and thrive while we live.

. . .

And our competence to do no
permanent wrong to the land
is limited by the land’s competence
to suffer our ignorance, our errors,
and – provided the scale
is right – to recover, to be made whole.

(Wendell Berry: A Small Porch, Part I, VIII, 9, p.24)

I know that this is the sustainability creed that Wendell Berry lives by. I feel in my bones that it is the wisest way to live. I don’t live by it myself, but I know I need to work hard at coming closer to it.

The problem is, this way of life is not compatible with the modern economy of Canada, especially of Alberta. Whether the governments are right-wing or left-wing or centrist, they all seem to take for granted that doing violence to the earth is an inevitable part of modern life, and they all close their eyes and ears to the consequences.

It seems to me that if we think in the long term, our refusal to live by the philosophy Wendell Berry outlines in this poem leaves us with a limited number of choices:

Choice #1: As the planet becomes unliveable due to overpopulation and environmental destruction, the human species becomes extinct.

Choice #2: We hope like hell that before we arrive at Choice #1, we’ve found the means to leave the planet so we can go find another one to rape and destroy.

Some Christians would add Choice #3: Before we reach Choice #1, Jesus will come again and rescue us from the consequences of our own stupidity. But since he has taken a lot longer to come again than most people thought he would, and, moreover, since he has had lots of opportunities to rescue us from the consequences of our own stupidity before now, but hasn’t done so, I wouldn’t bet the farm on that one.

 

The Lord Will Happiness Divine

The Lord will happiness divine
On contrite hearts bestow;
Then tell me, gracious God, is mine
A contrite heart or no?

I hear, but seem to hear in vain,
Insensible as steel;
If aught is felt, ’tis only pain,
To find I cannot feel.

I sometimes think myself inclined
To love thee, if I could;
But often feel another mind,
Averse to all that’s good.

My best desires are faint and few,
I fain would strive for more;
But when I cry, “My strength renew!”
Seem weaker than before.

Thy saints are comforted, I know,
And love Thy house of prayer;
I therefore go where others go,
But find no comfort there.

Oh make this heart rejoice, or ache;
Decide this doubt for me;
And if it be not broken, break,
And heal it, if it be.

– William Cowper, Olney Hymns, 1779

‘I’ll Shelter at Your Side’ (on Psalm 57)

O Lord, have mercy on me
In you O God I hide
Beneath the shadow of your wings
I’ll shelter at your side

To God I cry aloud
His plan for me is good
He sends from heaven and rescues me
from those who seek my blood

I hear those lions roar
They’re hungry for my life
their teeth are spears and arrows and
their tongues are sharp as knives

A trap they’ve dug for me
a pit before my feet
But they were caught instead of me
I look on their defeat

Above the brightest heavens
Your name is lifted high
Your glory fills the earth O God
and reaches to the skies

My heart is fixed, O God
You will not let me stray
I’ll wake the dawn to sing your praise
O keep me in your way

I’m singing in the streets
A song of joy and praise
The wonder of your faithful love
I’ll sing through endless days

Above the brightest heavens
Your name is lifted high
Your glory fills the earth O God
and reaches to the skies

© 2016 by Tim Chesterton

William Shakespeare, April 1564 – April 23rd 1616

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Thank you, Will.

You created some of the most unforgettable characters ever to grace a stage.

You taught us that the English language could sing to rival any other, and you invented more than 1700 words that we’re still using today (‘bloodstained’, ‘premeditated’, ‘impartial’, ‘tranquil’, and – would you believe, anyone? – ‘puking’, to name just a few).

You held up a mirror and you showed us ourselves, in all our shame and in all our glory.

You died four hundred years ago today, and we will never forget you.

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

– Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1

 

If you want to find out more about Shakespeare, the best thing to do is to go see one of his plays. Summer Shakespeare festivals are coming up; ours in Edmonton is the Freewill Shakespeare Festival. This year they’re doing ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Love’s Labours Lost’, and festival passes are on sale now.

There are many excellent editions of Shakespeare’s ‘Complete Works‘. I actually own two – a very old edition with just the text, and a big monster with excellent supplementary notes. I enjoy them both, for different reasons.

If you want an entertaining biography, my favourite is the one by Bill Bryson, ‘The World as Stage‘.

Here’s my favourite Shakespeare quote, from Portia’s speech to Shylock in Act IV, Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.