The world of Power will vex and desolate, how could it not? But nothing compared to the hell in which so many live their fine and private lives: the hell, so often, of insatiable demands, of greed and ingratitude, when not actual rapine; the nightmare of looking every gifthorse in the mouth; the pain of devotion to the merely unavailable; of wanting what is not even God’s to give; my own ravings and thrashings at recent fate.
Woke this morning, from out of the wilderness of dreams, into a sudden silence or quietude, as if I could somehow hear the whispering of angels, which I was straining to discern. Perhaps I was still half asleep:
“Things are as they are and will be as they will be, do not rave and thrash, do not try to understand what is beyond your understanding. Take pleasure in what is given and wisdom from what is withheld; you are loved, don’t be lonely. Your task is to love in return; to love without demanding.”
And then I remembered Newman’s prayer:
God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission, I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.
I am a link in a chain, a bond of connexion between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good — I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place while not intending it, if I do but keep his commandments.
Therefore I will trust Him. Whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him.
He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about; He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me — still He knows what He is about!
A friend died, fourteen years ago. Bob, let me call him. He was a close friend, an old friend-of-the-family who had never gone away, and whom in the course of things I attended on his deathbed — homosexual, as a matter of fact, and a rather passionate if long highly irregular Christian, too. I had the task of clearing his house, where he’d lived all alone since the death of his companion of many years. I remember going through his closet to choose appropriate clothes, for the undertaker’s man, to dress him in his coffin: laying them out on his bed, to match this with that; and bursting into tears. He was a good man, I think very good in the balance, whose life was an ordeal; who had lived wild, then come to repent it. But his love — specifically, his love for his companion — he would never repent. And Lord, it had been tested.
Returning to the closet, I found Newman’s prayer, on the inside of the door. He must have seen it, perhaps read it there, every morning when he was reaching for clothes. (He was a man almost incapable of “dressing up,” it was work finding something appropriate to a coffin.) He’d written out this prayer in his own hand, and glued it so it would not be removable.
So now I knew why he was capable of reciting it, as he had once done. And, too, why he had written, as a kind of title, over many hundreds of pages of rambling memoir in which, really, he was explaining what and why he would not repent, the words: “To keep in touch.” Of a generation now almost entirely lost in time — my parents’ generation — it would be very hard to explain him to this generation, and Bob’s words could not do it. The homosexual “subculture” for instance, of artists and rogues, is not translatable into any “gay scene” today: how it thrived on secrecy and repression. Bob himself condemned “pride parades” and the like as if they were almost a breach of contract.
He had himself more than a decade, after his companion’s death, to think it all through. An old drunkard, he became serenely sober; a chain smoker, he gave up cigarettes: both, on the day his friend died. He devoted his last years largely to praying: more, I should think, for his friend than for himself. It is not for me to know whether God “heard” his prayers. I find it inconceivable that He didn’t.
Lying on his deathbed — the last month, while he was withering away, and losing one faculty after another — he was at peace. He was in a bed at the Salvation Army “palliative” hospital. He was very grateful they had let him in. He had cried when he arrived, and then apologized for crying — boys don’t cry — explaining that it was a moment of terrible nostalgia. “I am the only one left who remembers all those people. They’re all gone now. When I go, no one will be left to remember.”
But then he composed himself, and reflected, “Everything is remembered in the mind of God.”
For better and for worse, from our human point of view. (Drollness indicator.) So much of our desolation is for things lost, including of course lost opportunities, and the fallout from terrible mistakes. We wail and gnash to have the past back, to have taken the other fork in the road, to have instead of what we have, what we might have had, had we not been so foolish. But especially we lament the good that we had; and the good that was mixed into everything, even into the bad; and everything we loved: all passed away as in a dream. All vanity: for what’s gone is gone, except what is immortal.
The truth is that I am myself rather partial to that human point of view. It comes naturally. And the fevers that come with it are natural, too, and the sorrow, with the loss. Our lot isn’t really quite so easy as the angels might imagine. “You try having a body, and find out what it’s like!”