Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Because I Cannot

On a wall in my house, hanging in a place where I pretty much have to see it two or three times a day for about twenty seconds, and sometimes even in the middle of the night, is a framed copy of a poem that every well-bred English-speaking schoolboy memorized a century ago, and maybe some do even today. It struck me last evening, as I was standing and waiting for nature to take its course, that this poem captures everything sad and beautiful about our modern world.

The poem is "If" by Rudyard Kipling, and if you haven't committed it to memory, you can click here and get started, although I do not recommend it. The framed copy was given to me years ago by a good and long-lost friend, a well-meaning gift. The poem is a brief talk from a father to a son about how to be a man, with all sorts of stiff-upper-lip advice about manliness. (Look at the firm jaw, the beady gaze, the prominent eyebrows in that picture of Kipling!):

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss; . . .

The only verb in the entire poem, effectively, is can. If you can do this and do that and do the other thing, then [final line] you'll be a Man, my son. Two things strike me: (1) there is no mention of God, or His help, anywhere in the poem; and (2) instead of God, Kipling capitalizes Man. 

By contrast, this morning I was struck by some lines in Psalm 51 as part of the Office of Readings:

I flourish like an olive tree in the palace of God.
I hope in the kindness of God,
for ever, and through all ages.
I thought: that's the whole thing right there. I already am a lower-case man, my own father has passed from the scene, and still I cannot. I set my mind on something, I project my brow and jaw forward, but at the end of the story, sometimes it happens, sometimes not. Meanwhile, however, there is one thing that I have found I can do: plant myself in the palace of God and hope in his kindness. Go to Mass. Say my prayers. Put my mind on God. Take my chances.

These are two distinct ways of living: "being a Man" who needs nothing more—and "being an olive tree" who trusts that God, through his kindness, will nourish me. Somewhere along the way we well-bred English-speaking schoolboys lost sight of the second way.