Thy Kingdom Come
Mystery and the Legacy of Christianity
I continue to be grateful for my Christian heritage. If I can thank that heritage for nothing else, it has deepened my affection for mystery and my need for the transcendent. Granted, I still may be experiencing the collateral damage of that heritage by holding on to a need for the inexplicable and the otherworldly. Perhaps I was conditioned all to well.
And yet, I truly believe that mystery and the transcendent can be experienced without the access to a panoply of myths and rituals that feed into what can’t be explained as natural phenomena.
So, here I am in my golden years. I am a non-theist. I do not accept the theological mysteries of the faith I grew up in. But I am still attached to the notion of mystery in spite of my sometimes overly developed sense of cynicism.
Keats and the Mystery of Mortality
On the other hand, my propensity for mystery is definitely a result of my continued affection for story and poetry, two art forms that can alter the way I feel about my universe, that can mysteriously create a new sensibility in me, that, literally, changes me in powerful, existential, down-to-the-core-of-who-I-am ways.
Whenever I reread the Keats poem, “When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be,” something in me changes. My mood alters. I am inside an emotional cabal that gives me a internalized fear of dying before I am at the fullness of who I am.
Keats’s imaginary narrator has an initial confrontation with *her fear that she may die before she has reached the pinnacle of her imaginative powers—before her “teeming brain” has had a chance to fill “high piléd books” of “charact’ry” (words, images, writing) or to “trace” (represent) the “shadows” (reflections, the outlines, portrayals) of what she absorbs from looking at the vastness of the “night’s starr’d face,” a vastness that would stimulate her imagination to write or paint the earth-bound “symbols of high romance—maybe even an epic, elevated romance story transcending the banal events of an ordinary life (Romantic writers of the nineteenth century consistently fed into the psychological model of heightened awareness, emotional intensity, otherworldliness, grand passion, exoticism, and the all-or-nothing, Stürm-und-Drang school of living)
There is an aching awareness in the narrator that death will cut short not just her last crack at “Fame,” but also her one more encounter with the love of her life, her “fair creature of an hour.”
Mortality preys on her mind, a mind teeming with unfinished works and a soul wanting one more chance at the “faery power of unreflecting love” (and who doesn’t have the fantasy of having another shot at love’s spontaneity?)
The structure of the poem follows a kind of cause-and-effect model, the when/then paradigm. When I think about mortality, when I sit in the fear that my life will end before I choose to be finished, then I am dragged down into the depths of despair, “until Love and Fame to Nothingness do sink,” as the poet says.
Do I digress? I don’t think so. There is “mystery” in this poem on so many levels. There is the inexplicable nature of my conscious connection to the reality of a life cut short. Animals don’t think of what they could have accomplished before they die.
There is the mystery of imagination—how do some writers imagine what they do? Where do these imaginings come from? Why is one writer able to portray a fictional world so vividly that, as a reader, we imagine actually being in the story?
And why, my friends, do we have this chemical and existential connection to those we fall in love with, no questions asked (that’s the mystery of what Keats calls “unreflecting love”–ya just don’t always have to think about it).
Keats’s poem is full life’s mysteries—the “faery” spontaneity of love that often kicks in when we least expect it; the “magic” and arbitrary “hand of chance” that can somehow create Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”; or the sheer number of “high piled books” that can come out of a Shakespeare, a Shaw, an Arthur Miller, a Toni Morrison.
The Mystery of Natural Events and Conflicts
Mystery also exists in the very natural events that arrive in my life.
It exists in the daily surprises I experience in watching others cope with their lives. Or the spontaneous reactions that children have to a cartoon animal metamorphosed into a human. Or the synchronic moments when someone arrives in my life just when I’ve been thinking about them. Or the mention of a favorite city—Montreal, Boston, Portland, Vancouver—and my mind wanders into nostalgia. Or in the remembered moments of my adult children’s honesty, one admitting he doesn’t like to travel on his job, the other opening up about her fears.
Mystery also opens its doors when I am confronted with what I can call an “emotional combatant,” a perceived, even real conflict.
An emotional combatant always creates tension in my life. It can be a person, particularly someone I dislike. It can be an event, an object, or just bad news—a crisis of one of my adult children; the results from a blood test; or an automobile mechanic telling me I need a new fuel pump just after I replaced the battery, the muffler, and the transmission.
I can believe that these combatants are hurled at me from on high to avenge a mythical wrong I have done to a mythical divinity or as a fictional lesson from a fictional god. Or I can accept them as mysterious by their arbitrariness and by their occasional asymmetry, particularly if they come into my life when I am already on overload,—and we all know about that when we get a high-deductible medical bill just after we made the last mortgage payment.
Natural combatants come at me every day. If I surrender to them, if I look them square in the eye and welcome them, if I even “suck up” to them, I can take the arrival of those mysteries and add a layer of acceptance. And the result can be very satisfying, if I am willing to make the first peace-pact with them.
The Mystery of the Kingdom is Here
I gave this Blog Post the title, “Thy Kingdom Come.” I had a reason for that. I do not believe that the many mysteries of my life come from a mythical Kingdom that I will be transported to on the other side of my mortality.
The kingdom of my life is here. It is wrapped in both ribbons of the predictable and the inexplicable.
I pay the rent. I drive my car. I go to the bank. I write. I talk on my iPhone to my children. And then I read a poem. I see a movie. I read a novel. I hear a friend talk about his three heart attacks. Another friend talks openly about his own cancer, another about her new financial crisis.
And I am brought back to a new level of the mystery of living. People cope. They live their lives the best they can.
And I know that my kingdom will continue to be here, if I choose to live in it.
*I have purposely used the feminine pronoun here. Keats’s narrator is undoubtedly male. However, imagining her as a female gives a fresher look at the experience of mortality. Men, obviously, don’t own it.