“Twinkle, twinkle, little star
How I wonder what you are”
Jane Taylor, with her sister, Ann, wrote this poem in 1806. It’s become a timeless lullaby. I must have heard it as child and to this day, I still “wonder what you are.”
For years I’ve wondered about stars, particularly their light.
I read a line by an American poet recently, William Stanley Mervin’s poem called, ‘For the Anniversary of my Death.’ The line read, “the beam of a lightless star.” It captured my imagination.
Did he mean that after the star died – that is, its nuclear fission having spent itself and finally imploded – that its light lives on, traveling through the vast expanse of the universe? Considering the universe’s size, will the light then travel to the end of time?
As a Christian, I grew up being taught that there is a bodily resurrection after our earthly death. I was a child when I first learned of this. I unquestionably assumed the concept as a part of my worldview. I remember when my great aunts and uncles died, one after the other in only a few years. I prayed for them diligently–– less to implore God than to instruct him not to forget to hold these loved one’s close until the day of the resurrection. Then we would all, like Jesus, rise again. I found the thought warm and comforting.
As I got older, the demands of the contingent world pressed me from all sides. It ultimately made rational demands upon my growing mind. I became less sure of a bodily resurrection although never wholly abandoning the thought of a life after death. What could this mean then if the matter was not to be understood literally ––did bodily resurrection say anything about the nature of life?
Entropy and deterioration seem the prevailing rule governing all of life. Scientific evidence grew convincing to me as I got older: when it’s over, it’s over, seemed the increasingly irrefutable judgement. As a young clergyman, I would proclaim the teaching of resurrection when preaching at funerals. I thought this was a proper courtesy to extend to the bereaved. I did not want to disturb any beliefs they held at such a tender moment. I knew that I did not know about bodily resurrection for certain and this was an article of faith in which I was the least confident to address. I found that it was a delicate matter.
To complicate things, resurrection, at least for traditional Christianity, was associated with rewards and punishments. Sinners would go to hell, but the righteous to heaven. I felt this had even a sadistic quality. There was an additional threat that sinners would burn in hell for eternity. It seemed macabre.
Most historic religions have some concept of an afterlife, a spiritual realm where life endures. Some teach reincarnation; that we will return to life after our death in another form such as a bird or horse. Whatever particular character afterlife beliefs portray, many people dismiss them out of hand as just wool gathering or wishful thinking.
For me, the matter of a life after death is more atavistic. I feel a kind of sixth sense about it: something I intuit about how I fit into this endless process. I am not to be terminated by annihilation, but will continue in some kind of transformation. That’s why I think the poetic line, “the beam of a lightless star” has stuck with me the way it has. It framed one way for me to understand this eternal mystery. Entropy may tell me a part of the story, but not its conclusion.
At night, after I watch TV –– usually old movies or some TV series –– I’ll read for a while in bed. I’ve been reading Vanity Fair recently. I found the novel in an old bin in my closet. It’s lingered there unread since college. Reading it, I was entertained by the snobbish social airs of Victorian England that the author, William Thackeray, lampoons. Especially I’ve enjoyed the graceful prose and how the twinkle in his eye is evident in every word. The book is thick, the print small, so I read only a little each night.
One night I finished reading a few pages. AsI started to turn the light out, I thought how Thackeray had died in 1863. Here I was in bed, and here, a hundred and fifty-seven years later, I was entertaining his thoughts, even though he had long since turned to dust. I was sharing his wit and humor, as if he were alive and present here and now. It seemed to me just another manifestation of how a life has ways to live on after a death, in the way the beam of the lightless star streams through the universe after its extinction. It was as if this author was speaking directly to me. While he was at once a victim of entropy’s relentless assault on matter, the immortal quality of his soul carried on transformed. It traveled through time by means of an assembly of written words. It is always human nature to want to talk with others –– curiously, that’s what his book is all about –– our insatiable appetite for conversation, however banal.
“We tell stories in order to live,” Joan Didion once wrote. Despite the constraints of contingent time, and the claims of entropy, Thackeray wanted to tell his story. I hear him now, line after line. Those who may have read him, are, in a manner of speaking, following in his wake.
I remember some things my grandfather said – not to me directly, but something I overheard, some opinion or thought. He was ship captain. One particular thing he deplored, which prefigured one of the pollution issues of today, was how ships entering New York Harbor would empty their bilges within harbor limits, dumping oil and chemical waste. I heard this seventy-five years ago. It’s alive and well in my own thoughts today.
I wonder how much of my own life is an accrual of generational hand-me-downs, which I have both knowingly and unwittingly appropriated. Those lives once lived way back then, live on right now, and many of them in you and me, as do the beams of lightless stars.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.