“And in thy wisdom make me wise.”
In the prologue of his poem, In Memoriam, Lord Alfred Tennyson (1809–1892), Poet Laureate of Queen Victoria's reign and recipient of the coveted Cambridge Chancellor's Gold Medal for poetry, reflects on man’s worth in the face of earthly death.
At just 22 years of age, Arthur Henry Hallam died. Arthur was a dear friend of Tennyson, and the poet’s struggle with the suddenness of Arthur’s death and the grief that followed was a pivotal moment that changed his life.
No one, no matter how well they mask their feelings, can escape the emotional pain that accompanies earthly death. To answer this reality, the world around us offers many and multiple avenues to cope with grief: encounter groups, actualization therapy, self-help books and videos, pharmacology, and the ABC Store. A few of these methods do indeed offer positive and helpful methods for self-reflection. Acknowledging that, while the earthly death of a mother, father, friend, or child can be reduced to a simple biological event, there is also an unknown quantity present.
People of faith are not immune to the emotional tumult that can accompany earthly death, but as people of faith we know that at its core, earthly death reverberates with the vast complexity of human existence within the divine presence. We know that when we are confronted with earthly death, with the frailty in finitude of human existence, we are also propelled by the Holy Spirit to encounter the Divine.
As Jacob wrestled with God in order to find himself and so was renamed Israel (Genesis 32:22-32), we too are called to discover the truth of who we are as we confront the pain of earthly death. For people of faith self-help books and encounter groups may help refine our focus, but only that beam in the darkness can lead us and light our way.
One can say that Tennyson’s poetry itself is the actualization of his search and reflection, a witness of need for active participation in the life that lives on. His love and his sorrow took him to the only place where light and life could prevail for Arthur, and for himself.
In Memoriam A.H.H.
Strong Son of God, immortal Love,
Whom we, that have not seen thy face,
By faith, and faith alone, embrace,
Believing where we cannot prove;
Thine are these orbs of light and shade;
Thou madest Life in man and brute;
Thou madest Death; and lo, thy foot
Is on the skull which thou hast made.
Thou wilt not leave us in the dust:
Thou madest man, he knows not why,
He thinks he was not made to die;
And thou hast made him: thou art just.
Thou seemest human and divine,
The highest, holiest manhood, thou.
Our wills are ours, we know not how;
Our wills are ours, to make them thine.
Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be:
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they.
We have but faith: we cannot know;
For knowledge is of things we see
And yet we trust it comes from thee,
A beam in darkness: let it grow.
Let knowledge grow from more to more,
But more of reverence in us dwell;
That mind and soul, according well,
May make one music as before,
But vaster. We are fools and slight;
We mock thee when we do not fear:
But help thy foolish ones to bear;
Help thy vain worlds to bear thy light.
Forgive what seem'd my sin in me;
What seem'd my worth since I began;
For merit lives from man to man,
And not from man, O Lord, to thee.
Forgive my grief for one removed,
Thy creature, whom I found so fair.
I trust he lives in thee, and there
I find him worthier to be loved.
Forgive these wild and wandering cries,
Confusions of a wasted youth;
Forgive them where they fail in truth,
And in thy wisdom make me wise.
In the ever-living Light of Christ,
Father Bill Burk†