Look not on the west?
Comrade, look not on the west; ‘twill have the heart out of your breast; ‘twill take your thoughts and sink them far, leagues beyond the sunset bar. Lines from AE Houseman’s poem “The West”. He is equating sunset in the west with death, counselling a silent comrade not to be drawn that way. His doubts about the afterlife are even clearer in the final verse: When you and I are spilt on air, long we shall be strangers there; friends of flesh and bone are best: Comrade, look not on the west.
A view of death for our time, perhaps? Not to think about it until it is inevitable and to doubt any life or meeting beyond death: long shall we be strangers there… St Paul in 2 Corinthians has a much more optimistic, but realistic, outlook: So, we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. That is a great reassurance to those of us of a certain age, feeling more and more worn away. St Paul holds out a much more appealing prospect than Houseman: For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison… for the things that are seen are transient but the things that are unseen are eternal.
Whether you accept Houseman or St Paul’s version of death is a personal choice. If you think the world and consciousness are just some accidental occurrence and the material world is all there is, then you may agree with Houseman that friends of flesh and bone are best. For me, although I love Houseman’s poetry, St Paul makes much more sense of life and death. Belief in immortality is based on belief that the ultimate nature of reality is mind, not matter. That is a wholly rational belief. St Paul was convinced by his glimpse of that supreme mind in his Damascus Road experience and his testimony is convincing. So, although our outer nature may be wearing away quite obviously, we may look with confidence on the west.
Steve Chandler - Reader
Berkeley Benefice St Mary's - Berkeley
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