Tuesday, October 24

Names Written on Water

In 1999 I spent a semester studying in Rome. Just outside the old Roman walls, there is a Protestant cemetary where a great many famous Englishmen are buried. I wandered into that cemetary one perfectly overcast afternoon and spent time talking with God about life. I needed a break from the hustle of emotions that is Rome. Quite suprisingly, that cemetary was one of the most peaceful places I've ever wandered. The tombstones were works of majestic art. While I was there, I spent a lot of time lingering near John Keats' grave.

Keats was 25 when he died of tubercolisis in 1821. He was a brilliant English poet and a hinging force of the Romantic Age. He was the one who wrote that famous line, "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,' - that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know".

But what fascinates me most about Keats was that he refused to have his name written on his tombstone. Instead, he insisted they write, "Here lies one whose name was writ in water."

A week ago a young man died in my town. He was my age, only 26. I didn't know him well, but my Mom did. I had actually spoken with him just hours before he died. He fell asleep that night and never woke up. I went to his wake and cried my eyes out. And in the funeral parlor I couldn't stop staring at a (not terribly artistic, but still profound) painting of Jesus escaping alive from his stony casket.

Today I found out that a young woman whom I'd once known very well committed suicide. Many years have passed since we'd seen each other, but her honest, prayerful questions are still fresh in my mind. They were excellent questions about God's sovereignty in the midst of searing pain. We wrestled with them together, but we didn't necessarily emerge with any cheap or quick answers. Her (almost awful) honesty found its way in my poetry notebooks and scribblings, as I reflected on some of our conversations. Finding them, I wonder if she knew that she could have been a Psalmist.

In the same sitting today, I found a lengthy obituary for Sister Teresa Feeley, who died at 74. Sister Teresa was the younger sister of Sister Kathleen Feeley, who had been a visiting professor my freshman year at UMBC when I took her expository writing class. In my rush of grief, I got the two sisters confused, and thought I was in the twilight zone of death. Memories of Sister Kathleen are appropriate here. She was one who taught me about old John Keats. I really got a kick out of her sharing stories from her sweet Catholic life, though they echoed in our blaringly secular classroom. As an English professor she was delicate and kind, but yet unyielding. She'd look us each in the eye as she'd slowly quote Wordsworth, standing there in her white habit, poised and grasping the lectern: "Poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility."

Our names are written on the water. All of our days are like grass, here today, and gone tomorrow. You could say that I've been considering Moses' Psalm 90 a lot lately.

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