Brueghel: ‘Fall of Icarus’

I could, as usual, cite events and celebrations of the past year, Mardi Gras, Pentecost, St. Thomas Day, and the Bishop’s Visitation. Talk about the landscaping in the front, the “progress” of the organ, how our kids keep growing bigger and smarter. They’re all wonderful things to celebrate and to give thanks for. And we will soon be celebrating our time with Carole and remembering loads of great experiences. But we also are looking forward, and I feel the need to talk about ways of seeing. When I taught, one of my favorite questions on exams was about epistemology; how do we know what we know? Think Othello knowing that Desdemona is untrue.

W.H. Auden’s poem from 1938, “Musee des Beaus Arts”, begins:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood.

Tying this poem to ambivalence, ambiguity, and the Uncertainty Principle, may be my “sermon from the heart” rather than a report from the Senior Warden. However, these topics seem relevant at the moment.

The poem is probably not my all time favorite, but it comes to mind again and again when I look at quandaries and try to understand life events. You will recall that his ostensible topic is the painting by Bruegel called Icarus; you remember that Icarus is the son of Dedalus, who flew with the aid of wings attached to his body with wax. When Icarus tried, he flew too close to the sun, melted the wax, and crashed. But the irony of the painting is that Icarus is so inconspicuous in it. The foreground is a busy scene of a farmer, a shepherd, animals, a ship off the cliffs, and Icarus is only two small legs disappearing into the sea in the lower right of the picture. Auden says, “They [the Old Masters] never forgot/ That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course/ Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot/ Where the dogs go on with their doggy life. . .” At least one thing that the poet must mean is that in the moment we can’t surely place events in their proper order of importance; we can’t know that Icarus is the subject, not the farmer and his horse. That’s why life is always ambiguous and why in some sense it exhibits the Uncertainty Principle; we can know the concrete but not what bigger truth it demonstrates. Knowing one thing means we can’t know another. (Remember, I’m an English major, not a physicist.)

For that reason, I believe that ambivalence is a way of looking at all earthly life because “now we see in part”—we aren’t at the point where we see “face to face.” As we anticipate Carole’s departure, we know we are sad, and it’s difficult to have faith that we will be sure of ourselves making new choices. So we look forward in hope but with trepidation, as well. It is truly a time of ambivalence.

Recently an acquaintance told me her son said he wasn’t learning anything in school—he’s in the 5th grade! I suggested that she tell him that he didn’t know whether he was learning anything and wouldn’t know ‘til later. When you can remember the helping verbs you learned in the 5th grade when you’re my age, then you KNOW you’ve learned them. I guess that’s a long time to wait when you’re 10, but it demonstrates why I find it best to withhold judgment, to be ambivalent.

I’ve also told students, as a sort of excuse that people’s strengths are also their weaknesses; one can be described as spontaneous, or as disorganized—for the same traits. One can be self-confident, or bull-headed. AND THEY ARE BOTH TRUE. Maybe when have achieved our resurrected selves, we will be truly and clearly all of one trait, pristine and ideal, but not here on earth. I think the way to face the future before us is to thoughtfully, prayerfully remember what Carolyn Metzler has reminded us about being the hands of Jesus here on earth. We may not know foreground from background; we may not be able to perceive ultimate truths, but we can fulfill our human calling by loving, trusting, and doing what needs to be done.

Ettajane Conant
Senior Warden’s Sermon from the Heart 2014

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