Friday, January 29, 2010

We Are Six

--------A simple child,
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death?
Three separate dear friends of mine from three separate times past gave birth to three separate beautiful baby girls in the past week. Life is beautiful.

And today is the fourth birthday of another friend’s baby girl who died a few months before her third birthday after a short life beset with inexplicable seizures and a shrinking brain. And here in this strange intersection of life and death, I am reminded to continue praying for my two other dear friends who lost newborn sons this past fall, one because he had inexplicably failed to form a skull during the early months in the womb, and the other because he inexplicably failed to keep on breathing in the early days of his seemingly healthy life outside it.

I could insert some well-known maxim here, something along the lines of the familiar “Life is short” or Tennyson’s “O life as futile, then, as frail!” or Macbeth’s “Out, out, brief candle! / Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more.” These are true of our experience, certainly of the experiences of those three grieving mothers.

But I wonder if these maxims are so often repeated because our spirit so thoroughly rejects them. If they are so true of our experience, true as obvious statements like “The sun is bright” or “The grass is green,” then why do we have to keep reminding ourselves of the shortness of life? If Macbeth was right that life is a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, why would we be so disturbed when my friend is given a full two hours (or two days, or two years) with her child?

Perhaps “the deeper magic,” to use Lewis’ lovingly weathered phrase, is that life is not a candle that can be extinguished. Perhaps my three friends are still grieving because the have been torn away from children who still exist. Perhaps (and pardon me if I’m being too erudite, too Platonic, or too Catholic here, especially for such a sensitive issue) love and life are parts of the same thing, as if life is the matter and love is the substance (or vice-versa?); and as the love exists no less in the grieving mother than in the celebrating one, perhaps we are assured that the life exists as strongly.

Perhaps I do not merely believe that the Church is a single body made up of the apostles and saints and my ancestors and my descendants because I learned it in a book or a sermon or a creed; perhaps my soul has always known it. As Christendom—Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants alike—affirm together that the soul is eternal and does not die when the body stops breathing, perhaps I do not believe it because I am brainwashed but because it is true. Whether we believe that we are anticipating a future reunion with our loved ones or that we can even speak to them now, we believe that we are mutually connected to a living unit of humanity that includes the not-yet-alive and the live and the even-more-alive.

Apart from that hope, I do not know how people can endure the severity of love. And to each of those six loving mothers out there, you are in my prayers.
"How many are you, then," said I,
"If they two are in heaven?"
Quick was the little Maid's reply,
"O Master! we are seven."

"But they are dead; those two are dead!
Their spirits are in heaven!"
'Twas throwing words away; for still
The little Maid would have her will,
And said, "Nay, we are seven!"

from “We Are Seven” by William Wordsworth


Christian H said...

Do you happen to know Wordsworth's thoughts on the afterlife? He seems like a this-worldly sort of chap. I often forget about "We Are Seven."

Em the luddite said...

Not sure. He was, of course, the one Romantic poet who grew up (80 years old, I think?), and went from a supporter of the French Revolution to a critic of it, which makes me feel like he had substance. I think a close reading of the "Preface to Lyrical Ballads" reveals at least some well-thought-out criticism of Industrialization and the cheapening of literature, and I think his project was more in keeping with the heritage of literature and concerned with what would be passed down than he's given credit for. I think Wordsworth was a very different poet than the man we learn about in high school, at least.

But none of that answers your question, except for the very first sentence when I admitted I didn't know. I certainly (as a fully-convinced sacramentalist at this point, I'm afraid) would be uncomfortable with associating a reverence for the physical world with a this-worldly philosophy. The child is, of course, "trailing clouds of glory" because he comes from God. There may be things for some Christians to object to in "Intimations of Immortality" (I don't remember), but I wouldn't call it "this-worldly" at all. Byron, yes, but not Wordsworth.

Cliff said...

This is perhaps one of the most wonderful pieces I've read recently.