21 January 2009

'Wherever your son's grave might be, it's somewhere on God's earth'

Recently, in this post from Fr Josiah Trenham’s blog, I came across the following excerpt from a pastoral letter of St Nicholas (Velimirović) to a mother who could not find the grave of her son, presumably lost in the war.

Do not grieve dear mother. Excess in sorrow is sin. ‘The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.’ Wherever your son’s grave might be, it’s somewhere on God’s earth. When you touch the ground in front of your house, you are touching the edge of your son’s grave. And the all-seeing eye of God traverses the earth and beholds the dead as well as the living. God Himself has hidden him from you that your heart might be cleansed with sorrow and that He might prepare a joyous surprise for you, a joyous meeting with your son in His eternal places. The graves of great and holy people also remain unknown. Prophet Moses’ grave [though not, as we have seen, that of his brother!] has remained unknown, as well as the graves of many Apostles and Martyrs of Christ…You ought to stop grieving and start the almsgiving for the rest of your son’s soul.

I thought this was, quite simply, wonderful.

So, I hate to do this, and particularly so soon after the ‘Flight into Egypt’ post, but this excerpt reminds me of nothing so much as Thomas Merton’s poem for his younger brother, John Paul. The latter was a crew member on a bomber shot down in the North Sea. Although John Paul survived the crash (he and the other survivors kept afloat in a rubber dinghy), he was badly injured and succumbed to his wounds shortly thereafter. His comrades consigned his remains to the sea (the story is told in The Seven Storey Mountain [Garden City, NY: Garden City, 1951], pp. 402-3). Merton wrote the following poem, which was printed without a title at the end of the account of John Paul’s death in Seven Storey Mountain (p. 404), and reprinted, with a title, in Selected Poems of Thomas Merton, enlarged ed. [NY: New Directions, 1967], pp. 12-3:

‘For My Brother: Reported Missing in Action, 1943’

Sweet brother, if I do not sleep
My eyes are flowers for your tomb;
And if I cannot eat my bread,
My fasts shall live like willows where you died.
If in the heat I find no water for my thirst,
My thirst shall turn to springs for you, poor traveller.

Where, in what desolate and smokey country,
Lies your poor body, lost and dead?
And in what landscape of disaster
Has your unhappy spirit lost its road?

Come, in my labor find a resting place
And in my sorrows lay your head,
Or rather take my life and blood
And buy yourself a better bed—
Or take my breath and take my death
And buy yourself a better rest.

When all the men of war are shot
And flags have fallen into dust,
Your cross and mine shall tell men still
Christ died on each, for both of us.

For in the wreckage of your April Christ lies slain,
And Christ weeps in the ruins of my spring:
The money of Whose tears shall fall
Into your weak and friendless hand,
And buy you back to your own land:

The silence of Whose tears shall fall
Like bells upon your alien tomb.
Hear them and come: they call you home.

Here is what Mark Van Doren had to say about this poem in the ‘Introduction’ to Selected Poetry, p. xvi-xvii:

[Having quoted ‘St Agnes: A Responsory’, Van Doren continues—] The foregoing would suggest that the special reputation of Merton’s poem ‘For My Brother: Reported Missing in Action, 1943’ is not an accident. No poem in the book is better known, and the reason may lie in the music it makes. It is the kind of music that only poetry can make: not pure sound, of course, but something buried in the words and (in this case) mourning there. The Seven-Storey Mountain tells the story of the brother’s death in prose that moves the reader too; without, however, assembling the sounds that are climaxed here in two paradoxical verses: ‘The silence of Whose tears shall fall / Like bells upon your alien tomb.’ The poem, having created its own silence in preparation for these lines, drops them into our imagination where it is possible for tears that make no noise to sound nevertheless like delicate, distinct bronze, hopelessly far away. The figures of the poem are justly celebrated: the sleepless eyes as flowers, the fasts as willows, the thirst as springs, and the money of breath and death and weeping. Yet figures alone do not make a great poem. There must be a music that absorbs them and relates them, and gives them in the end a power for which we cannot asign the cause. We can say that the very intensity of the poet’s fear that he will fail is somehow the reason for his success; we can guess that inarticulate grief manages here, simply because it must, to become articulate after all; but it is truer to say that in such a poem sadness sings—a low note, in perfect pitch, that carries around the world.

So, it is interesting to note that besides the similarity of the two reflections on the lost remains of fallen men, it is likely that both speak of men who fell in the same, terrible war, a war that bereaved poor Serbian mothers and bohemian-turned-Trappist American brothers alike.

(The painting above is 'Syksy II', 'Autumn II' (1895), by the Finnish painter, Hugo Simberg. One can view some of his work here.)

No comments: