Recently I found myself tagging along again with my friend the philologist as he visited Ukraine. The Catholic University there is an amazing place—the top academic institution in the country—with a vibrant teaching faculty, a vivacious coterie of students, and a caring administration. Behind it a strong driving force has been a Harvard PhD named Jeffrey who has helped to shape and guide the university to ever higher ground, including, for its improved location, some fresh ground—literally—next to Lviv’s central park.
The beauty of the town, the joy of the students, the vim and vigor of Jeffrey himself easily outstripped my own jet-lagged energy, and in a way contrasted with it. But a deeper contrast was in the acute awareness I and, I think, everyone had of the soldiers on the other side of Ukraine fighting and dying against the pro-Russian factions (and even Russians) just as we were enjoying a lovely “dark prune” tort with raspberry tea. The blood red tea made me think of the blood being spilt by the noble Ukrainian soldiers at that very moment, the prune cake of the mire in which their bodies might just then be lying.
And as we visited church upon church, I though in brief prayers about those soldiers and about a dear friend’s mother who was even as I was praying for her dying. I thought about the inevitability of death, and that death is all around us. “Lo, that we walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” And we do walk through that valley and beneath that shadow quite often in this life, all too often. Death is ubiquitous, too close at every moment.
The ancients knew this. Euripides devoted an entire drama to it entitled Alcestis, the story about a husband, Admetus, losing his wife to death only because she chose to undergo death’s penalty that her husband might live. And then it struck me: Death is seeking us to pay something, to give something back. Does he require that in return for life? I don’t think so, or at least not precisely. If that were the case we would not be so outraged by death, would not weep so bitterly; rather, Death is asking us to pay for our sins. You can see it in the sarcastic and pitiless way he looks at us. He comes with no care for “timing,” no sense of decency. Rather, he comes to punish us—not the person dying, but the people left behind—abandoned, orphaned by Death. He has come to punish us for our sins.
Which is why Euripides, as if enjoying a vision of a spiritual sea change to come, portrays Heracles defeating Death, beating him mercilessly as he deserves. In that play, Heracles brings Alcestis back to life for Admetus. And I think I know another “mythology” that teaches this same thing, boldly proclaiming redemption and resurrection as a historical event. In light of which I think that the next line of the old Psalm then makes sense: “I will fear no evil, for thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” Now I get it: the Psalmist is saying “Go to Hell, Death, or at least go back to Hell, for I am in a good state: ‘my cup runneth over’.” Is that the reasons those religious students at Catholic University in Lviv seemed so vibrant and alive, so optimistic even with Death knocking at another, not-so-far-away Ukrainian door? I’m not sure, but I am sure they at least know the twenty-third Psalm and, when the time comes in their life that Death draws nigh, they’ll remember what it means.
On hearing a marvelous pianist, my friend, Helge Antoni play Edvard Grieg’s “Holberg Suite Opus no. 40” this week, I found myself stopping and thinking. I thought generally of music’s transformational qualities, its capacity to transport you from one state of mind to another, almost from one place to another. But when he played the fourth movement of that suite, “Air,” that is when I thought of something else: time.
I say time not because I found myself thinking of the work’s title in Norwegian (FråHolbergs tid) or even a language that I actually can speak like German (Aus Holbergs Zeit)—Little did I know until later that “time” (tid) was even in the original title. Nor was it the fact that the piece was written in 1884 to celebrate something that had occurred a bicentenary before, the commemoration of Norwegian playwright Ludvig Holberg’s birth; that detail I found out at the concert, though I think I had read it somewhere previously. But I had forgotten that when I was thinking about time, even as I listened intently to Mr. Antoni playing the piece so movingly, so timelessly.
If you recall the movements of Grieg’s Holberg Suite, you perhaps already know that they are based on eighteenth-century dance forms that were themselves connected with Baroque music, the music and the style of dance that came from when Holberg himself was living.  The Holberg Suite, then, was written to do precisely what it did for me, to transport someone through time to a previous epoch.
But the epoch in which I found myself was not two hundred years before. It was just a few years ago when Elaine Jakes died. For it was not the style of a Norwegian dance form from the seventeenth century that created an image in my mind, but it was the transcendent quality of the suite’s fourth movement, “Air,” that seeped into my soul and took me back, specifically to my mother’s death. Not in sadness or despair, but in an idea, an image. And that image originally occurred to me when I first encountered Death. For when I first encountered Death I had, as all of us perhaps at some point in our lives, never known him. He had been a distant reality to me, something that happened to other people, like a terrible disease or a horrendous accident or natural disaster.
