“. . .for you are with me.” Psalm 23
At the outset of the medieval play Everyman, God summons Death because he’s sure that humankind will follow its appetites to even more scurrilous ends than they are already. Go to Everyman, he tells Death, and show him, in my name, that it’s reckoning time, “which he can in no wise escape.”
In no time at all, Death grabs the unsuspecting subject. His first words aren’t exactly direct but the point is made. “How is it that you seem such a dandy?” Death says. “Have you forgotten your maker?”
The play is 500 years old, and I’m not going to pretend I know exactly how to spin every line in medieval fashion, but I honestly think Everyman’s response, his first lines in the play, are as telling as any. He turns to Death and says, “Why do you care?”
There’s nothing 500-years old about that line.
Alas, Everyman is told that it is, in fact, his time, and he should prepare for his final judgment. “How about this as an alternative?” Everyman says. “How about I spot you a grand and you come back some other day?”
Nothing 500-years old about that either.
What follows is a series of excuses and a debate about whether Death’s sudden appearance is, well, appropriate? But the Grim Reaper is on a mission.
Everyman’s friends show up as a character called “Fellowship,” but when Everyman asks this friend to come along with him to his death, Fellowship decides quickly to vamoose. Everyman’s family drops by and, after swearing their eternal allegiance, use the exit quickly too, once they discover he’s going to judgment. Enter Goods, often a fat man, Everyman’s material possessions. He too demurs. “In fact, if I were to go with you to your reckoning,” Goods tells Everyman, “you’d fare a whole lot worse.”
Somehow that’s a truth that's hard to believe in any age.
At this point, Everyman is very much alone, Death there at his side, ready to deliver him to judgment. And perhaps I’ve made it sound more entertaining than it is. Perhaps there’s something in the allegory that lightens the burden of the real subject. Perhaps, when it’s told as I just have, it becomes just another quirky literary invention.
But somehow it was Everyman that I thought of so often in those days when I sat at my father’s side as he died. My sisters were taking care of my mother, and she simply didn’t have the heart to watch him suffer—because suffer he did. I watched the frightful wrestling match between life and death. We all own an immense will not to go, the instinct to fight on and live, even when summoned, even when unconscious.
Unable to help, I watched something in him wage a instinctive battle against what was inevitable; but honestly, I was of little or no help as my father, a World War II vet, fought the most horrendous battle of his life. Even with me beside him, he was very much alone, as abandoned as Everyman, as we all are and will be.
Psalm 23 has offered solace to millions for far more than 500 years. But this single line seems to me to be most unforgettable—“though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
“For you are with me.”
Trust Everyman. No one else will be.