November 01, 2011

All Saints Day: The Windover

Ok, so this is not a falcon.  It is a bald eagle I saw at Brownie Beach in Maryland this summer.  In the wild. 

Today is the feast of All Saints, and Gerard Manly Hopkins' poem The Windover is much on my mind. A couple of weeks ago, Mambo, Stearns, and I hiked up Old Rag with some friends, and I brought along a copy of it.  Stearns and I read it out-loud on one of the peaks.  (And we did see a falcon.)

It is, of course, a vivid poetic metaphor for Christ's life and death on the Cross. "The achieve of, the mastery of the thing!" 

We've heard the phrase "achieving death" a lot recently. Did you all read the beautiful, deeply personal eulogy of Steve Jobs given by his sister, Mona Simpson, which was published this past weekend in the New York Times.  It has certainly cemented the cult of Steve Jobs, and that's fine.  He was clearly a bold man who drastically changed our lives, and he also tried to live by a standard--a standard of working hard at love. (And, golly, isn't love hard work?) In the eulogy, Ms. Simpson, described those final hours in the hospital:  
"His breathing changed. It became severe, deliberate, purposeful. I could feel him counting his steps again, pushing farther than before. This is what I learned: he was working at this, too. Death didn’t happen to Steve, he achieved it."
This phrase has hit a chord with a lot of people, and has been quoted all over Twitter, Facebook, the news sources. But what does it mean--especially for the secular world?  Is death something to be achieved? Something to be worked at? This notion troubles me.

We are are familiar with the idea of the virtuous pagan--the man who lives well, who sacrifices his own desires for those around him, who is generous and wise, who does good. They live by love--and by that I don't mean some superficial "love is all you need" sentiment--but a genuine love for mankind and willingness to put aside ones own desires for the good of another. Through reason, firm character, and natural fellowship they manage to touch on some of the truths of a Christian life, without the benefit of belief.

But is death a good, along with love, and laughter, and hard work, that can be striven for, and achieved?  Or is it not something that must be endured or feared, as all ends are. Why are we, as a culture, so comforted by Steve Jobs' final attitude?  Without the lens of Christianity, can there be anything achieved in dying?

For indeed, in Christ we find the answer--"The achieve of, the mastery of the thing!"--and try to live it daily. Some, more profoundly and violently than others, for the Martyrs have achieved something in their death. Not that they sought their death, but that in their death, as in their lives, they modeled themselves entirely on Christ, to the last moment, and died professing His name.  So do all the saints, those good men and women who have toiled many long days in this vale of tears.

Today we celebrate those saints, the Feast of All Saints. And so we, tying ourselves to the Cross, living the Cross each day, gain strength by the witness of those who have come before us, who have achieved, not death, but Christ's eternal Glory.

The Windover
by Gerard Manly Hopkins

To Christ our Lord

I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

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