Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Paul Simon's Memento Mori




And thou most kind and gentle Death,
Waiting to hush our latest breath,
O praise Him! Alleluia!
Thou leadest home the child of God,
And Christ our Lord the way hath trod.


I didn’t really need to sing stanza six of “All Creatures of our God and King,” a very unfamiliar verse of an otherwise very familiar hymn. It came after the sermon and just before the final blessing one May Sunday at the English Reformed Church of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, where we worshipped. I didn’t need to sing that bizarre stanza because the tour had already taken us places where the idea of memento mori (a Latin phrase suggesting “remember your mortality”) was in stark evidence.

Besides, upon the podcast recommendation of a friend, I’d been reading Rob Moll’s new book, The Art of Dying: Living Fully into the Life to Come, a gracious argument for Christian believers to return to what Moll claims was a principled exercise a century ago—and more, of course--an exercise Moll says has been completely forgotten if for no other reason than that today death is an experience we antiseptically cordon off from our lives or the lives of friends and families. Not so formerly, he argues.

Death could never be more frequent than it is today, given the rise in world populations; but it could be, and likely was, more familiar. People died younger, childbirth was vastly more dangerous, and—in many places—hospitals were few and far between, hospice-care unknown. Forty years ago already in On Death and Dying, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross maintained much the same argument--that the distance we and our medical competence have been able to engineer between ourselves and dying keeps us away from important experience and even wisdom.


Wherever you go in Holland, one sees ample evidences of the theme or idea of memento mori. Every breath-taking old cathedral is festooned lavishly with skulls and crossbones. Centuries ago, a church’s high-and-mighty were buried right there in the floor, beneath the very aisles of spacious sanctuaries. No one going to worship could miss the stone memorials right there beneath their feet.

Even though “All Creatures of our God and King” was composed by St. Francis of Assisi already in the 13th century, and even though, today it is very familiar, the famous hymn didn’t find its way into my denomination's hymnal until 1987.

I’d never heard that verse before, yet another example of memento mori. To St. Francis, death is, oddly enough, quite “kind and gentle.” For decades I’ve taught Emily Dickinson’s most famous poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” as some kind of anomaly. Sir Death, in that poem, is not some ghoulish hooded monster but a kindly gentleman caller. Dickinson, I’ve told students, was powerfully original. I may have to edit that assessment out of future lectures; Ms. Emily may simply have picked up the idea from New England hymnody.

Why the very famous hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King” didn’t make it into my church's hymnal until recently may be an easier question to answer than why the version we do sing does not include the verse that rang out a few weeks ago in Amsterdam’s English church. Here are the lyrics again:

And thou most kind and gentle Death,
Waiting to hush our latest breath,
O praise Him! Alleluia!
Thou leadest home the child of God,
And Christ our Lord the way hath trod.

Perhaps—just perhaps—one doesn’t find that stanza in our hymnal because it was considered too morbid or mawkish for congregational singing.

But, trust me, getting old makes denying death’s reality difficult, if not impossible. In the last decade I’ve spent countless hours in “retirement residencies,” in homes for the aged, and I’ve watched parents tangle pathetically with malfunctioning bodies. I’ve learned to turn up the volume in my speech, and to don short sleeves when making even mid-winter visits. I’ve learned what can and can’t be said to my own parents, what will and will not get through. “Getting old isn’t easy,” my 92-year-old father-in-law has said to me frequently, and he should know—he and his baby brother are the only siblings, of ten, who haven’t been victims of Alzheimer’s.

That’s why I say I didn’t need an old hymn’s strange stanza or a bevy of ghoulish cathedral icons to remind me of my mortality. I know it in my bones after mowing the lawn and staining the deck. I know it every time I climb the stairs or get out of a straight chair. At 63 years old, despite all the trips to the gym, I’m not getting any stronger.

One day home from Holland, and I pick up the New Republic, where I read a review of Paul Simon’s new collection, So Beautiful or So What. It is, so saith the review, Paul Simon’s meditation on morbidity.

“Good night,” I tell myself, “more end times.”

Simon and his sidekick Art Garfunkle have been part of my life since I was a teenager. Once upon a time I had every last album; I still have several. Even though my musical tastes in music have drifted elsewhere, Paul Simon’s eclectic folk rock is almost always beside me here in my study. It plays on our iPod sound system on some Saturday afternoons, and when I walk or bike and need the inspiration to get through the workout, I choose Paul Simon.

Bought it and downloaded it from Amazon, the cloud. I have the album. How can I not pick it up?--the man is once again speaking my language, just as he always has.

It's wonderful.

So Beautiful or So What, Simon claims, offers a skein of new songs meant to fit thematically like Winesburg, Ohio, a collection of related short stories, or an old Beatles album—say, Abbey Road or Sgt. Pepper. He claims he wanted So Beautiful or So What to be itself a work of art.

And it is—it’s Paul Simon’s very own memento mori. He is, after all, 70 years old, and it may be only natural that he is, for the first time in his long musical career, thinking seriously about mortality, as he does in this album. Most of the work points at immense, even cosmic, questions, the kinds of questions someone his age--and mine--can't help asking.

What a joy. Honestly. The icons in those old cathedrals are right--as was Kubler-Ross and, now Rob Moll. There's something to be learned from thoughtful consideration of mortality, mawkish as that sounds.

To my tastes, Paul Simon has made the requisite exercise most endearing with this new collection, So Beautiful or So What.

If you think I'm lying, check him out on You Tube.

Beats skulls and crossbones.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You have not lived if you can not say "Death is my Friend".