The Year is New.
“Vain gift, chance gift – life, why have you been given me?” asks the poet [Pushkin] in his immortal line. Indeed, it is enough for one moment to turn away from the cares that absorb us, enough mentally to stop the ceaseless waterfall of time, disappearing into the abyss, in order for the question “Why is life given and what is its meaning?” to rise from the depths of the subconscious, where we normally hide it from ourselves, and stand before us in all its implacability.
I was not, now I am, and I will not be; thousands of years passed before me, and thousands will come after… On the surface of this unimaginably infinite ocean I am but a fleeting bubble, into which a ray of life flashes for a split second, just to be extinguished and disappear then and there.
“Vain gift, chance gift – life, why have you been given me?”
Fr. Alexander Schmemann.
The year is new, and with its turning we are given a moment to consider this gift and to ask that question; and when we ask questions of ourselves, let us do so with an honesty that is so pure that it can blind us with clarity or expose the frightful depths. How we see ourselves and how we see others is a matter of such weighty importance, that one can only urge the utmost care. Lives, including our very own, are changed by such visions.
For ourselves, “Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.” This is the first line of William Butler Yeats’ beautiful poem “The Two Trees”. The two trees are two ways of seeing who we are. The first tree is an holy tree, bearing leaves and fruit, roots surely planted, and shaking its leafy head. Surrounding this tree, “There the Loves a circle go; The flaming circle of our days.” The circle of our days, the cycles of this life that pass year by year, are meant for the radiance of this shining tree that stands rooted in our heart. And every tree, just like every one of us, is unique and glorious. From this vision, “Thine eyes grow full of tender care: Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.” It is with eyes full of tender care that we can see ourselves as we are meant to be and, so very importantly, we can see others that way too.
But there is another possible vision. The second tree of Yeats’ poem is a barren, broken tree, roots half hidden by snow, and a home for clawing ravens. The demons hold up the looking glass for us to see what we have become from the beatific vision of the first tree. The poet warns us: “Thy tender eyes grow all unkind: Gaze no more in the bitter glass.” No matter what our state, contemplation of this vision leads to despair for ourselves, and causes us to cast judgment through unkind eyes on others.
I can hear the response that this is not, in fact, seeing things as they really are. Despite Yeats’ call to gaze no more in the bitter glass, the vision is reality. I do not doubt for a moment that life provides us, simultaneously, with unbearable beauty and unfathomable calamity. Both break the heart, not only once, but continually. Life is outrageous. There are truths that cannot be, but they are.
The crisis which Troilus endured is one common to all men; it is in a sense the only interior crisis worth talking about. It is that in which every nerve of the body, every consciousness of the mind, shrieks that something cannot be. Only it is. Cressida cannot be playing with Diomed. But she is. The Queen cannot have married Claudius. But she has. Desdemona cannot love Cassio. But she does. Daughters cannot hate their father and benefactor. But they do. The British government cannot have declared war on the revolution. But it has. The whole being of the victim denies the fact; the fact outrages his whole being. This is indeed change.
And we cannot have traded our liberties for fear. But we have. The powers that be would not sacrifice the national economy for personal gain. Only they did. Our parents could not divorce. But they have. My lover would not leave me. But he has. My child will not die. But she will. And on it goes. This is reality, and it is outrageous. There is, however, something else. There is the double vision of seeing how things are, and also seeing how they were meant to be and perhaps are if we can just see it. The Two Trees are both real, but how do we choose to see them? For Williams, the double perspective of the gritty vision of reality, and the non-fantasized beatific vision of the beloved, is the gift we can accept of how to see our world and other people; perhaps even ourselves. This recovered vision is romantic, but grounded. It is bounded by reality, eternity, divinity, and charity; and it must exclude illusion, control, power, and possession. “[T]he vision must derive from something greater than itself, and must represent in itself that greatness from which it derives.”* It is, simply, a vision of glory resplendent in freedom. And we are given this opportunity to see ourselves and others just that way, just as one would see the first tree. It is to see others in their glory. It is to see the beauty in all creation, in all people, in what life was intended to be and, importantly, what it is and yet may be. It requires that we be in love; and by this I mean seeing the other people in our lives – friends, family, lovers, acquaintances, neighbors, the person we meet here and now – as our beloved. Furthermore, let us be thankful for those who see us in that way, and let us not be afraid to see that, within ourselves, “The holy tree is growing there.”
Why is life given? To be able to see the beauty of the divine in all; and to live this beauty out in ourselves. Let not “Thy tender eyes grow all unkind: Gaze no more in the bitter glass.” But rather, let “Thine eyes grow full of tender care: Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.”
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.
* See “Charles Williams: Alchemy & Integration” by Gavin Ashenden