Captain Of My Soul

Literature, as life, seems to demand that its protagonists travel full circle. Opened doors must be closed, and closed, reopened. Suffering seeks remuneration; matters seek resolution. Noble avenues are pondered; forbidden paths explored, and reparation made.

Nineteenth century poet, William Ernest Henly, was diagnosed with tuberculosis as a child. At seventeen, he lost his left leg to complications from the disease. This traumatic event resulted in a poem of self-sufficiency that has been memorialized in classrooms for decades, written during his recovery, Invictus. The final verse:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

When Timothy McVeigh was executed for the Oklahoma City bombing, he left behind a handwritten copy of the poem.

Shakespeare’s King Lear demonstrates the inevitable fall of one who dug a deep pit. “The wheel is come full circle,” declared Edmund, when his cunning calculations ultimately failed.

Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory features an unnamed, alcoholic ‘whiskey priest’. After trudging through repentance and forgiveness, he risks his life to administer final rites to a dying man. He was captured and executed. Reparation was complete.

The Man Who Was Thursday, by G. K. Chesterston, explores the world of espionage. Seven men, each assigned the name of a weekday are led by Sunday, whom they come to view as aloof and unsympathetic. They eventually discover that his dispassionate demeanor was part of a larger, intricate plan that would benefit all involved. Unwilling to reveal the reasons for his behavior, the six men ask whether he has ever suffered. He borrows from Jesus the question He asked of James and John, “You don’t know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”

Some doors close more slowly than others.

Theodore Dreiser wrote An American Tragedy in 1925, patterned after an actual event in New York. The son of a street preacher, desperately poor, moves to another town to work. He falls for a poor factory worker until he begins to climb the corporate and social ladder. Courted by a rich, beautiful socialite, he agonizes over how to resolve his duplicitous situation. At the end of the book we are told there is another street, another preacher, and another blond haired boy staring up at his father.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s first child was born on her birthday. At 20 months old, he was kidnapped and, ultimately, murdered. Five children and more than twenty years later, she went to Florida’s Captiva Island and penned Gift From the Sea, examining the spectrum of life’s events through that undulating, salty lens.

“The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient,” she wrote. “To dig for treasures shows not only impatience and greed, but lack of faith. Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach – waiting for a gift from the sea.” No doubt, losing a child empties you like nothing else.

God walked in the garden with Adam and Eve. He talked with them. He shared directives for living life to the full. In this beginning, God sought to help His children avoid evil. In an ironic twist, following His resurrection, Jesus, too, walked in a garden. He closed a door to disobedience that mankind had opened. He corralled the wickedness we had unleashed. He rewrote our history, taking the keys to death, hell, and the grave and securing our lives to His safekeeping.

Life brings full circle every decision we have made, every seed sown. God, in His infinite mercy, tills the land, making beauty of our ashes.

So, no, William Ernest Henly, we cannot agree. It does matter that we choose the strait gate, the narrow way. It matters that there had to be a reckoning, a punishment for our violations.

Dorothea Day said it best when she responded to Invictus with a poem titled, Conquered, which concludes:

I have no fear though straight the gate:
He cleared from punishment the scroll.
Christ is the Master of my fate!
Christ is the Captain of my soul!

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