Resurrection, imperfect

Sleep, sleep old sun, thou canst not have repass'd,
As yet, the wound thou took'st on Friday last;
Sleep then, and rest; the world may bear thy stay;
A better sun rose before thee to-day;
Who—not content to enlighten all that dwell
On the earth's face, as thou—enlighten'd hell,
And made the dark fires languish in that vale,
As at thy presence here our fires grow pale;
Whose body, having walk'd on earth, and now
Hasting to heaven, would—that He might allow
Himself unto all stations, and fill all—
For these three days become a mineral.
He was all gold when He lay down, but rose
All tincture, and doth not alone dispose
Leaden and iron wills to good, but is
Of power to make e'en sinful flesh like his.
Had one of those, whose credulous piety
Thought that a soul one might discern and see
Go from a body, at this sepulchre been,
And, issuing from the sheet, this body seen,
He would have justly thought this body a soul,
If not of any man, yet of the whole.
Desunt Caetera.

Donne's poem is imperfect because unfinished, but also because our analogues of resurrection are imperfect: the rising of the sun, the transmutation of minerals. Our understanding is dim, fixed on the separation of body and soul; our fires are indeed pale. There's another sense, which Donne might not have meant, of the resurrection itself as unfinished, not because incomplete but because it was the beginning, not the end - as the rising sun is the prelude of day.


From depth to height, from height to loftier height,
The climber sets his foot and sets his face,
Tracks lingering sunbeams to their halting-place,
And counts the last pulsations of the light.
Strenuous thro' day and unsurprised by night
He runs a race with Time, and wins the race,
Emptied and stripped of all save only Grace,
Will, Love, - a threefold panoply of might.
Darkness descends for light he toiled to seek;
He stumbles on the darkened mountain-head,
Left breathless in the unbreathable thin air,
Made freeman of the living and the dead, -
He wots not he has topped the topmost peak,
But the returning sun will find him there.

(Christina Rossetti)


Having posted the last, I've just come across these thoughts from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor imprisoned for opposing Hitler.

He wrote from prison to a friend that the Christian should live “unreservedly in life's duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world - watching with Christ in Gethsemane.” And later, to the same friend: “It is only when one loves life and the world so much that without them everything would be gone, that one can believe in the resurrection and a new world.”

After his execution, in April 1945, a fellow prisoner wrote of him that he “always seemed to diffuse an atmosphere of happiness, of joy in every smallest event in life, and a deep gratitude for the mere fact that he was alive.”

Intimations of mortality

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.