I was twenty when my grandfather, Harry Jakes, died. And hitherto I hadn’t entered into the holy land by way of reading. The notion of someone who could defeat death, like Heracles come to bring Admetus’ dear Alcestis back from the grave, was not an image, even in Dionysian theatrical terms, that had jelled in my mind or occurred to my spirit. Rather, Death entered Harry’s hospital room with a strong upper hand as I and my cousin Eric had, moments before, looked upon him, wired with tubes and grasping at his last few moments of life. We stepped out, hungry and in need of something to eat, when we were called back from the hospital’s canteen to the room, too late. He was gone. His soul had flitted away, on air, not even the Air of the Holberg Suite, but just air. Death had won, for now. But Air is written to be played in andante.
Andante religioso, to be precise. And thus it was that Death’s victory was but short-lived, for in just a few months I found myself, for the first time, entering into that holy land of which I spoke, encountering a literary force much stronger than the Euripidean Heracles. But that force was something greater than even a literary force, or even one made popular at the time (and incredibly still so) by a movie and, later, series of films. Indeed I was not on Miltonian ground, I knew before I heard Air what andante religious really meant. And that is why when I attended my grandmother’s funeral and when I came down the stairs the morning of my mother’s death to find her cold body lying in her bed, I knew that her spirit had risen on the air, the air of Greig’s fourth movement of the Holberg Suite. That Air leads to the joyous opening of the fifth, Rigaudon, a piece that is written to be “alive with energy,” allegro con brio. How fitting, for Grieg’s Air doesn’t just dissolve. It wafts, it wafts somewhere.
And so had Harry, though I knew it not. And Blanche. And, thirty years or so after them, Elaine. Their spirits had not just passed away, but had climbed, not simply “up” to a sky deity but to the Master’s home, a home beyond the sky. They had all gone, by faith, allegro con brio. And before they left they had given me a gift—not a cheese plate or a serving tray or even a teapot with a most interesting brown, undulating pattern. No, they had given me the faith to envision, or perhaps the vision to believe that the air on which our souls shall one day climb, leads somewhere, until we shall, about the supreme throne, of Him t’ whose happy-making sight alone, forever sit, attired with stars, in triumph over Death, and Chance, and even Time. But not Air. For when that day comes, that is precisely what we shall breathe, con molto brio.
Milton’s sonnet “On Time” ends with the triumphant vaunt, “… Truth and Peace and Love shall ever shine / About the supreme Throne / Of Him to’whose happy-making sight alone, / When once our heav’nly-guided soul shall climb, Then all this earthly grosnes quit, Attired with stars, we shall for ever sit, Triumphing over Death, and Chance, and Thee, O Time.”
What follows is my own, perhaps merely whimsical, conjecture: this sonnet, which Milton possibly deemed the lesser of his two on the subject, was intended to be written on a clock case. I imagine, likely in a romantic flight of fancy, the blind bard having written or having revised this poem at an advanced age (though commentators in fact do not; based on its style, they date it early in his career). That said, in my undoubtedly capricious reading of it, I imagine the poet taking a moment to write (or revise) this poem for posterity, one that he knew might never be discovered but, if it were, it would be only after he had been attired with stars and was sitting astride the very throne that he describes in this poem.
In any case, Milton would seem to have had his own doubts about Chance, as in his sonnet he groups it with Time and, worse yet, Death. Good heavens, what could be so bad about chance or luck or even their positive cousins, serendipity and delightful randomness? Well, I think that Milton must have figured something out, the very thing that I spoke about in last week’s blog. And death? The gloominess of death obviously needs little exegesis. But time? Well, that’s another matter.
So great a matter, in fact, that Milton devotes two entire poems to it. This one, in my view the rather more mature of the two of them, stands out to me for its powerful language. It begins, “Fly, envious time, till thy run out thy race, / Call on the lazy leaden-stepping hours, / Whose speed is but the heavy plummet’s pace … .” In the continuation of this verse, he goes on to command time to glut itself (a powerful image) on what its womb devours (an even more striking one). Time, it seems, is a greedy and licentious fiend. Whatever it gains in the end turns out to be—at least for anyone who might share the poet’s point of view—so little, merely mortal dross.
Dross was as a strong word in Milton’s day as it is today. It suggests offal, scum, waste in the most hideous sense of that word. Add mortal to dross, and it is clear: it is the part of us that pertains to death. It is, or is at least partially, encompassed by what the King James Version often refers to as the “flesh.”
Milton’s sonnet then, winds up telling us that the spirit will ultimately triumph over the flesh, when once our heavenly guided souls will quit this dark world, and wide. But in the meantime, we are here. We face the tragedies of natural disasters, the sorrow of human hatred, our own outrage at our fellow human beings when they are outraged about what we deem less than outrageous, what we might even call the wrong things. In short, what bugs us is humankind’s gross failure to prioritize correctly; such prioritization is closely related to the notion of time being wasted, as all of this happens while time ticks away, however wonderful it may be to know that the subscribers to Milton’s point of view have a hope of triumphing over it one day.
