I have a dear friend who is in the hospital. His wife stands vigil at his bedside, worried. Pennie and I stay in touch with her.
I woke at 1:30AM this morning, early, even for me. I texted my friend’s wife a message that could prove to be precisely the wrong message to send, but it came from the heart. I’m not sure why I am sharing it with you now, but maybe there is someone out there who needs to heart it.
I addressed my friend’s wife by her first name, then said,
“This might be an attraction completely unique to me, but in times of great stress I read the book of Ecclesiastes, the contemplations of Solomon at the end of his life. For most people it is a downer, but I find it strangely settling. It is her exploration of that land of Polarity – with joy and hope on one side and looming darkness on the other – that Katherine Rundell writes about in this NYTimes article about John Donne:
“Confronted with the thought of death, many of us perform the psychological equivalent of hiding in a box with our knees under our chin. But Donne saluted death; he wrote it poetry, he threw it parties. He had a memento mori that he left to a friend in his will, ‘the picture called The Skeleton which hangs in the hall.’ For Donne, that we are born astride the grave was a truth to welcome. Death — the looming fact of it, its finality and clarifying power — calls us to attention and wakes us up to life.”
“We humans are both miracles and catastrophes. We must, he demanded, acknowledge both death and joy, horror and awe. It is an astonishment to be alive, and life calls on you to be astonished; but lifelong astonishment will take iron-willed discipline.”
“Wake, his writing tells us, over and over. Weep for this world and gasp for it. Wake, and pay attention to our mortality, to the precise ways in which beauty cuts through us. Pay attention to the softness of skin and the majesty of hands and feet. Attention — real, sustained, unflinching attention — is what this life, with its disasters and delights, demands of you.”
“And if a skeleton in the hall helps, well then: Bring on the skeletons.”
– Katherine Rundell,
“What John Donne Knew About Death Can Teach Us a Lot About Life,” New York Times, Sept. 10, 2022
Three thousand years ago, King David, the father of Solomon, wrote the now-famous 23rd Psalm during a time in his life when he stood in that great polarity. He begins the Psalm by telling us, “The Lord is my shepherd,” and then he says to God, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
The rod is a weapon with which the shepherd defends his sheep from predators. The staff, with its shepherd’s crook on the end, is used to catch a sheep by its neck so that he might pull it close to him.
May the great Shepherd reach out to you now and draw you close.
Sept 19, 2023