After the World's Last Night

…Life is a short and fevered rehearsal for a concert we cannot stay to give. Just when we appear to have attained some proficiency we are forced to lay our instruments down. There is simply not time enough to think, to become, to perform what the constitution of our nature indicates we are capable of.

I paused in my reading, my eyes fixed upon the words. The page was very bright in its patch of sun, and the ink characters began to blur a little as my eyes unfocused, giving way to the image the words produced. It was melancholy: the words tasted sad in my mouth and weighed heavy in my chest. The topic, God’s infinitude, suddenly swelled on me, and everything around me—the book, the chair, the glass door and the sunshine tumbling through it between the trees—seemed hollow in comparison, hollow and painfully definite to my senses. For a fleeting moment I understood what the Ghosts felt on the hard grasses of Lower Heaven.

“Oh,” I murmured disconsolately.

My companion glanced up from Francis Bacon. I felt him looking at me, but he took a moment before prompting: “Is something the matter?”

I squinted out into the dandelion-flecked yard. They were rather like fireflies, but shabbier. They needed to be cut. Fireflies, winking in and out, seemed suddenly like lights from another world breaking through the stained-glass chinks of time and space. Dandelions seemed a poor substitute.

“I had a thought,” I said.

Again he waited, and again, when I offered nothing else, he prompted, “It seems like a sombre thought. Did you want to share it?”

I looked back down at my book. How did I describe it? How did I describe the feeling of holding the whole world in my hands, and holding, as it were, a broken vase? The book closed listlessly on itself. “I was thinking…everything is going to end. We are all going to die, even the world is going to come to an end suddenly, when Christ comes again.” I looked round at him. “What if Donne is right?” I asked. “What if this present were the world’s last night? What is the point? Everything I do, everything I say and write—everything everyone else does and says and writes down—is going to be burned up and buried. We do all this for posterity, and one day there won’t be any more posterity. We do all this to vent some creativity in our spleens, but one day there won’t be anyone left to care. Even our spleens won’t be around to vent any more. It’s all going to be burned and buried, dead and gone.” I twisted my mouth shut, feeling very small and petty. “So what is the point?”

“Do you dream in chocolate?”

I snapped the book back open. “I’m serious!” I retorted. I shook the poor little paperback at him. “What is the point! What is the point of learning anything? Why do I drive myself to know anything when everything is just going to be burned up in the end?”

With a little shift and a rustle, very quiet after my outburst, he settled more comfortably in his chair—which is something to accomplish, in these chairs—draped one leg over the other, used his finger as a bookmark, and regarded me thoughtfully. As well as I know him, it is hard even for me to hold up under that gaze for very long. I dropped my eyes to the cover of my book.

“I see what you mean,” he said presently. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity, and all that. We’re surrounded by futility: what is the point of working hard, or of working little? It will all come to nothing in the end… But will it?”

His cunning little smile touched his lips.

“What if this present were the world’s last night? What is that last scene which our time will play? What is the last stage we will stand on? The Judgment Scene. How well will Pilate like being in the dock then, and Jesus presiding over him? But if everything we do were to no purpose, what good would such a scene do? You and I both know—” he looked coaxingly at me “—that nothing God does is to no purpose.”

“I never thought that Go on.”

“A character in a favourite film of yours says rather gallantly that what we do in life echoes in eternity. I’ll own to him that we are called to give an account of everything we do in this life, certainly.”

I gestured with my free hand. “I know that. Don’t think that thought doesn’t haunt me each day. It does. But what I mean is that, all of us trying to give some kind of account of the truth—you mentioned Pilate—to posterity, even to ourselves, is everything we do done for nothing? Is it really all futility?”

“You are beginning to ask questions rather than blurt unfounded certainties.”

“Hmm,” I said.

He put his elbow on his knee, his chin in his hand, and let his book dangle over his thigh with his finger between the pages. “I know it will look depressing to you at first, seeing it that way. I imagine it was for the Preacher too, and for a great many people through the ages. Perhaps it will help to look at it this way. A friend of an acquaintance once said, ‘Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he is forsaken, and still obeys.’ The futility of our time and the limitations of our understanding aside, is it not a good thing to walk after God and strive to know the truth?”

“Yes, of course. Naturally. It’s the basic purpose of Man.”

He gave a little laugh, which made me feel as if I understood rather less than I supposed. He always gave me that laugh. There was a sudden flicker of shadows over us, and we looked up to see a flock of blackbirds rocketing through the air, sending the gold-spotted yard whirling with plum-coloured patches.

“We keep that in mind when the depression of futility comes: that even mortal things have immortal worth, that what we do does echo in eternity, and that all we say and do will be refined in fire. What we say and do last forever.” He leaned over and tapped the book in my hands. “Only, the dross will be gone. That is all.”

That is all. I stared at the title of my book and wondered how much of it would be left in Heaven’s library when it had gone through the fire itself. How much of my work would be left? I shuddered to think.

“Will we recognize it,” I asked, “without the dross?”

“Does that matter?”

I thought about it. A part of me, perhaps selfishly, wanted to meet my own work in its resurrected form. “If it is the truth,” I admitted, “I suppose not.”

“As iron sharpens iron,” he said, reopening his book and settling down into its pages.

“I’m sorry?” I queried, perplexed by this reference’s relevance.

But he was not to be moved. Ensconced once more in Bacon, he was not to be routed out with any more questions. I sighed lonesomely and returned to gazing out the window. The light was beginning to go, and it was harder to distinguish between plant and plant: only the dandelions, which so desperately needed shearing, stood out brightly in the long shadows. Strange, I thought on an impulse, that a weed, the offspring of our rebellion, should put me in mind of constancy and light. Here in the twilight the plant’s unwanted flower blazed on; in the night, when the light was gone, it would still be yellow as fierceness: and in the morning, the sun’s rays would peep over the rooftops and find the dandelions hard at work, being bright.

I turned the pages of my book open to the place where I had been, and picked up where I had left off.

How completely satisfying, I read, to turn from our limitations to a God who has none.

6 ripostes:

  1. This was a quite beautiful interesting post, thanks for sharing.

  2. This was absolutely beautiful and extremely thought provoking. Writing it in story-form instead of simply a few paragraphs of your thoughts was a stroke of brilliance, for it made it come alive. I very much enjoyed reading this post.

    ~ Liz

  3. Thank you, Lilly. Thank you, Liz. To be honest, I usually think this way: in a sort of dialogue, story-form, like Cur Deus Homo and works of literature like that. I just don't usually show these passages to anyone else. :P But I thought it might be helpful, so here it is.

  4. The lack of context made my brain divided between the subject at hand and trying to figure out if you were talking to Tim or Rhodri, or perhaps some other person, or if it was even you...

    But it was a good thing. Well said. And I had never thought of "Heaven's library". Not in that way. Not seeing written works with the dross removed. I think of the dross being removed from us, but not from the products of our lives... Not that I believe the opposite, I just never considered it either way. Something to think on.

  5. I agree with Elspeth, I wasn't quite sure who was talking to whom... but sometimes I feel the same way. What is the point of everything, if you're going to be gone someday? What's the point if everything you've ever done is just suddenly gone one day? Not even just with the end of the world, but if, say, your house burned down and everything you ever created was gone. Then what?

    But often I do see more of a point to things. Not always, but often.

    Very well written, Jenny!

  6. Anna handled the topic of futility from a slightly different angle in her post We're Coming to the Bitter's End. You might have a peek at it. It isn't story-form like mine, but it's good writing nonetheless, and I highly recommend a sojourn into her thoughts.

    As for the lack of clarity...if it were to be there, I would have put it there. ;)