What to do? Well, Milton alludes to some of the answer to that: you can’t do anything. You can only know that time is defeated in the end, and derive comfort from that; you can even mock it with imperatives (“fly,” “call,” “glut”) or deleterious adjectives such as “envious” or “greedy,” but you can’t beat it. Yet there is, perhaps, one thing you can do that Milton does not tell us here.
You can choose. You can choose not to allow it to cripple you. I’ve know some dear friends crippled by time. They could not manage it: it managed them. One lost his job because of his mismanagement of it. Another failed a college course, while another used it as an excuse for not completing the tasks set before her. Still another, appropriated it for an excuse never to marry or have a family; another, never to travel; still another, never to commit to any organization, such as church, that could take up his time, which was already, it seemed to me, in any case consuming him.
You can choose to make the most of time. If you’re married, for example, I believe that means to use your time wisely, even choose to be a certain kind of person. One might think of marriage as two folks moving in together for the first time—it is, for some, precisely that. One cannot force one’s spouse to use the time well, or even to keep his or her side of the room tidy; one can merely request it. But one can certainly use one’s own time well and one can literally and figuratively clean up his or her own side of the room. One can set an example. Therein, one can master time measuring it day by day not wasting it.
Though we don’t often see it this way, time is, in the end, much more valuable than money. Money comes and goes; time simply goes, or has Milton says, it flies—something not original with him, as it goes back to the ancient poet Virgil, who in his third Georgic wrote, “time flies, never to be recovered” (tempus fugit inreparablile tempus). So, before we can enjoy our Miltonic triumph, we have to overcome time ourselves, it seems, not necessarily in our own strength—but that is the matter of another blog—yet certainly with a good deal of our own effort. We must, as the bard once said, against “time’s thievish progress to eternity,” tidy our own side of the room, whether that be in our marriage or in our workplace. Time to get after it: time’s a wastin.’
“May you be praised, my Lord, for our sister, Bodily Death, from whom no living human being can escape.” Thus wrote St. Francis of Assisi some time just after 1200 AD. To St. Francis, my good friend Piergiacomo Petrioli assured me just yesterday, everything was good. “That’s the point,” he said as we sat in his living room in Bologna discussing how the Renaissance, which began almost precisely a century after St. Francis wrote this canticle, came about. “The point is that Francis cared about all of creation, saw everything as good because it came from God’s hand. And so,” he added, “even death could be seen as good, as a release from the troubles of this life.”
And that, we agreed later in the course of the conversation, was the beginning of the period of Western history in which the focus on repeating over and over in the cold echoing chamber of the high-ceilinged central nave of a Gothic cathedral, “God is Pankrator (Ruler of All)” reverted to the idea that “God is a human being, too.” Piergiacomo added, “The point is that the emphasis of the Renaissance is not that ‘God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world’—he was quoting Browning, of course—“but that God, as a human being, suffers with us humans, participates in our humanity; that human suffering is thereby redeemed, dignified to the extent that even morte corporale can be nostra sora (i.e., sorella), our sister.” This he said, with my slight adaptation, of course, in a lovely Italian accent. St. Francis himself must have sounded like Piergiacomo, I thought to myself, gentle and warm.
But the title of this blog is not St. Francis’ views on death, but rather “Traveling,” and I come back to that now. For when I am traveling, one of the things I like to do best is to visit my friends on the continent and chat with them about things like the origin of the Renaissance, something I had never before connected with St. Francis. The reason for that is, perhaps, that somewhere in my mind the cautionary words of G.K. Chesterton were still rambling about, for he once wrote of St. Francis, “… it is not true to represent St. Francis as a mere romantic forerunner of the Renaissance and a revival of natural pleasures for their own sake. The whole point of him was that the secret of recovering the natural pleasures lay in regarding them in the light of a supernatural pleasure.”
What I think Chesterton is cautioning against is not the importance of the emphasis beginning with St. Francis on all created things being good that Piergiacomo and I were touting as foundational to the notion of humanity that the Renaissance would advance. In any case, such emphasis certainly owes itself much more to the rediscovery of ancient texts than to St. Francis’ memorable declarations about death or Brother Sun or Sister Moon. Rather, I think that Chesterton is railing against those who want to put St. Francis on a pedestal, or more precisely, those who would distort his views about the interaction of man and God. That same group might emphasize St. Francis’ love for animals as a part of creation to the exclusion of his view on redemption and humankind.
