Recently, when writing elsewhere about some apparently endless troubles, I concluded with the words “How long, O Lord, how long?” I didn’t realize, until somebody informed me, that I was quoting the Bible, where that expression appears several times. I only remembered it from the last line of George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan (first performed in 1923, three years after Joan of Arc was canonized as a saint, and 600 years after she was burned at the stake on charges of witchcraft and heresy).
In the last scene of that play, a sort of fantasy sequence, Shaw has Joan’s spirit learn of her Sainthood, and suggest hopefully that, as a Saint, she might then “rise from the dead, and come back as a living woman.” At this, all the people who have been praising and supporting her in that final scene somehow find excuses to melt away – including even the Papal representative, in his modern diplomatic attire, saying, “The possibility of your resurrection was not contemplated in the recent proceedings for your canonization. I must return to Rome for fresh instructions.” It is this which prompts Joan to utter those last poignant words:
“O God that madest this beautiful Earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints? How long, O Lord, how long?”
That play was one of the “required readings” for the final examination at my London high school (then still called a Grammar School) — to qualify for the next step up the ladder: admission to a university. The only other one of those readings I remember was Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair — of which, strangely, it is also the very last words which linger in my mind:
“Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? Or, having it, is satisfied? – Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.”
But Shaw’s rather caustic view of humanity and sainthood reminded me of one of my favorite poetic passages, from “The Garden of Proserpine,” by Algernon Charles Swinburne, which expresses the feeling of those who’ve left behind all human passions, and accept the destiny of total oblivion:
From too much love of living,
From Hope and Fear set free,
We thank, with brief thanksgiving,
Whatever gods may be,
That no life lives forever,
That dead men rise up never,
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.
(I learned that, not at school, but from Judith, one of the very few “girlfriends” I ever had, who, besides poetry, also taught me some songs, because we both liked singing. In return, I taught her to drive – which seemed a fair exchange of gifts. She had a fine voice, and I wasn’t surprised, some years later, to learn that she had become a Rabbi.)
But what is all this about resurrection anyway? American Southerners — the only Anglo-Saxon “nation” which has ever suffered permanent defeat — used to be (perhaps many still are) fond of saying that “The South Will Rise Again.” Be that as it may, there are many people who, for religious or other reasons, cannot accept the idea of irretrievably losing their own lives — even though, by the time that point is reached, they may have very little life left to lose. I’m not sure how they grapple with what becomes of other creatures’ lives — not only those as dear to them as their own pets (my wife had her cats cremated, and we had a whole row of individual labeled boxes containing their ashes) — but even down to the microbes and bacteria. Are they also in line for resurrection?
Some prefer to think of “immortality” in terms of what they leave behind, such as whatever good they may have done, including of course any children they’ve produced (assuming those offspring prove to be a source of pride). Nothing of that nature which gives anyone harmless comfort in facing death will get any argument from me. If anything, I’m envious.
But, in any case, we are surrounded by symbols of rebirth – the sun, in its rising and setting; the constantly recurring seasons; our own uncanny diurnal experience of sleeping and waking. Aren’t those signals enough to justify an expectation that this life will lead on into another? I can offer only my own somewhat Rabbinical thought, for what it’s worth, that: “We don’t come from Nothing, and return to Nothing – We come from Everything, and return to Everything.”