The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Thursday, August 14, 2008

A Death in the Desert

According to Archbishop William Temple (1881-1944), "the most penetrating interpretation of St. John that exists in the English language" is Robert Browning's "A Death in the Desert." (Temple, Readings in St. John's Gospel (1945) at xvii). Two thoughts from Browning for today.

First, as W.R. Inge notes (Christiam Mysticism Lect. VIII), Browning more than most understands the mystical path to God flourishes in loving engagement with others in the world. In "A Death," St. John, briefly revived on his deathbed, surrounded by his disciples, muses:
If I live yet, it is for good, more love
"Through me to men: be nought but ashes here
"That keep awhile my semblance, who was John,—
"Still, when they scatter, there is left on earth
"No one alive who knew (consider this!)
"—Saw with his eyes and handled with his hands
"That which was from the first, the Word of Life.
"How will it be when none more saith 'I saw'?

"Such ever was love's way: to rise, it stoops.
"Since I, whom Christ's mouth taught, was bidden teach,
"I went, for many years, about the world,
"Saying 'It was so; so I heard and saw,'
"Speaking as the case asked: and men believed.
Afterward came the message to myself
"In Patmos isle; I was not bidden teach,
"But simply listen, take a book and write,
"Nor set down other than the given word,
"With nothing left to my arbitrament
"To choose or change: I wrote, and men believed.
"Then, for my time grew brief, no message more,
"No call to write again, I found a way,
"And, reasoning from my knowledge, merely taught
"Men should, for love's sake, in love's strength believe;
"Or I would pen a letter to a friend
"And urge the same as friend, nor less nor more:
"Friends said I reasoned rightly, and believed.
Note that Browning has St. John delineate revelation, experience and reason, as the three vehicles of his teaching--is it fanciful to view these as Scripture, tradition and reason? Or shall we stress the mystical element in St. John--visions--earlier in the poem, St. John describes his vision of the transfigured Christ in Rev. 1:14, direct experience of God, through Christ, and reason working to discern meaning from both?

Even pain, and age and imminent death do not shake St. John's faith in Browning's imagining, Browning returns to his core theme:
Can they share
"—They, who have flesh, a veil of youth and strength
"About each spirit, that needs must bide its time,
"Living and learning still as years assist
"Which wear the thickness thin, and let man see—
"With me who hardly am withheld at all,
"But shudderingly, scarce a shred between,
"Lie bare to the universal prick of light?
"Is it for nothing we grow old and weak,
"We whom God loves? When pain ends, gain ends too.
And, as I saw the sin and death, even so
"See I the need yet transiency of both,
"The good and glory consummated thence?
"I saw the power; I see the Love, once weak,
"Resume the Power: and in this word 'I see,'
"Lo, there is recognized the Spirit of both
Second, Browning uses the notion of the Divine Spark within the soul--most famous in Eckhart, but tracing back to Plotinus--to convey the profundity of God's creation, our being made in His image, limited by our human nature, but fortified by it too, bringing us again to the centrality of love:>
For life, with all it yields of joy and woe
"And hope and fear,—believe the aged friend,—
Is just our chance o' the prize of learning love,
"How love might be, hath been indeed, and is;
"And that we hold thenceforth to the uttermost
"Such prize despite the envy of the world,
And, having gained truth, keep truth: that is all.
"But see the double way wherein we are led,
"How the soul learns diversely from the flesh!
"With flesh, that hath so little time to stay,
"And yields mere basement for the soul's emprise,
"Expect prompt teaching. Helpful was the light,
"And warmth was cherishing and food was choice
"To every man's flesh, thousand years ago,
"As now to yours and mine; the body sprang
"At once to the height, and stayed: but the soul,—no!
"Since sages who, this noontide, meditate
"In Rome or Athens, may descry some point
"Of the eternal power, hid yestereve;
"And, as thereby the power's whole mass extends,
"So much extends the æther floating o'er,
"The love that tops the might, the Christ in God.
As we read St. John in the Daily Office these next weeks, I'll be referring back from time to time both to Browning's portrait and to Abp. Temple's "Readings." Come along on the theological prowl!

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