As we celebrated Father’s Day at New Dublin, we also grieved the loss of two prominent and wonderful men in our congregation. It was a fascinating paradox. To be a father, after all, is to give life and yet we were reminded that life is temporary. What is the connection between life and death, between mortality and eternity, and between this world and the life to come? In answering these questions, many look to pastors and theologians. But to delve into such mysteries, I think we need to turn to our poets…
In her magnificent, “Poem For My Father’s Ghost,” Mary Oliver imagines that her father is now able to fulfill all his dreams:
“Now is my father
A traveler, like all the bold men
He talked of, endlessly
And with boundless admiration,
Over the supper table,
Or gazing up from his white pillow-
Book on his lap always, until
Even that grew too heavy to hold.”
The final lines betray the information that her dad was very sick. With candor, she notes that he was limited in his life, his compromised health preventing him from emulating those whom he admired. But Oliver shifts quickly to better news:
“Now is my father free of all binding fevers.
Now is my father
Traveling where there is no road.”
She imagines the afterlife as a journey unlike any other. While initially reticent to offer any specific images of what the world beyond actually looks like, she is certain that it is marked by the absence of pain and suffering, which seems to have marked her father’s last days.
Oliver’s thinking reminds me of a quote from the theologian, Karl Rahner, who described God as the “infinite incomprehensibility.” This statement is a prime example of a strand of theology known as apophatic, which loosely translates, the negative study of God. This does not mean that it is “negative” in the sense of bad or incorrect; rather that what can be said of God is not what God is. For example, negative theology states that God is not mortal; God’s power is not limited; there is nothing that God does not know. (When speaking apophatic theology, it is not only grammatically correct, but even appropriate to use double negatives!)
Fine and well. Oliver, however, is not content to describe her father in death merely by what he is not. She presses the issue. She imagines her father moving in this world in new, perfect ways:
“Finally, he could not lift a hand
To cover his eyes.
Now he climbs to the eye of the river,
He strides through the Dakotas,
He disappears into the mountains.”
In marked contrast to his illness, her father is now able to do the activities he loves. No longer diminished nor defined by his sickness, he is now different. He is forever changed. In Oliver’s words, “He is one of them now: He cannot be stopped.” This is beautiful!
I am reminded of Paul’s cry in 1 Corinthians, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” Paul, too, imagines a spiritual body, which is freed from the pain and suffering of this world: what was perishable and weak and mortal will be imperishable and glorious and immortal (1 Cor 15:42-46). Also using poetic language, the Apostle struggles to imagine the world beyond as something different and yet somehow a continuation of our present reality.
Surely, Rahner is correct in that we can never fully grasp the mystery of God, including the life everlasting. However, Paul stretches our imagination to imagine eternity, not as the sweet by-and-by in the sky, but as resurrection: we shall be like embodied ghosts, not mere wisps of spirits or souls like is often preached in today’s church. With heartfelt words, Mary Oliver paints a picture of life on the other side, which will be the very best of what is here and now. To which I can only add, “Amen.”