Along with Leonard Cohen, one of my favourite singers has been Louis Armstrong. In the past few days, I listened to again and played in class his recording of That Lucky Old Sun. In his voice there is both a feeling of longing and of hope. At the same time, he tells of his struggles with work and family life. These are also, at least implicitly, bound up with his love and concern for his family.“ Fuss with my woman, toil for my kids/ Sweat till I’m wrinkled and gray/ While that lucky old sun has nothin’ to do/ But roll around heaven all day.”
Another image, expressed in That Lucky Old Sun, is that of light. In a time before electricity, people’s lives were profoundly affected by the alternating rhythm of day and night, light and darkness. I remember a friend who lived in a dangerous situation commenting that when he awoke in the morning, his immediate feeling was gratitude. He was grateful that he had lived to see the dawning of another day. Another person jokingly remarked that if he awoke in the morning and did not see flowers, he got up.
The words themselves, and their situation in a song, express the theme of transforming sorrow into beauty. They reflect the both/and of life, the inseparability of love and fear, joy and sorrow, light and darkness. Containing these words in the beauty of music or the unity of a story is a concrete way of saying that they are meaningful. They express the conviction and hope that there is a lasting worth and purpose to every life. Sorrow and pain do not take away that meaning, but are somehow encompassed within it. At the same time, there are moments in life that make it difficult to feel that value.
The imaginative context of toilsome struggle and utter darkness certainly questions everything. Yet they draw forth the profound human yearnings of hope for lasting meaning. This context leads perhaps to their calling forth for a rest that lasts and a light that endures. One verse of That Lucky Old Sun asks: “Show me that river/ Take me across/ Wash all my troubles away/ Like that lucky old sun, give me nothing to do/ But roll around heaven all day.” The image is one of crossing to a new land, a new life, where the accumulated silt of the dark winters of our lives are washed away. It recalls the image of our longing for “somewhere over the rainbow,” for new light and life after the storms of our life.
I find fascinating some of the images that express the fulfillment of the longing that pervades a human life. Two predominant images are the ancient ones of rest and light. In terms of rest, the laboriousness of much of ancient life, as well as the stress levels of contemporary life, make the image of a time and place of rest something desirable. Aside from the image of laying someone to rest, funeral rituals have expressed a hope for eternal rest. In Latin the term used is requiem aeternam. And the music and ritual that accompany a funeral are called a “requiem.” I have found John Rutter’s Requiem a beautiful rendition of this theme.
The image of rest expresses the notion of a release from the striving, the longing, the hurt, the failures, all the wearying things that go to make up the struggling, wrestling, coping character of life–a rest from life’s labours, so to speak. In his book, Sabbath, Wayne Muller emphasizes the need of time where, “we are valued not for what we have done or accomplished, but simply because we have received the gentle blessing of being miraculously alive. … [where] “the sweet womb of sacred rest enfolds us, heals and restores us.” He adds:
“These are the useless things that grow in time: To walk without purpose, to no place in particular, where we are astonished by the textured bark of an oak. To notice the colour red showing itself for the first time in the maple in the fall. To see animals in the shape of clouds, to walk in clover. To fall into an unexpected conversation with a stranger, and find something delicious and unbidden take shape. To taste the orange we eat, the juice on the chin, the pulp between teeth. To take a deep sigh, an exhale followed by a listening silence. To allow a recollection of a moment with a loved one, a feeling of how our life has evolved. To give thanks for a single step upon the earth. To give thanks for any blessing, previously unnoticed; the gentle brush of a hand on a lover’s body, the sweet surrender of sleep in the afternoon.”
A different, though, related approach is offered by physician Gabor Mate (The Myth of Normal). He says that every human being has a true, genuine, authentic self. Yet the failure to experience unconditional loving acceptance, to have that basic worth affirmed by family or society, causes a wound to the emotional being, the psyche, the soul. It disconnects us from our true self. Healing is the process of re-connection, of movement to wholeness. As in the story of Narcissus, the pathway to wholeness is the discovery of an image of ourselves as lovable, that is, as having a sacred worth. Susan Cain, in Bittersweet, elaborates that the key to fulfillment is learning to love who you are–something which is unconditional and unceasing–rather than just what you have done.
In this context, I think that the meaning of rest is not just ceasing from activity, from keeping busy, which is often a form of escapism. It is rather resting comfortably in who we are. This includes a recognition of limitations, tendencies, faults, yet the conviction that who we are is deeper than and finally untouched by all of these.
Darkness has been associated with the unknown, with fear and danger. Light has been said to dispel the darkness. Spring is a time of lengthening days, a time of more light, and a time when new life emerges again from the darkness of winter. In some stories, light marks the beginning of creation. Enlightenment marks the dawning of a new and fuller awareness. Besides speaking of eternal rest, the early liturgies also spoke of “lux perpetua,” perpetual light. In this context, the image expresses the hope for a light and warmth that dispel fear, overcome betrayal and brokenness, and convey vision and awareness.
Along with enduring hope, are united love and beauty. The ancient Greek story of Orpheus and Eurydice suggests that love and beauty belong together. The experience of what is beautiful draws us out of ourselves but in a non-possessive way. It invites us not to grasp but to be grasped by, to be overwhelmed by the beauty of an instrument, a voice, a human soul. Perhaps only a love that is not grasping, only a love that sees and responds to the beauty of a person, is truly mature and fully life-giving.
As in Leonard Cohen’s song, we all have cracks of vulnerability, grief, and sorrow, It is perhaps in these cracks that the light of hope, love, and meaning gets in. And perhaps these cracks allow a glimpse of the sacred and beautiful self that lies beneath and is untouched by all the trials of life.
October 02, 2022