There’s a particular kind of memento mori that leads one to peaceful acquiescence in feeling and being small. So along with this image from the Luther Marsh, I’d like to share a few thoughts that I’ve gleaned from various artists and theologians. In particular the patient, thoughtful work of Andy Goldworthy is as helpful to me in this respect as is the vision of ultimate sustainability that Christianity calls heaven. (I recommend watching Rivers and Tides as an intro to Goldsworthy’s work.)
Goldsworthy grasps something of "a thousand years are like a day" when placing eons-old stone in conversation with ephemeral leaves, and asking the ocean to converse with driftwood. When he gives his sculture as a gift to the sea, allowing the tide to swallow it, he’s thinking about "things that happen to us in life, that change our lives, that cause upheavals and shock". When we discover along with Goldsworthy that “the very thing that brings the work to life is the thing that will cause its death,” we feel as if we have confronted our own fragility in what is not merely an arrangement of nature: this is a most realistic portrait of fallen humanity.
In giving himself over to these forces beyond him, though, Goldsworthy finds a kind of peace. He calls it a "comeing to terms with the transience of life", and makes it his goal to "not fight that by making permanent things, but to accept and enjoy the transience." It seems likely that Goldsworthy would have shared Yahweh’s disdain for the pride of Babel. Theology notwithstanding, all of this has a more personal twist too. In the moment of a relative’s death, there are tears, to be sure… but for Goldsworthy the moment becomes an opportunity, to dig a hole: to create "a visual entrance into the earth, into the tree, into the stone, the place into which and from which life ebs and flows".
Yes, but there’s a profound hope here, too. There is such a thing as resurrection, as transformation, as rebirth. A window into the earth at the base of a tree may be dark indeed, but "out of that comes growth also".
As an oak leaf, I may cling to the branch that is my mother for a long, long season. Perhaps even hanging on well into the new spring. But if I acquiesce in smallness, I may enjoy the vibrance of being green, but also look forward to being autumnally bright. I may see the peace in this: to be subsumed into the forest floor is an ultimate giving of self towards the flourishing of future foliage, and corresponds to an awareness of the many deaths on which my own life depends. But not in a macabre sort of way… rather in a joyful celebration of living in full self-awareness.
In recognizing these realities for myself, I realise that I could die at any moment. To put it in Davidic terms, I will inevitably go the way of all the earth. But I’m blessed to know such a vast visual language through which to make sense of these of seeds "sown perishable and raised imperishable". Whether I gather these images from God’s word or God’s world, they permeate my theological mind, and I love deeply the God to whose glory they sing.