Elsewhere in his biography of that saint, Chesterton offers a vivid description of Francis that I think is likely to be precisely right:
“He was, to the last agonies of asceticism, a Troubadour. He was a lover. He was a lover of God and he was really and truly a lover of men; possibly a much rarer mystical vocation. A lover of men is very nearly the opposite of a philanthropist; indeed the pedantry of the Greek word carries something like a satire on itself. A philanthropist may be said to love anthropoids. But as St. Francis did not love humanity but men, so he did not love Christianity but Christ. Say, if you think so, that he was a lunatic loving an imaginary person; but an imaginary person, not an imaginary idea.”
As usual, Chesterton gives us more to ponder than we may have wanted. His challenge to his reader is to consider St. Francis not in general, but in particular. And this is the challenge that Chesterton and later C.S. Lewis would lay at the feet of every churchgoer, every human being, to consider God in particular and each person in particular. It is much easier to love the idea of humanity than to love your neighbor.
Which brings be back to traveling, for how can I love my neighbor when I’m journeying such a long way from home? Well, if you’ve been reading any of my other blogs so far, I imagine you may know my opinion about the answer to that question. But in case you haven’t, I’ll tell one last story about traveling that might illustrate what I mean.
There once were two couples who went a traveling. One went to a large, impoverished city in Africa and bought bread and carried it with them everywhere they went in case they met any street children there. (As it turned out, they gave a great deal of bread away, and much more than food, as well. Indeed, I believe they would have surrendered their bodies to fire, were it necessary, to help those in need.) The other couple went to some other far more luxurious spot—Hawaii, I think it was—on vacation; that second couple gave money to world hunger relief organizations from time to time, especially when there was a crisis in the news. That same couple felt very good about their donations, and from time to time would tastefully mention their own generosity to their friends over dinner. But they could see no reason to encourage the other couple about their trip to Africa, or to help them in their admittedly limited-in-scope “humanitarian” effort. In fact, they gently rebuked them when they were having lunch together before they left. “You know, it’s a vain effort, you going there. It won’t cure all the ills in the world; you might even come back with one—a disease. Better to give money to some relief organization or something—that’s what we do,” they told the first couple in a well-intended, but condescending way.
The first couple was not taken aback. Rather they might even have expected as much, for they had long before come to love Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and even to understand that Bodily Death, too, is the sister of the moon and sun, and our sister, too. They were not going to Africa to rebuke that sister. They were going to find and help their brothers and their sisters. They did not love the idea of humanity, they loved human beings.
Now I myself did not and still do not understand one thing about the first pair, the couple who actually went to Africa, for I do not understand St. Francis’ idea that death could ever be our sister. I am rather angered by death, with Herculean emotions welling up from deep within. When a friend or family member dies, I feel that something fundamentally bad has happened, something gone wrong in the universe. But that is me, not Chesterton, not the first couple, nor probably the second. But I wax mystical.
Yet I was speaking about traveling. St. Francis’ travels are well known. Now another Francis, a new Pontifex Maximus, to use a Latin (and quite ancient Roman) term, is traveling, as well. He has just left Italy, to build a bridge to the needy, the poor in another hemisphere, one with which he is quite familiar. I will leave Bologna for a different America, the one with which I am familiar, only a few days after him. This Francis is not voyaging to Africa, but to Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay, countries where life is rife with challenge, where in every valley death casts a long shadow, where there are needy and weeping souls, real people, about whom it seems to have been forgotten by far too many who could care (but don’t) that they are human beings. In his travels the Pope will—indeed, I believe, already has—like St. Francis, bring warmth and love for human beings, not just for “humanity.”
In the meantime, until I leave, Piergiacomo and I will sit by and by, eating Parmesan and raising a glass to TheCurious Autobiography, which he is now reading, and more especially and fittingly a cup running over to both the pope and the saint, whose love for humanity and human beings was and will be, I hope, remembered and, by the time this blog is posted, seen, as well. For our part, we shall consider the importance of the Renaissance again and again, admiring the work of artists, and reading a piece of literature or two—I hear Petrarch beckoning—and, before I leave, perhaps even visiting again Santa Maria della Vita here in Bologna. To the right of the altar of the central nave one can see the masterpiece of Niccolò dell’Arca, his Compianto, a sculpted work that portrays the humanity and pain of human beings in the face of the most horrific death in history, before history could be changed by a single naked act. But the nakedness of that act involves a trip I once took to Estonia, which will be the story of another blog about traveling, a blog I will write perhaps a long time from now.
For more on Renaissance Art, see Artsy’s website and follow your favorite artists. For example, see on Raphael.
Laudato si mi Signore, per sora nostra Morte corporale, da la quale nullu homo uiuente pò skappare, from Michele Faloci Pulignani (ed.). Il Cantico del Sole di San Francesco di Assisi. Foligno: Tipografia di Pieter Sgariglia, 1888, pp. 10–11; http://www.prayerfoundation.org/canticle_of_brother_sun.htm. My translation.
The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton (Ignatius Press, 1986), 70, 29.