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First, an explanation: What I am about to share here is a departure from the sort of thing I typically share and discuss on this blog. It is one of those intensely personal things that, for several reasons, I feel compelled to write about. It has been suggested to me by people I both love and respect that perhaps the healthiest, best way to begin to address the profound grief which at various times over the past several weeks has threatened to consume me is simply to write about it. So, I have. Mind you, this weaves and meanders a bit, but it is not a purely self-indulgent exercise in pity. I've written this searching little essay because I sincerely believe that there is a place for art even during the darkest, most bewildering moments of human existence. In working - struggling, really - to find that place for myself whilst deep in the midst of my own "dark night" I am filled increasingly with the sort of hope and reassurance that mere words sometimes fail to impart. What better way can one confront and address the most unutterable of human emotions than by the silent, ineffable witness of art? If that is indeed the case I would do wrong not to open my heart to you and share what I have found...


A Friend and Father
On the evening of 8 November 2010, my mentor and dearest friend, Father E. B. Davis, passed away following a lengthy hospital stay and even longer battle with chronic illness. I have known Father Davis since 1998 when I first began attending the small parish at which he was a longtime member and of which he later became curate and, briefly, acting rector. Father Davis' priestly vocation came rather late in life; he was for several decades prior a seasoned medical professional ultimately retiring from clinical practise as a Physician Assistant in 1998. When our paths first crossed I was a shy, diffident, overly-sensitive teenager with incredibly thin skin and remarkably little self-confidence. Of the many things Father Davis did for me, the greatest was teaching me how not to take the world or myself quite so seriously. Simply put, I am the man I am today because of his guidance, his patience, and his love. He was, in every real and important sense of the word, my father.

My initial grief at his death, as with so many of my emotions, was controlled and deliberately measured. Yes, I wept bitterly at his bedside as he lay dying and was all at once overcome by a profound sense of sadness and loss, but also one of relief. After all, Father Davis was a man of science and knew all-too-well the state of his health, at times even better than his own physicians did. His complete awareness of and exhaustion with the limitations imposed by his gradually deteriorating health, joined with his profound Christian faith and irrepressible trust in the God who created him, served to free him from excessive worry over his life and the closing of it. For as long as I knew him he was remarkably clear-eyed about life and its inevitable end. Truth be told, I am amazed he lived as long as he did; there were at least two occasions in recent years when he very nearly died... But even in the midst of years of physical struggle and increasing weakness he never lost his sense of humour nor his dogged determination to seek out and enjoy the beauty the world still had to offer.

Death in Venice
One of the things which became a staple of the last two years of our friendship, and something I shall miss very much, were our weekly movie nights. These occasions, while they invariably centered around food, weak Scotch, and a film or two, were always about so much more. I suppose, in retrospect, they were our equivalent of the father-son walk in the woods or fishing trip to the lake... The very last film we saw together, just before Father Davis entered hospital, was Death in Venice starring Dirk Bogarde and based on Thomas Mann's eponymous 1912 novel. It was a film Father had seen just once shortly after its initial release in 1971 and one which I had only recently discovered. Of course, neither of us knew then that just weeks later we would ourselves be separated by death (had I known I'm sure I would have suggested  a more cheerful film). Even so, the beauty of Thomas Mann's story - of von Aschenbach's startling death while in pursuit of unattainable beauty - captured both our imaginations. We chatted about life and about the necessity of reconciling oneself with the inevitability of death. It was a thoughtful conversation on a most impossible topic, the memory of which I shall carry with me for a very long time to come.



Wit
One film we never got around to watching, but which came to my mind shortly after Father's death, is the 2001 HBO television movie Wit based on Margaret Edson's extraordinary Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by the same name. The film stars Emma Thompson as 'Professor Vivian Bearing' in what I consider to be Thompson's finest screen role to date. It is the most remarkable film I have ever seen, my favourite, in fact. Anyone who has ever experienced firsthand the slow, quiet death of a loved one will be profoundly moved by this film. Wit explores several themes, not least of which is the spiritual inconsequence of physical death as demonstrated in the tenth of the Holy Sonnets of John Donne (1610), "Death be not proud, though some have called Thee mighty and dreadful, for Thou art not so..." We watch as Professor Bearing - a severe, emotionally reserved academic of profound intellect - is confronted with a diagnosis of terminal, late-stage ovarian cancer. Dr. Bearing, who thought that "being extremely smart would take care of it", is suddenly faced with the realisation that her extraordinary mind cannot this time provide her the answer. It is this realisation, and the emotional and spiritual awakening that follow, around which the story is centered.



I adore this film because it treats death in an emotionally, intellectually, and psychologically honest and accessible way as something universal and ultimately comprehensible. Seldom does one encounter a film so beautiful as a whole and in all its little moments and glances and pauses and whispers. For me, no scene is more beautiful, or more gut-wrenchingly painful, than the very last one. I have watched Wit a total of five times and never fail to be deeply moved by it. (If you intend to watch the whole of the film, as I very much hope you do, you may wish to skip over the clip below so as not to ruin the climax.)



A Grief Observed
It was Father Davis himself who, well over a year ago, recommended to me C.S. Lewis'  A Grief Observed. The book, first published in 1961, is comprised of brief thoughts and recollections Lewis recorded in a series of small journals he kept following the death of his wife, the poet Helen Joy Davidman. For those familiar with the Lewis of Narnia and Screwtape, A Grief Observed, while similar in matter to The Problem of Pain, is quite unlike anything else Lewis ever wrote; it is a remarkable exploration of the very nature, mathematics, and purpose of grief.
The beauty of this book - and it is exceedingly beautiful - is that Lewis, who for many years of his academic and literary career posited lofty theories on the nature and necessity of suffering, was now himself thrust headfirst into the most horrid kind of suffering imaginable. Lewis, a theologian and philosopher, falters and doubts and very nearly blasphemes, yet in grappling with these all-too-human responses to the bitter loss of a loved one he does not attempt to hide his faltering. By the end of the book Lewis emerges from his "dark night" of anguish and despair with a new found understanding and a faith restored. "Nothing will shake a man -- or at any rate a man like me -- out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. Only torture will bring out the truth. Only under torture does he discover it himself."
So there it is. I know both in my head and in my heart that pain and sorrow are the non-negotiable cost of love. There is simply no way round it; there is no clever calculus or formula we can devise in hopes of avoiding that cold, terrifying fact of human life. And the greater the love the more profound our anguish when we are separated from those whom we love. In the midst of grief, however, that "wallowing, self-indulgent kind of grief" of which Lewis speaks, it is all but impossible to see the proverbial forest for the trees. Yet, speaking as a passionately committed though deeply flawed Christian, I must ultimately accept that this life is transient -- an awful and wonderful trial through which we must all pass so that we may savour the life that is to come. Divergent as our individual beliefs may be, we must all agree that this life is at its fullest and most rewarding when one takes the bitter along with the sweet. Just as Lewis himself concluded, I too realise that is the only real hope.
Grief is not terminal - it need not cripple us or swallow us up. I am reminded of that very fact by those great artists whose response to their own grief was to create works of such aching beauty and unselfconscious emotional honesty as to lift us out of ourselves. Dvorák's Stabat Mater, Op. 58 (below) and Brahms' Violin Sonata in G, Op. 78 are extraordinary examples.

Dame Iris Murdoch, one of my favourite of 20th century philosophers, wrote that "Happiness is a matter of one's most ordinary everyday mode of consciousness being busy and lively and unconcerned with self. To be damned is for one's ordinary everyday mode of consciousness to be unremitting agonising preoccupation with self." I take great comfort in that.

6 years ago | Read Full Story
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