Every yearMary Oliver: In Blackwater Woods
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
I was listening to Radio 3 over breakfast on Wednesday. Bryn Terfel was interviewed and asked to recommend a recording. He chose Schubert’s Ständchen sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau partnered on the piano by Gerald Moore – “the definitive recording for many people,” the presenter said. Listen to it on YouTube, or BBC Sounds at about 1’12” in.
The music and the felt-sense of the ephemeral nature of existence made me tear up and I was unable to speak for a moment. These are four of the greatest musicians of all time. Only Bryn is still with us.
Schubert died when he was 31, a year after Beethoven, probably by mercury poisoning, then a common treatment for syphilis, or typhoid fever. Early death was not an unusual occurrence in 1828. In his short life, he forged 9 symphonies, 15 string quartets, 21 piano sonatas, 630 songs, and other compositions too many to enumerate. The works he wrote in his last years – the late string quartets, the last three piano sonatas, Winterreise – have been companions for decades and are part of the soundtrack of my little life.
By the time I was 31, I was barely able to write my own name! That was the year I underwent The Spiritual Exercises.
Whether you like Schubert and German lieder or not, his music has been massively influential to our cultural and musical life. Schubert lives on in his music, both as the actual music he wrote that we can still perform, interpret anew, and hear, and as the influence (mostly unrecognised, I suspect) he continues to exert on contemporary composers, singers, and singer-songwriters of every genre.
The music lives; the man has gone. Dust.
I sometimes joke that some people should not be allowed to die: Schubert (of course) and, more recently, David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Lou Reed, George Harrison… (add your own favourites). I don’t know what to make of the transitory nature of our lives. We do what we think matters; we try to leave the world in a better place; largely we see little effect; and then we are gone. Dust. Schubert’s music will be gone soon enough, lost to the Universe. It is possible that humanity as a species will die out. In any case, one day, inevitably, the Earth will be unable to support life.
The Buddhists bang on about impermanence.
I think what I do matters. I think that to relish being alive, to pray, to cultivate presence, and to encounter God are important. I think that to curate a space in which others can encounter God matters. I’m not that good at it, but that’s not the point. If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing, well or not.
Knowing that in a few years I will return to dust erodes the sense that what I do matters. I wrestle with the apparent contradiction. I struggle to get my head around (in)significance.
The compositions of Schubert that companion me traverse and map this territory between evanescence and élan. They don’t resolve, but shift between “the minor fall, the major lift,” between threnody and perichoresis.
I hear this labour from people who have worked hard in, say, a parish, a business, a marriage, or a spirituality centre. They have helped bring about a community or an organisation, profit, a family, or a curated space or a training programme, say. Then change happens and what they have created is not sustained: the new incumbent is not interested in pastoral care; sales fall; the family falls apart; the new regime is ignorant of “the poetics of space”. Dust. When this happens, instead of a healthy grieving, there can be a feeling of futility, of wasted effort, of resentment.
I suspect that these thoughts are what AA calls ‘stinking thinking’ or what Ignatius calls ‘fallacious reasoning’. There is something hinky about them and they lead to desolation: a want of faith, hope, and love . Ignatius suggests that rumination on sadness about the past or anxiety about the future find a good bedfellow in fallacious reasoning . Aficionados of CBT will see connections with Ignatius.
It is Lent, the time Jesus spent in the wilderness after His baptism. Matthew and Luke portray Jesus responding to Satan’s stinking thinking with references to the Word of God. I imagine Jesus wrestling within himself about who He is and what to do. Rather than arguing back and forth, trying to work out what to do, Jesus turns to God. “Here it is,” He says, “and here I am.”
Desolation is not to be challenged head-on. You don’t beat the devil in battle. Both AA and Ignatius say this in their different ways. Don’t start off an argument within yourself by challenging one set of thoughts with another, thesis against antithesis. How many of us have our minds changed by argument, really? Rather, pay attention to yourself and notice what is going on. Notice the thought as it arises. Notice the effect it has on you. Notice the thought as it dissipates. And, crucially, do this in the context of God or your Higher Power. You’re not trying to fix it or beat it or even understand it. Analysis rarely leads to action. No, you expose it to the light of Christ. With some thinking, only prayer can help (Mark 9.29).
Three things bring me back to sanity.
1. My deep desire is to be with You. I know that You are with me now and, I believe, always. Why would this change in death? I have no image of the eschaton but, in ways I cannot conceive, I trust that Schubert and his music are in God.
2. The present moment matters. What we do now matters. There is a sense in which it is all we ever have. It is the only moment we can encounter God. It is the only moment we can love. Commit yourself to this moment, this action, this love, do the best you can, and move on. Even if everything falls apart after you go, the acts of love now matter. Don’t ruminate on the past or worry about the future or you will miss the opportunity of this moment. (Luke 9:62)
Writing this reminds me of occasional moments of connection with persons with dementia when I was a healthcare chaplain. I remember one lady who was no longer able to speak. Her past was gone. She had no future. I walked with her along a corridor holding her hand. I tried to be with her. I tried to love her. I think that mattered. [I wrote here as if I were trying to be present and to love her. I received a helpful corrective to this from a generous comment on this article. The truth is that she was guiding me – teaching me how to love and be present. This is true to my experience that afternoon.]
3. It came to me some years ago that we do not and cannot know the meaning of our lives or of what we do. Meaning is above our pay grade, beyond the limits of human knowing. But we can know when what we do feels meaningful. Ignatius never tells us or asks us what life means. He suggests what makes life meaningful, what he calls The First Principle and Foundation . He says that doing what is meaningful will save us. He asks us to consider our desires, to notice when we feel consolation, to talk with Jesus, to come to an understanding of our vocation, and to keep our eyes upon Jesus. (Matthew 14.29).
When I consider these things, my body settles, my heart returns. This is enough.
Mary Oliver ends the poem I started with thus:
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
Let your heart, too, be moved, Beloved, hear me!