I will begin with a story. This is how Nietzsche told it in the Birth of Tragedy:
There is an ancient story that king Midas hunted in the forest a long time for the wise Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, without capturing him. When at last he fell into his hands, the king asked what was best of all and most desirable for man. Fixed and immovable, the demon remained silent; till at last, forced by the king, he broke out with shrill laughter into these words: “Oh, wretched race of a day, children of chance and misery, why do ye compel me to say to you what it were most expedient for you not to hear? What is best of all is for ever beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. The second best for you, however, is soon to die.”The meaning of this has been hidden from me for years. A couple weeks ago, I had a thought which shed some light on the problem.
It began with longing for God, an experience that I can only compare to panting, unslaked love. As it appears to my mind, the concept of a loving God is the most ludicrously happy idea imaginable. In the presence of God, the fear of the void is a misconception, because the deepest ocean is a puddle in his eyes. (From Jonah, which Jews will read this Saturday afternoon: “The waters surrounded me even unto death, the deep encompassed me; seaweed enwrapped my head. I went down to the roots of the mountains; the earth was barred against me evermore. Yet Thou didst bring up my life from destruction, O Lord, my God.”) And even if the deep does take us, a funeral is a celebration, because it lets us finally rest in God’s bosom. And then the night will pass, and we will wake to a rosy dawn. This assurance, this soft comfort, is what I think Tolkien means here:
There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.Similarly: the closest I’ve ever come to bliss has been during the singing of Adir Venaor, a poem that my congregation reads several times on Yom Kippur. From ages six to twenty, it was an experience that insisted to me powerfully: it’s all okay! don’t worry! It was a glimpse of the star over Mordor; an annual drink from the well of God’s love.
And so to be violently deprived of God, to live in a modern world filled with fog and darkness, is an awful curse. If the well runs dry, then life is the shadow of a dream, and all is vanity. Who then can distinguish between beast and man, who both go down to the dusty earth? This all leads to the most fervent prayer of the atheist:
As the deer thirsts for streams of water, so does my soul long for you, God.
There is nothing bitterer to me than this longing. Among humans, unrequited love is unbearable, but it passes—you can find a person to cling to and love. To an atheist, the desire for heaven is permanently stymied, because heaven is empty, and will be forever.
And with the loss of God comes the loss of his promises. We moderns—unlike the medievals—are in Solomon’s position: we have nothing to suggest that our suffering will be alleviated here or made up for later. We can contemplate eternity, but now that we know that the sky is a thin layer of air that quickly gives way to infinite space, it’s hard to know where that eternity could be spent.
Being alive is painful for that reason alone. We are born on earth, pulled from the dark lake of eternal sleep, and taken achingly close to heaven. We look upon the light of the sun, we breathe the night air, and watch the wheeling stars—and then we are thrown back into the deep.
Even more terrible is our eternal love for other people, which death makes a cruel mockery of. My grandmother died this summer. Yes, she was in her eighties. Death often happens to people that age. It was natural and painless. But that doesn’t make it any less awful, any less scandalous. I am angry that I will never hug her again. I am angry that I will never meet my great-grandfather, and be kept from him by the thinnest veil of two decades. I am angry that I will leave everyone I know when we all wander our own ways into the night. The Archpoet sang: Quisquis amat taliter volvitur in rota. Whoever loves so fiercely is turned on the rack.
This gives me an glimmer of Silenus’ point. We’re given a foretaste of eternal love, and then it’s forced on us mockingly that we can’t have it.
But while death is painless and life painful, the fact remains that it’s incredibly wonderful—if briefly—to be above the surface of the lake, to dry off and warm up by the fire. Silenus might have been right on the first point, but his second piece of advice (to die soon) is wicked deceit. However mixed with pain and decay, the light of the sun and the embraces of a lover are intoxicatingly wonderful. Memento mori necnon vivere. Remember that you will die, but remember to live first.
Have a joyful Day of Atonement if you’re celebrating it.