The Washington Times
Near the end of “The Tempest,” which is now in production at the Shakespeare Theater in Washington, the aging Prospero, having elaborately arranged a reconciliation between various intriguing camps that will result in the marriage of his daughter to the rival king of Naples and the restoration of himself to his dukedom, says he “will retire me to my Milan, where every third thought shall be my grave.” Philip Goodwin, the actor playing Prospero in a generally splendid performance, gives the line its most common interpretive reading: He slows a bit after the comma, and pronounces “every third thought shall be my grave” with a tone of solemnity bordering on the funereal.
That’s not how I’d read the line. Allan Bloom remarked somewhere that for an old man, the devotion of every third thought to one’s grave would seem to be somehow appropriate and even proportionate. Not too much, in the fashion of someone morbidly obsessed with his own mortality, nor too little, in the manner of someone denying that death will come to him as well. One shouldn’t, of course, deliver the line with a lilt, but a little more emphasis on the word “third” and a little less on the word “grave” gives the line a subtlety that is more in keeping with the extraordinary achievement of the play’s protagonist: Left to die in exile on a forsaken island, his dukedom usurped by his brother in connivance with Naples, his daughter without hope of human companionship, he reverses all his misfortune by the singular act of forgiving his enemies.
What might the other two of each three of Prospero’s thoughts be? Well, probably his daughter and new son-in-law and the prospect of grandchildren; the enjoyment of his restored position and his just rule in it; and his achievement of mastery of the elements that enabled him to secure such a happy ending. One can imagine Shakespeare himself, whose last play “The Tempest” was, similarly looking back on his own life and artistic achievement for two out of three thoughts – and forward to death only with every third.
And so I like to think of the pope’s last days or weeks, or even months or years as his health began to fail. I have no special insight into the mind of the pontiff. But it is difficult to imagine John Paul II in any way self-obsessed on the eve of his own death. It’s not just the consolation of his faith, including the expectation of sharing in an afterlife. It’s also the entirely secular consolation, available to him as to Prospero, of a life well-lived.
And it is, further, that even through the adversity of one’s decline, one can continue to live life well. When the pope came to his window for what would turn out to be a final time on Wednesday last week, does anyone imagine the act as one of self-aggrandizement? On the contrary: He is the pope. He has blessings to bestow, a blessing that might be of decisive spiritual importance to the lives of the people gathered in St. Peter’s Square – or even to but a single person among those gathered. This he could still give, even though he couldn’t speak anymore.
With what demons the pope wrestled internally, I wouldn’t know. My guess is that the greatest one would be a sense that somehow he had not done enough, that each instance in which he perceived, looking back, that he had taken an easier course than perhaps he might have, would weigh upon him – however unjustly, in the view of us (shall we not concede?) lesser mortals.
But we do know something about the external demons, first and foremost his role in the worldwide struggle against an explicitly atheist political ideology, Communism, but especially also against the tendency within his own church to rewrite Catholic doctrine as an instrument in service of political revolution in this world: his reinvigoration of the specifically spiritual mission of the church. Also, his efforts to reconcile the competing strands of Christianity and to achieve a measure of healing and human fellow-feeling with Jews and other non-Christians.
On Good Friday, Catholics say a sequence of prayers, first for the church, then for those Christians who are not members of the church, that their Christian faith may lead them to the Church; then for Jews, that their love of the sacred scripture may lead them to Christ; then for believers of other faiths, that that faith might lead them to Christ; then for non-believers, that by right conduct they might find God. It’s a lovely sequence and a reminder that the church’s universal aspiration is not one of political conquest but of the extension of faith. This pope was as politically astute as anyone, but he understood where politics ends and spiritual wholeness begins.
I am somehow confident that no more than every third of John Paul’s last thoughts were of his grave. There would be no need for more than that, given the life he lived and the aspirations he embodied.