THIS world is not conclusion;
A sequel stands beyond,
Invisible, as music,
But positive, as sound.
It beckons and it baffles;
Philosophies don’t know,
And through a riddle, at the last,
Sagacity must go.
To guess it puzzles scholars;
To gain it, men have shown
Contempt of generations,
And crucifixion known.
I have to confess: I didn't much like Emily Dickinson's poetry when I was younger. I preferred the red meat of Dryden and Pope (especially Pope, which will surprise no one, given the title of this blog) to the seemingly lighter-weight verses penned by the Belle of Amherst. But I've gained some appreciation for Miss Dickinson's writing in my maturer years, not all of which is based on the obvious fact that it is much easier for a homeschooling mother to read one of Miss Dickinson's poems in good time than it is to read a similar work by the eighteenth century poets.
In fact, quite a bit of my appreciation stems from the way that Emily Dickinson's poetry seems to be capable of condensing into a few polished phrases some idea that I've been pondering with indifferent success. The poem above is the latest example of this trick; it's as though Miss Dickinson is saying with calm gentility, "I think this is what you mean," and I realize with sudden wonder that she's exactly correct.
Because what I've been thinking about has to do with death, and the pitying murmurs made by materialists, agnostics, atheists, and others who deny the existence of God without bothering to join an intellectual congregation. Their murmurs voice the notion that we Christians, we believers, we people of faith, have created for ourselves a soothing illusion, and called it eternal life; that we seek comfort in the notion of love that endures beyond the grave, that we ease our sorrows and wipe away our tears on the fabric of a pleasant lie, that says that we will one day be reunited with those whom we have lost.
On the surface, it might be tempting to think that perhaps such people have an insight, that perhaps they understand humanity's desire to explain what is beyond our knowing with some story or fable whose only purpose is to shine a little light, however artificial, into our darkness. But there is nothing like the experience of grief to show just how wrong they are, just how far from reality their ideas stand, just how distant they are from the truth.
For the mother who buries her beloved child finds no comfort, none at all, in the hope of eternal life--not at that moment. Speak to her of heaven, remind her that her child still lives, draw for her an image of her babe clasped in the arms of our Blessed Mother, and her tears will flow the faster for your pains. No hope of heaven, no faith however secure, not even the deepest love of God can ease that hour of sorrow, nor can the light of Christian joy pierce through the clouds of darkness that wrap around her until she has walked a while in the valley of the shadow of death.
The same is true for a husband who must bid an earthly farewell to a dear wife, to siblings who part forever, to other beloved family members who will not see each other again in this life, and even to friends who will greet each other no more until they stand together again in the heavenly city. I am not saying that faith does not provide comfort to those who mourn--but it is hardly the facile, painless comfort that secularists imagine when they attempt to understand our ideas about life after death. It is not the shallow, trivial game of 'pretend' played by spiritualists, for instance, who like to imagine that they can see Uncle Henry standing beside the sideboard, or that they know dear Aunt Clara wanted them to have the diamond broach. Such silliness can hardly be further from the Christian experience of resignation in the face of the death of a loved one; for the Christian the moment of grief is a moment of total surrender to the will of God, no matter what the cost.
It is in this surrender of faith, though, that the light of hope in eternity begins to break the gloom, not as a slow dawning nor a sudden joyful dispersion of the clouds, but as a single ray of piercing illumination that stands in opposition to the heavy weight of grief. Like a fine pure note of sound, the light of hope calls forth in our souls the recognition which transcends both reason and emotion: that we are not made for death, that we will endure.
We do not imagine life after death; we simply know it is there. If the purpose of faith in life after death were merely to bring us comfort in times of sorrow, the belief in eternity would shatter at the first funeral we ever attended, for the belief itself doesn't bring that comfort. Only when we accept, with our bitterest tears, the will of God for us can that light begin to dawn; only when we turn to Him in our grief can He flood our souls with the knowledge that we will all rise from death in His good time.
We have more than His words on which to base this belief; we have His example. Having drunk deeply from the bitterest cup of God's will anyone has ever been handed, He endured death on the Cross, so that He could vanquish death forever. When in our moments of grief we likewise surrender ourselves to God's will, choosing to believe, to hope, and to love even in spite of the grave, our Lord Himself will come to stand with us, and strengthen our faith in the eternal life which He has won for us at so great a cost.
Nothing could be more different from the assumption of the secularist that we choose to believe in eternity to make our losses easier; nothing could be harder than to fix one's gaze on a coffin or a grave, and say, "Yes, Lord. I believe."