Sunday, August 17, 2014

Robin Williams & William Cowper - happy endings not for sale

 Most emphatically happy endings are not guaranteed in this life. Robin Williams has been haunting the shadows since I heard of his death. It seems so wrong wrong wrong.

Our grieving responses for him are so strange in a way. We did not know him, we only think we did because his life was public. But it wasn't really his life we knew - his private life,  we only knew his work with its staggering gift for making us laugh and yet the sadness in his eyes showed through. His gift was so enormous, it must have been been a burden to him and even to those who loved him. I wonder if he could he carry on a normal conversation or relationship without making it a stage for performing? It might have been difficult to be with him if he could never turn it off.

A friend, Steve Froehlich, sent this last week and I am passing the whole thing on because Robin Williams' death has made me think again about those who suffer from depression, and those who take their lives in desperation and silence and the few who note their passing because their lives were largely unknown. As Christians we take comfort. For God knows his children. He carries them Home. Perhaps for them we can see it as a beginning. A good beginning. One of healing and renewed energies and unexpected joy. Yes, I do believe.

Steve writes the following:

This is an excerpt from a blogger whom I read occasionally -- he's Anglican, like Cowper.  His remarks were prompted by the confluence of having sung Cowper's poetry last Sunday and Robin Williams' death.  I've made one addition to the closing paragraph, a change the author approves.

Steve F.
William Cowper. Did the artist pick up the sadness in his eyes?
"Sometimes a Light Surprises" by William Cowper

    Sometimes a light surprises the Christian while he sings;
    It is the Lord, who rises with healing in His wings:
    When comforts are declining,He grants the soul again
    A season of clear shining, to cheer it after rain.

    In holy contemplation we sweetly then pursue
    The theme of God’s salvation, and find it ever new.
    Set free from present sorrow,we cheerfully can say,
    Let the unknown tomorrow bring with it what it may.

William Cowper was converted (in the crisis experience sense) while in an asylum after a suicide attempt. After that he was an evangelical. Not only an evangelical but a Calvinist. Not just a Calvinist but an experimentalist. He lived for awhile with John Newton. They wrote poetry together (though some think Newton was a drag on Cowper's poetry and that Cowper wrote best when separated from Newton). Though their friendship became somewhat strained, they remained friends.

[the blogger points to evidence of the oppression of legalism in Cowper's "A Living and a Dead Faith"]

    Easy indeed it were to reach
    A mansion in the courts above,
    If swelling words and fluent speech
    Might serve instead of faith and love.

    But none shall gain the blissful place,
    Or God's unclouded glory see,
    Who talks of free and sovereign grace,
    Unless that grace has made him free!

But there's more to Cowper's life...and death....  His last, and, some think, his best poem was written in 1799 (he died in 1800). It is based on an account he had read of a sailor who was swept overboard in a storm. According to a witness the man swam and stayed afloat for awhile, could not be rescued, watched as the ship moved further away, and finally drowned. Cowper describes the feelings the poor sailor may have had, but in the last two stanzas turns to his own situation, first identifying with and then separating himself from the sailor:

    I therefore purpose not, or dream,
    Descanting on his fate,
    To give the melancholy theme
    A more enduring date:
    But misery still delights to trace
    Its semblance in another's case.

    No voice divine the storm allay'd,
    No light propitious shone;
    When, snatch'd from all effectual aid,
    We perish'd, each alone:
    But I beneath a rougher sea,
    And whelm'd in deeper gulfs than he.

The last two lines reflect a statement Cowper had made in 1793: "My sin and judgment are alike peculiar.  I am a castaway, deserted and condemned."

Cowper's pre-evangelical-conversion suicide attempt was the first of several. There came a point at which the despair finally descended not to lift the rest of his life. So far as we know, Cowper died believing himself doomed. That's not the way Christian biography is supposed to end.

Though Cowper died thinking himself damned Newton did not think so.  He believed Cowper woke, no doubt to his own surprise, in glory.

One of Cowper's poems, addressed to Newton the former seafarer, describes the difference between himself and Newton. It also describes two poles of Christian experience:

        That ocean you of late survey'd,
        Those rocks I too have seen,
        But I, afflicted and dismay'd,
        You, tranquil and serene.

        You from the flood-controlling steep
        Saw stretch'd before your view,
        With conscious joy, the threat'ning deep,
        No longer such to you.

        To me, the waves that ceaseless broke
        Upon the dang'rous coast
        Hoarsely and ominously spoke
        Of all my treasure lost.

        Your sea of troubles you have past,
        And found the peaceful shore;
        I, tempest-toss'd, and wreck'd at last,
        Come home to port no more.


I don't know the how or the why of Cowper's life and despair. Nor do you. Here is a comment that makes sense from the perspective of Christian faith and points to the real difference between the depression of Robin Williams and William Cowper is to be found essentially in Christ now and experientially only in eternity:

"All men are tragic figures. Artists have a deeper sense of their own failings and helped us to sense our own. Robin Williams was funny because we saw the conflict in him - funny, joyful, silly, simple conflicted with a dour drug user, with a broken family whose wrinkly eyes made you either want to melt with mirth or explode with sorrow. He was a tragic figure, and we sensed it, because he showed us the tragedy of who we are. In Christ we have already been freed from this tragedy, just not yet."

My favorite Cowper hymn is "God Moves in a Mysterious Way." I will continue to sing these verses:

    Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
    The clouds ye so much dread
    Are big with mercy and shall break
    In blessings on your head.

    Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
    But trust Him for His grace;
    Behind a frowning providence
    He hides a smiling face.

    His purposes will ripen fast
    Unfolding every hour;
    The bud may have a bitter taste,
    But sweet will be the flower.

[For some a light will surprise "the Christian while he sings." For some the rain does fall with refreshment and relief.  But,] for some those big clouds of mercy will break in the age to come. Some will behold that smiling face in heaven. For some the bitter bud will yield to the sweet flower in the world to come. Not till then.  [The blogger would have done well to end where he started by affirming that for some, "Sometimes a light surprises the Christian while he sings"]

So I hope.



Katy Bowser said...

Story's really into (a children's illustrated) Pilgrim's Progress, thanks to the Jean and Marvin Padgett. We've been considering how Christian and Hopeful have to cross the river to get into the Celestial City. It's deeper for Christian than for hopeful. I'm glad that Bunyan didn't say Doubter and Hopeful. It was hard for Christian to hope and not be afraid, and yet he was Christian.

Sarah! said...

Thank you, Margie...just thank you.2058

Margie Haack said...

Sarah! You are so welcome. And I have to give thanks to Steve F. and this blogger whoever he is.

Katy, I think it is always fascinating how young children get the big things in life. How glad I am that Jesus invited them into the inner circle.

I confess I have always hoped (?) I think I believe it - that Jesus or his angels will come across the river to help fetch us home, because frankly? I'm a little scared of that cold deep water.

sarah k said...

I think the note that sometimes the clouds do not break in blessings in THIS life is so important--and so infrequently added. I have realized through my own tragedies that all my Christian life I assumed the promises ("I will be with you and comfort you") would be tangibly realized in this life and in the midst of the sufferings...and that is not necessarily true. It is for some, and not for others, and that's the deep puzzling painful mystery.

Margie Haack said...

Sarah, this is a hard reality. One that is difficult to hear - and you are right, it is a puzzling and painful mystery. And yet, and yet I hope, I believe that as Julian of Norwich declared - one day "All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."