What’s the Sky For?
A few nights ago, my wife and I watched a quirky Irish romantic comedy called Wild Mountain Thyme. The film itself was fine, nothing spectacular, but an interesting story if only because it strayed a bit off the beaten path as far as rom coms go. Two eccentric single farmers struggling to find each other in the midst of navigating a land dispute in the middle of Ireland doesn’t exactly scream “blockbuster” or “financial windfall.” Not caring much about these things is a feather in any film’s cap, in my books.
Anyway, as is often the case when I’m watching a film or reading a novel, one particular line or passage will stand out to me, lodging itself in my brain until I spend a bit more time on it. In this case, it was a brief conversation around a funeral between the two main characters, Anthony (Jamie Dornan) and Rosemary (Emily Blunt):
Anthony: Where do we go when we die? The sky?
Rosemary: The ground.
Anthony: Then what’s the sky for?
Rosemary: It’s for now. The sky is for now.
What’s the sky for? It’s a question that could serve as a stand in for all of human desire and what it says about who we are and what we might be able to hope for. Does human desire point beyond our temporal experience? Is the sky a metaphor or hint or clue about what might exist beyond the grave? Do our deepest and truest loves and longings have a reference point outside of themselves? Do beauty and goodness beckon beyond whatever we are able to apprehend or appreciate of them here and now? If not, are they diminished somehow? What are these things ultimately for?
Rosemary’s view of things could be described as terrestrial and circumspect in nature. The things that inspire us do not obviously point beyond themselves. Beauty, love, truth, goodness, life, longing—these things are gifts or happy accidents to enjoy while we can. Who can say if there’s anything beyond death or if the things that constitute the best parts of life in any way are meant to direct our gaze to a further horizon? Maybe, maybe not. Who knows? In the meantime, YOLO, carpe diem, etc. The sky is for now.
Anthony seems to be more of a wondering sort. Perhaps the sky is for now, but might it not also be for later? For higher and deeper and truer? Might the sky not also be for completing what “now” has left unfinished and undone? Is it possible that the sky could even be for healing the wound that never mended, for forgiving the wrong that could never be outrun? Perhaps the sky speaks for those who are inclined to listen. Perhaps we are the sorts of creatures for whom now is not enough. Perhaps we were made with a holy restlessness, a metaphysical itch, an enduring longing for the sky and all it represents.
A few years ago, I slogged through A Secular Age, Charles Taylor’s magisterial (and enormous!) account of secularization and the disenchantment of the modern West. One passage has stuck with me in all the years since I read it. It comes in a discussion of Friedeich Nietzsche’s curious German phrase, “Alle Lust will Ewigkeit”:
I interpret Nietzsche’s famous line to mean, not: we’re having such a good time, let’s not stop; but rather: this love by its nature calls for eternity….
Now the implication of much atheist discussion of Christian or in general religious ideas of eternal life is that it is another facet of the childish attitude which takes its wishes for reality, that growing up means abandoning this…
This dismissive attitude often assumes that our desire for eternity is simply one to live on, not to have our lives stop. It is the kind of desire which the famous Epicurean reasoning is supposed to still: as long as you’re aware of the problem, you’re alive; when you’re dead, it will no longer be a problem for you. But there is something shallow about this understanding of what’s wrong with death.
If we could separate happiness as a thing of the moment from any meaning, then we could enjoy some great moments now, and after pass on to some great moments later; rather as we enjoy good meals. Maybe in the old days, there was another kind of cuisine. We regret mildly its passing. But there is good food now, so let’s tuck in.
But that’s just the problem. The deepest, most powerful kind of happiness, even in the moment, is plunged into a sense of meaning. And the meaning seems denied by certain kinds of ending. That’s why the greatest crisis around death comes from the death of someone we love.
Alle Lust will Ewigkeit; not just because you might want it to go on and on, as with any pleasant experience. Rather, all joy strives for eternity, because it loses some of its sense if it doesn’t last.
Perhaps, in answer to Anthony’s question to Rosemary—Then what’s the sky for?—we might say, “The sky is for plunging the deepest, most powerful and true experiences of the human condition into meaning. The sky is God’s refusal to relinquish anything good to transience and oblivion.
As the poet W.H. Auden put it, “Nothing can save us that is possible: We who must die demand a miracle.” The sky is for demanding this miracle, and for reminding us that all joy ultimately wants eternity.
I took the picture on a glorious summer night on the southwest corner of Vancouver Island last summer. The sky was on fire and speaking of eternity.