In the faith that looks through death.
This is one of final lines in William Wordsworth’s poems: “Ode to Intimations of Immorality.” It’s a line that I have meditated on and repeated in my head over and over again as I have walked into a crisis, held a hand, received disturbing news, heard of another tragedy, prayed in a time of uncertainty:
“In the faith that looks through death, In the faith that looks through death, In the faith that looks through death.”
Wordsworth writes, “Though nothing can bring back the hour of the splendor in the grass/of glory in the flower/ we will grieve not, rather find /Strength in what remains behind/In the primal sympathy which having been must ever be;/ In the soothing which spring out of human suffering/ In the faith that looks through death.
Today marks the 16th year of my ordination as a minister in the Presbyterian Church. Of all the words I have read, all of the books I have my shelves, all of quotes that I have clipped and saved, these 7 stanzas were the first on my tongue 16 years ago, and they remain my favorite today.
This middle of career place where 16 years ago, 29 seems like a lifetime ago, – I was 29 once, right? and imagining ministry 16 years from now, at the age of 61, seems hard to imagine. –Just how many more Christmas Eve sermons can I write? How many more deaths can I face? How many more tragic stories? How many more night meetings, visioning projects, stewardship campaigns – What will the future be? I see how quickly the past 16 years have come and gone, and know how quickly the next 16 years will pass by. I am also ashamed to to find that I have the same fears and uncertainty today as I had then. – Maybe it’s time to learn something and stop being uncertain of what will come. Maybe it’s time to let go of what I do not know and hold on to what I do know. Maybe its time to shed a fear and replace it with conviction. What time will I have wasted worrying when I look back 16 years from now?
And yet if I have learned anything these past 16 years, it is that one cannot expect another sixteen years. Today is all there is. It’s cliche, I know, to talk about the gift of every day, of recognizing the frailty of life. We can’t live every day like it’s our last all of the time. We can’t constantly be in that Thin Place. We have to live as if there will be college campuses to visit and retirements to plan and vacations to take. But every now and then, we need to go to the Thin Place where we sense that we are just on this side of heaven, and heaven is not so far away.
Wendell Berry expresses that feeling in this poem – another of my favorites, when he says, “sometimes here, we are there… and there is no death.”
“Some Sunday afternoon, it may be, you are sitting under your porch roof, looking down through the trees to the river, watching the rain. The circles made by the raindrops’ striking expand, intersect, dissolve, and suddenly (for you are getting on now, and much of your life is memory) the hands of the dead, who have been here with you, rest upon you tenderly as the rain rests shining upon the leaves. And you think then (for thought will come) of the strangeness of the thought of Heaven, for now you have imagined yourself there, remembering with longing this happiness, this rain. Sometimes here we are there, and there is no death.”
“1996, V” [“Some Sunday afternoon, it may be”] by Wendell Berry, from This Day: New & Collected Sabbath Poems 1979-2012. © Counterpoint, 2013.
What I am trying to say is this is what I know: sometimes here we are there, and there is no death and when we can see through death, we know that healing happens. Healing, in the truest sense of the word, is holy. Healing, in the truest sense of the word, is human. It is the threading relationship of God and Human together in the wrestling of Jacob, in the dark night of the soul of Jonah, in the blood sweat night prayer of Jesus, in the heart breaking cry of Mary, in the courage of Ruth, in the humanity of David, even in the shame of Judas. One cannot be healed if one does not have something that needs healing. It’s only through the dark valley that we can recognize the light. This is what it means to have the faith that looks through death.
This I know. It’s really the only thing I know for absolute certainty.
Healing always happens.
Healing comes and people live and sometimes healing comes and people die, but healing always happens.
Healing happens through time and endurance and blood and bone. It happens deep in the soul and in the breaking of the heart. It happens when the unseen are seen and the unheard are heard. It happens in rest. It happens in laughter. It happens in time. It happens in pain.
It is healing that allows us to have the faith that looks through death. That healing occurs only through suffering. Only through loss and rainy days and times of loneliness. It is in moments like these that soothing thoughts come through suffering and help us to see a way through.
We must never give up on the human heart for it is where the Holy resides. We must never give up on the belief that healing of mind, body, spirit, relationship, community, world, does, can and will happen.
Though nothing can bring back the splendor in the grass/the glory in the flower, we will grieve not, but rather find strength in what remains behind
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,/ Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears/ To me the meanest flower that blows can give/ Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears. (William Wordsworth, 1770-1850).