A couple of years ago I was discussing the nature of heaven with my dad, he quoted a poem by Francis Thompson, a highly unusual mystical catholic poet, with the lines "tis ye, tis your estanged faces /that miss the many-splendoured thing". It was an extended quote at a time when it was difficult to get much out of him. His ability to remember large chunks of poetry never left him, and even towards the end, our conversations would yield some valuable and rich reference or other. I ache for the impossibility of this happening again.
Obviously I have thought about heaven (and Francis Thompson) in the last week. Whilst the physical pain of grief (and it is physical - which surprised me) has subsided, I have wondered about where he is, what he is doing, who he has met, etc. I'm sure he'd have wanted to chat to Graham Greene, or Evelyn Waugh, or Alec Guinness and Charles Laughton. But talk where? Are the pubs? Theatres? Universities? I'd be a bit disappointed if there weren't. But then Thompson reminds us that it is in us: "tis ye, tis your estranged faces". They are still our pubs, our theatres, our universities.
I'd often thought (I think I said this to him) that the only thing we can say with certainty about death is that it constrains our capacity to act. But it only constrains it. It doesn't stop it altogether. My dad lives on in the hearts of those who love him. He lives on in the art and writing and books he left behind. And those things still have causal power, over which I feel a certain shepherding responsibility.
But I wouldn't exclude the possibility that the causal power of the dead extends to mechanisms that we cannot apprehend. We just cannot know this; but we should have the sense and humility to acknowledge the possibility.
The Kingdom of God - Francis Thompson (1859–1907)
O WORLD invisible, we view thee,
O world intangible, we touch thee,
O world unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!
Does the fish soar to find the ocean,
The eagle plunge to find the air—
That we ask of the stars in motion
If they have rumour of thee there?
Not where the wheeling systems darken,
And our benumbed conceiving soars!—
The drift of pinions, would we hearken,
Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors.
The angels keep their ancient places;—
Turn but a stone, and start a wing!
‘Tis ye, ‘tis your estrangèd faces,
That miss the many-splendoured thing.
But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
Cry;—and upon thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.
Yea, in the night, my Soul, my daughter,
Cry,—clinging Heaven by the hems;
And lo, Christ walking on the water
Not of Gennesareth, but Thames!