Unchanging in the face of change

A sonnet today. Shakespeare.

Love, he says, is constant: unchanging even in the face of change, unfaltering even in a raging storm. It is a fixed point of reference even when it it is undervalued.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark 
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks 
Within his bending sickle’s compass come: 
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, 
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
   If this be error and upon me proved,
   I never writ, nor no man ever loved. 

Love might be butterflies and daisies to many people, but to me – and apparently to Shakespeare – it’s a rock.

Abyss: The depths in me call out to the depths in you.


Abyss by Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II) Translation by Jerzy Peterkiewicz
Abyssus abyssum invocat (*)
You always see it as space
filled with cascades of air
where glass splinters reflect and glitter
like seeds planted in distant stones.
Now observe the abyss that glitters
in the eye’s reflection.
We all bear it in us.
When men are gathered together
they shift the abyss like a boat
on their shoulders.
Nothing to bypass in this commotion.
Take a ray from the eye and write
your sign.
Though you see no abyss in the mind
don’t imagine that it’s not there.
Light may not reach your sight, but the boat
shifts on to your shoulders:
the abyss is clothed in flesh,
become fact
in all men.

(* This is part of Psalm 41:8 in the Vulgate, 42:7 in English. In one translation, “Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls.”)

When I was very young, a teacher wrote on the chalkboard at the front of the classroom “Man is a gregarious animal.” I don’t remember why she wrote it, but there was a kind of solemnity about the moment that has stayed with me. We need one another. It is in our nature, part of the stuff of our being. And when there is no one there, we feel incomplete. There is a gaping hole at our center, an abyss, if you will.

The depths in me call out to the depths in you.

The psalmic verse that Wojtyla uses as a subtitle reflects the psalmist’s sense of detachment from God, of great loneliness, of painful awareness of his separation from the One he longs for above any other. We hear it from the very beginning of the psalm: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.”

The depths in me call out to the depths in you.

“The abyss is clothed in flesh.” The abyss is within each of us, a part of us. We need one another. We complete one another. We fulfill one another.

The depths in me call out to the depths in you.

I am a solitary by choice as part of my religious and spiritual walk. I work a few hours a week with other people, but mostly alone. I spend six to eight hours a day in prayer and meditation. Several times a year I go away to live entirely alone for a week or more, and at least one weekend a month. Those are intense periods of being with my Creator in a special way.

The rest of the time I do my best to allow myself to be touched by the people around me, and to touch them. It might be with someone who comes to me for help, or with a coworker. It might be by writing this blog or by commenting on someone else’s blog. It might be by writing a letter or sending a photo. It might be in my prayer and meditation that I seek to remove the barriers that divide us; it might be by direct action and dialogue.

I do not have complete success all the time. I don’t expect it. I keep at it.

The depths in me call out to the depths in you.

Invictus: Survival, Autonomy, Faith

William Ernest Henley Vanity Fair 1892-11-26 (from Wikipedia)

A smarty and funny Twitter friend and blogger recently reminded me of William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus. Think of it as a Victorian teenage boy’s version of Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive. At the dawn of his adolescence, Henley was stricken by osseous tuberculosis, eventually having to endure a below-the-knee amputation at age 17. He must have suffered severe pain throughout his teen years and young adulthood. It is said that Invictus was inspired by the amputation; it was published in 1875, when Henley was 26.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Far from expert on the Victorian era, I have the impression that it is a time of contrasts: sickly sweet sentimentality coyly nestles up to the robust “manly virtues”. It is the era of “muscular Christianity” and of strictly defined class structure and social systems. It is an era rife with sexual taboos, but its pornography is read to this day. An era of contrasts, of division, of merciless social expectations. Individuality was not encouraged.

The title Invictus (“undefeated” in Latin) was not Henley’s, but that of a later publisher. But it is perfect, isn’t it? A young boy suffering from a painful, usually fatal illness. Boys don’t cry in that time and place; they soldier through. Despite looking at first blush like a poem of extreme self-reliance, to me Invictus reads like a battle cry of strong faith in the midst of desperate circumstance.

He recognizes the reality of his illness and his grief at the loss of health and limb (the night that covers me, black as the pit) as well as the reality of his “unconquerable soul”. He graphically describes his physical and mental suffering (Under the bludgeonings of chance / My head is bloody…) and his survival (…bloody but unbowed). Looking forward, he sees nothing but more trial, more suffering, death. And then the afterlife:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

My reading of this, which may be unorthodox, looks very much like Erich Fromm’s point in Man’s Search for Meaning. I am living in circumstances I cannot change or control, but one power will never be taken from me: the power to choose how I deal with it. And the way I deal with circumstances of necessity changes the way they affect me. It is a dynamic relationship: by changing myself I have changed reality.

There is a Jewish saying common among the Orthodox and the Hassidim: הכל בידי שמים חוץ מיראת שמים. Loosely translated, it means “Everything is in God’s hands except fear of God.” That is where free will comes in.

I can choose how I live. As a person who believes in the Christian afterlife, I believe that how I live today will affect how I spend eternity.

I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Love, immortality and Emily Dickinson

(Poem 917 – published 1896)

Love – is anterior to Life –

Posterior – to Death –

Initial of Creation, and

The Exponent of Earth –


(Poem 974 – published 1925 but written the same year as 917, 1894)

The Soul’s distinct connection

With immortality

Is best disclosed by Danger

Or quick Calamity –

As Lightning on a Landscape

Exhibits Sheets of Place –

Not yet suspected – but for Flash –

And Click – and Suddenness.

I shall be made thy music

Since I am come to that holy room,
   Where, with thy choir of saints for evermore,
I shall be made thy music, as I come
   I tune the instrument here at the door,
   And what I must do then, think now before.

This is the first stanza of John Donne’s “Hymn to God my God, in my Sickness”. Donne was an Englishman who lived on the cusp of the 16th and 17th centuries, a man who sacrificed career, reputation and even freedom to marry a woman. He traveled extensively abroad and came home to be a lawyer. A womanizer in his youth, he fathered twelve children with his wife and never remarried after her death; from a family of Catholic martyrs, including Thomas More, he became a member of the Anglican clergy and was named Dean of Saint Paul’s. He is perhaps best remembered today for his poem “No Man is an Island”. He died, some think of stomach cancer, in 1631 at the age of 59.

Donne’s life seems very modern to me, as peripatetic and mouvementé as that of a Baby Boomer. It certainly reminds me of mine. I bumped around for decades among cultures and subcultures, from continent to continent, career to career, from mainstream to margins and back again,  before coming to rest here in Jerusalem, with a life that I could never have imagined for its depth and breadth and luxurious comfort of soul. Yes, comfort of soul, even while the body is tired and ill.

Why do these particular five lines speak to me? I am living with cancer, not dying from it at this time, yet the reminder of death is never far from me. I relate to the prospect of my own death in different ways at different times; for now, I am more or less matter of fact about it. Death will come to me, it will come to you, it will come to everyone now living. Fact of life.

Donne’s concept of death in this poem is far from dispassionate. I shall be made thy music – I will become God’s music, the song of the heavenly choir, and now I am in the anteroom, looking in and preparing myself for the moment I enter. I tune the instrument, the part of me that is eternal, here at the door / And what I must do then, I think now before.

With the same firm, gentle and precise touch that once tuned my viola, my guitar, now I tune the instrument of my eternal being and prepare for the moment when I am made music.