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Beautiful Poems, Bad Messages

Growing up a Jesuit, I was encouraged to read literature as a window into human experience that my own provincial life did not provide. I came across expressions of human experience and messages so inspiring that I often associate literature now with heart-wrenching beauty and the highest form of motivations. But I also found literature that I disagreed with profoundly and that disagreement was also helpful. It cast into clear relief what I believed and why I believed it as I wrestled with what was problematic in this or that literary work.

Maybe due to a delayed autumn in the air, my mind turns to death and two powerful poems about death. They express almost opposite views of death but I find both untrue because of our Christian faith. St. Ignatius, specifically, points us to a wiser awareness of what life holds.

The first poem is A. E. Housman's To an Athlete Dying Young, in which he celebrates the early demise a young man. His death we are told came soon after the moment of his triumph in an athletic event, and, therefore, he will not suffer the loss of his dearly bought fame:

Now you will not swell the rout

Of lads that wore their honours out,

Runners whom renown outran

And the name died before the man.

The poem continues in a similar vein praising the passing glory that death allows the young man to escape. Such sentiments only make sense if one does not cherish the wonderful human experiences of falling in love, marrying, maybe having children, taking part in a community and working to care for the people one loves. To Housman, the long years of living such a life only tarnish the bright glory of the moment of triumph. St. Ignatius Loyola would look at the lives most of us live and see the thousands of blessings we receive from God and the many acts of generosity we are called to perform and he would approve of them. Only with the deepest suspicion would he consider that the glory of winning a race could possibly equal a life lived well with and for others.

The other masterful poem about death that comes to mind is Dylan Thomas's Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night. The poet opens his poem addressing his father and recommending a rebellious attitude towards death:

Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The poem continues to contrast different types of men as they face death, but all of them reject it. The poem can be understood to encourage us to live fully but its attitude to death is profoundly wrong. St. Ignatius, in concert with the whole of Christian tradition, saw our lives as a chance to love and serve God and our deaths as the opportunity to be with God forever. Far from raging against death, one welcomes the chance to be fully united with God. This does not lead to a lack of appreciation for life but rather places life here in its true relation to eternal life. Both are lived as gifts from God, one leading to the other. To be passionately dedicated to God in this life opens the door to be passionately dedicated to God for eternity.

I hope you have your own favorite works of literature that inspire you and lead you to God whether through agreeing with them or challenging them!

Fr. John Auther, SJ is a Jesuit for 42 years and a priest for almost 30 years. In his pastoral ministry he has devoted a good deal of time to Spanish-speaking work, detention facilities and retreats. He began working at JRC in January 2020.

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