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Friday, 13 March 2009

Life, Death, Love and Suffering - Spencer Colliver and Wendell Berry

Coming home from a funeral yesterday, a celebration of a life well lived, (Spencer Colliver - a senior public servant during the Whitlam years and a key figure in the founding of the Zadok Institute), a funeral that featured a series of reflections by his children who honestly, wryly and lovingly recorded the light and the shadow, the complexity of energy, demand and love that had been their father, I carried with me the memory of the walk to the cemetery down a country lane behind the hearse, brief prayers against the warmth of an early autumn day pretending, fairly successfully, that it was still still summer and the faint call of cockatoos against the brown of the distant hills, I sat down to read and found myself moved by the closing passage of Wendell Berry's novel A World Lost.

What the connection between my thoughts about the funeral and thanksgiving service and the passage in the novel was I am not quite sure. Perhaps the sharing of it will help make the connection clear, to myself at least.

A World Lost is a first person reminiscence by Andy Catlett of a crucial event in his growing up his gradual exploration of that event in his later years and its significance for his life. At the end of the story Andy comes to the following conclusion about himself and the family members who have been at the centre of the novel.

One by one, the sharers in this mortal damage have borne its burden out of the present world: Uncle Andrew, Grandpa Catlett, Grandma, Momma-pie, Aunt Judith, my father and many more. At times perhaps I could wish them merely oblivious and the whole groaning and travailing world at rest in their oblivion, but how can I deny that in my belief they are risen?

I imagine the dead waking, dazed into a shadowless light in which they know themselves altogether for the first time. It is a light that is merciless until they can accept its mercy; by it they are at once condemned ad redeemed. It is Hell until it is Heaven. Seeing themselves in that light, if they are willing, they see how far they have failed the only justice of loving one another; it punished them by their own judgement. And yet in suffering that light's aweful clarity, in seeing themselves within it, they see its forgiveness and its beauty and are consoled. In it they are loved completely, even as they have been, and are so changed into what they could not have beenbut what , if they could have imagined it, they would have wished to be.

That light can come into this world only as love, and love can enter only by suffering. Not enough light has ever reached us here among the shadows, and yet I think it has never been entirely absent.

Remembering, I suspose, the best days of my childhod, I used to think I wanted most of all to be happy - by which I meant to be here and to be undistracted, I thought, I would be at home.

But now I have been here a fair time, and slowly I have learned that my true home is not just this place but is also that company of immortals with whom I have lived here day by day. I live in their love, and I know something of the cost. Sometimes in the darkness of my own shadow I know that I could not see at all were it not for this old injury of love and grief, this little flickering lamp that I have watched beside all these years. (p.326 Three Short Novels)

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