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.
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!
I would love to hear your thoughts on this, for preference in the comment section below, or privately if you prefer using the Contact page.
8 thoughts on “Lass auch Dir die Brust bewegen, Liebchen, höre mich!”
Thank you for this it touched a place deep within my soul and I shall be pondering on it later when I have time. Eloquently written as ever.
Thank you, Roseleen.
An excellent reflection – thanks Julian (‘though I needed to look up ‘threnody’ (but that says more about my literacy). It’s good to be reminded of the need to stay with desolation in FHL and trust the bigger picture of which we only see a part (often the reverse of the tapestry – messy).
Thanks, John-Francis. 35 years ago, when I was leading a team of computer programmers, they had a running joke about my “long word for the day”. Some things don’t change!
Yes, yes, yes, Amen, I agree. it absolutely matters what we do with our lives. It matters in the here and now, for ourselves, those we are connected with – ultimately, it matters to the world (“how we get there is where we will end up” as Richard Rohr says). And it matters for where we are heading. We are practicing for what is yet to come. Our bodies will return to dust, but love cannot die. Love is eternal and will linger until the very last day of this planet, reaching into the future of a new heaven and a new earth, where it will reign without restriction, “God will be all in all” and God is love. The seeds of Love we sow now, as small as they may be, will grow, will bring fruit – nothing is wasted that is breathed and lived in Love. “The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body” (1. Cor. 15). We return to dust so we can rise in a new resurrection body, free from the constraints of time. If we were immortal in this fractured, wounded and perishable world, I wonder whether we even would want to turn towards Love? Isn’t our mortality precisely what makes us look, and search and yearn for what is beyond our eyes can see and our hands can touch, the melody within the melody, the song within the song, be it from Schubert or Beethoven or Haendel or whichever song it is that reaches us somewhere deep inside?
Thanks Julian for sharing what is “stirring inside your breast” as the German words say, the waves, the ripples reaching my heart, too. There are quite a few words in what you’ve written that I have never come across, too many to look up for me at the moment, but I simply receive on a heart level that which cannot be put into words anyway. What you are sharing reminded me of a poem I wrote back in October 2020:
in the ocean of your being
that sinks so deep
you have to wait a
until the ripples
to the surface
it takes very
Blessings and thanks again for your writing. Christine
Thank you for this generous and rich sharing, Christine. I love your poem – the sense of the depth of God’s touch in the soul and the need to trust in the slow work of God.
Deep thanks for this post Julian, it was such a thought provoking and beautiful read. I thought I’d share my small and rambling thoughts. I am a mother of a brain injured son, who is now 25. My son asks for nothing really, however as I write this I find myself laughing as he in fact quite insistent on his needs being met. However his needs are what we all on this earth cry out for; my son demands fairness, (he has a massive sense of injustice) to be spoken to and treated with kindness and love. He susses out if people are inauthentic towards him. He will never live independently, needing too much support and care. Over the years I find the terrain I walk a mix of absolute angst, fear and worry to total surrender, grace and deep contentment.
The rest of my small life is now about finding somewhere that will keep my son safe and healthy when we are no longer here to look after him. It will be a slow transition of releasing control. I sense this is what our earthly life is about, slowly giving up the control we desperately hang onto.
You speak of some people being taken too soon…..however my experience is that it is those who are not ‘great’ those who suffer greatly, that teach us the most important and soulful lessons and gift us with all we need as we live our time on earth, if only we could really see and feel these gifts. To look into the eyes of the ones whose existence is usually seen as a big inconvenience, the ones who challenge us, is I believe where some sort of strange truth can be found. However like most of us, I usually turn a blind eye. Looking at my son, who has nothing in terms of what’s revered in this world, he actually has everything.
But what on earth is our tiny earthy experience all about?! Dust we all become, and yes, in time, even the things we deem great will be gone. I strive to think and act like the stone thrown into the water, the ripple effect, that a smile to a stranger is of great and huge importance, and so on. I like to think that beyond the veil, all will make sense!
Thank you so much for taking the time to write with such generous honesty, Sarah.
I love what you say about how we all long for fairness, kindness, and love; about our walk with the mix of angst/fear and trust/surrender.
I love your second paragraph, too, which speaks to my experience with the elderly lady I alluded to towards the end of what I wrote. I spoke as if I were trying to be present and to love, whereas what you are saying is that she was guiding me. That is such a helpful corrective, and is true to my experience that afternoon.
Thank you. Julian