I remember watching as a kid an old Lionel Barrymore movie titled On Borrowed Time. (I think it was the first time I ever heard the word “pissant” used.) Gramps traps Death up an apple tree. He steals a little time for himself. But how long can he bear the consequences of his trickery?
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you / Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre, / The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed / With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness, / And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama / And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away— / Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations / And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence / And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen / Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about; / Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing—
Death comes upon us. We seek to evade it, escape it, delay it, fight it; but death always conquers and drags us against our will into the nothingness. One way or another, we join the silent funeral. Perhaps Mr. Brink will permit us the illusion that we can trap him in a tree … but only for a little while. “O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark.”
The only choice before us is how we respond to the coming of death. Instead of denial or bitter resignation, there is another way, Eliot tells us–faith: “I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you / Which shall be the darkness of God.”
The poet offers three images of this surrender to the present darkness:
We are in the theatre. The stage lights are turned off to allow the crew to change the scenery. The house lights also remain off. But if we peer attentively at the stage we perceive a darkness even blacker than that which surrounds us in our seats. We hear the rumble of the furniture and props being moved into the wings. We know that the set we have just experienced has been taken away. We wait for the next act and a new world.
We are in the subway. The train comes to a halt between stations. At first everyone is wondering why the train has stopped and when it will begin the journey again. We express our concerns to the folks standing next to us; but eventually all conversation ends and we are left with the uncomfortable silence. The silence becomes increasingly oppressive.
We are on the operating table. The anesthesia begins to take effect. For a few moments we find ourselves in the curious situation of being aware that we are conscious and yet unable to formulate thought or even attend to our surroundings. Is death like this? Will I awaken again?
We surrender to the divine darkness—quiescence, suspended between thought, between movement. We are deprived of the familiar. Our life is put on hiatus. There is only the waiting … in the darkness.