The most profound metaphors for life are the journey, music, and dance. In recent weeks I’ve been blessed to experience the richness of each of these through a graduation, the discovery of a new song, and a dance recital. Here I want to think a little bit about the journey. In follow-up posts, I’ll reflect on music and dance.*
“Midway this way of life we’re bound upon
I woke to find myself in a dark wood
Where the right road was wholly lost and wholly gone.”
Thus Dorothy Sayers’ magnificent rhythmic translation of Dante’s Inferno opens with the metaphor of a journey. Milestones in life, such as birth, death, marriage, mid-life, graduation or a move, reinforce the metaphor of life as a journey by offering memorable landmarks along the way. For example, some important road markers for me are that Rachel was born in St. Louis; Hannah in Norman; Susanna in Shawnee. These are not just memorized data points, but sign-posts that resurrect for me a host of meaningful experiences and organize them as a story.
For Rachel and Stephen, this year marks what will surely endure as an important milestone on their journey together. Congratulations, Rachel and Stephen, on your graduation! Rachel, our eldest daughter, completed her BA in Linguistics from OU last month, and her husband Stephen finished his bachelors in engineering. We are so proud of both of you, and rejoice in the pilgrimage you have undertaken!
Inside the front entrance of our house, we have a beautiful print of The Road Goes Ever On, a poem by J. R. R. Tolkien found in volume 3 of the Lord of the Rings as part of a walking song of Frodo’s:
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate,
And though we pass them by today,
Tomorrow we may come this way
And take the hidden paths that run
west of the Moon and east of the Sun.
This is the journey we’re all embarked upon. Indeed, The Lord of the Rings embodies the metaphor of life as a journey more powerfully than any literary work since Dante, and its success in explicating how each of us are embarked upon our various quests is a prime reason for its wide appeal.
A figure in a famous woodcut (not medieval in origin) embodies such a quest to “take the hidden paths” and boldly go where none have gone before. When I served as director of the OBU Planetarium (for four years ending May 1998), I selected this figure as the basis for our logo, along with those wonderful lines from Frodo’s walking song.
I don’t know if it has been pointed out before, but those lines evoke the conclusion of C. S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where Edmund, Lucy, Eustace, and Reepicheep viewed the mountains of Aslan’s country beyond Narnia’s sun. Reep took the hidden path east of the sun while the others passed through a wall in the sky much like the depicted figure. Perhaps Lewis and Tolkien were writing these two works at the same time. Might they have discussed them together at the Bird and Baby pub where they read their works aloud to one another each week? Might they have known of Flammarion’s woodcut?
The metaphor of the journey is profound in its pull upon our consciousness. The natural condition of any creature is one of constant change. To interpret that change as either a journey or a dance is to recognize the presence of lasting meaning in the midst of change. These metaphors encourage us to let go of our stranglehold upon the present, to confidently embrace the uncertainties of transient life as a welcome rather than necessary state of affairs. More philosophically, for me to accept that my “being” lies essentially in “becoming” requires me to repudiate the ideal of escaping from the realm of change, to regard that ideal as a mirage, as achieving nothing more than a lifeless stasis. In The Problem of Pain, Lewis explains how the vision of life as a journey entails the relinquishing of such ambition:
“The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”
Ultimate meaning lies not in transcending change, but in finding joy in the journey and discovering an ever-renewed hope for the destination. Even in heaven, our redeemed condition will remain one of constant though joyous change. As 1 Corinthians 13:13 observes, there we will live in faith, hope and love – yet there can be no hope without meaningful change. The persistence of “hope” teaches us we will never “arrive”; heaven is not eternal stasis, but eternal life. I do not mean the ceaseless change of Sisyphus, a wearying cycle. Rather, the destination at the end of our earthly journey is a glorious strength, freed from the weariness of our brokenness and sin, to hope as we have never hoped before. The metaphor of music expresses this perfectly. Our experience of music even now offers us a glimpse of how the glory, communion and worship of the saints will be everlasting change, both joyous and meaningful. The musicality of heaven is a corollary of the inexhaustibility of the goodness of God.
For these and other reasons, Candace and I have made Os Guinness, Long Journey Home (2003), our standard graduation gift (see also Guinness’ related lecture, The Journey, A Quest for Meaning). What a delight for us that graduation is the one time in a person’s life when it is clearly appropriate to give someone a book. We certainly don’t want to miss that opportunity!
Update: The “Life as a Dance post” appeared later, mainly in this “Thank you Celtic Praise Troupe” post, and in the additional posts linked to at the bottom of that page.