I confess to returning Brenda Walker’s Reading by Moonlight to the library unfinished. It’s an intimate, meandering meditation on how books helped her survive breast cancer and its treatment, at points very lyrical. Adrift in dark waters, her lights are works of imaginative literature and what others have written about death, love, family, and loss. I read the first few chapters and found myself a tearful mess. I resolved not to finish it, but still there followed one of the most piteous and unshakeable moods of gloom I’ve had this many a day; a realisation that though nothing’s wrong yet, by getting married I’ve knowingly signed up for eventual wrenching loss; combined with a generalised regret at the lot of humans who must all bid a bittersweet goodbye - for me never far from the surface. Dawkins or Hitchens or somebody like that wonders why Christians don’t look eagerly for death. At one level he’s right, and we do, but at another, we could hardly be human if we didn’t feel the pathos of this ultimate severance. John Ames, the hero of Gilead, is sure of his salvation, but nonetheless filled with sadness at the ending of his long loved life. In Gethsemane, Jesus is ‘overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,’ a state which must have comprehended more than the simple fear of pain or loss of friends. I believe in the resurrection – the remedy for mortality – but that belief has never made my heart hard to the thought of going. Like Walker, I find that literature helps. My gloom was dissipated by a good sleep, a kind spouse, and a dose of poetry. This is that skylark Hopkins (a better guide than Hitchens or Dawkins) and his poem “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and the Comfort of the Resurrection.”
Cloud-puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows flaunt forth, then chevy on an air-
built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs they throng; they glitter in marches.
Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, wherever an elm arches,
Shivelights and shadowtackle in long lashes lace, lance, and pair.
Delightfully the bright wind boisterous ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare
Of yestertempest’s creases; in pool and rut peel parches
Squandering ooze to squeezed dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches
Squadroned masks and manmarks treadmire toil there
Footfretted in it. Million-fuelèd, nature’s bonfire burns on.
But quench her bonniest, dearest to her, her clearest-selvèd spark
Man, how fast his firedint, his mark on mind, is gone!
Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark
Drowned. O pity and indignation! Manshape, that shone
Sheer off, disseveral, a star, death blots black out; nor mark
Is any of him at all so stark
But vastness blurs and time beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart’s-clarion! Away grief's gasping, joyless days, dejection.
Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.