Thomas Cole’s The Voyage of Life gives striking artistic expression to what I presume is a fairly common human experience: the maturation process from childhood through to old age. The series consists of four paintings, Childhood, Youth, Manhood, Old Age, each depicting a person of the represented age in a boat, floating down the waterway through that stage of life.Perhaps what is most striking is the contrast between the first two paintings of childhood and the latter two paintings of adulthood. The first two paintings are quite serene: light, calm, lush. The images of the boy and youth evoke a sense of promise and possibility. In Youth, the boy sails through a garden, standing nearer to the front of the boat with arm outstretched and finger pointing at the distance, where against the clear blue sky a wispy cloud formation in the shape of the celestial city can be seen. The youth is evidently at complete ease in his tranquil environment and filled with hope at what is to come. Life’s journey is pleasant; the destination looks even better.
But then the series takes a drastic turn. The youth enters adulthood. The third installment is particularly arresting, causing the viewer to feel the perilous nature of this stage of life. If the light of the Youth painting nearly lifts the viewer up in its transcendence, the color of this third painting drags the viewer back down. Dark and troubling clouds build overhead and shadow much of the terrain. No longer calm and serene, the river is now choppy and rushes through a tight and rocky channel; one can almost hear it roar through its course as it writhes its way through a harsh and sharp terrain. And the man no longer stands at the front of the boat, eagerly pointing at what lies ahead. Now he stands braced and anxious at the back of the boat, holding desperately to the hope that he might survive.
A common experience of becoming an adult, I say, but perhaps an even more potent expression of the way we feel at the close of 2021. We are all tired of hearing about it; tired of thinking about it. But if news sources and personal testimonies are any indication, 2022 is shaping up to bring more anxiety, more fear, more dread. We all may feel like that man, braced and terror stricken at the back of the boat, hoping to hang on for the ride ahead.
However much we as Moderns are possessed by fear and anxiety, and however much the pandemic is increasing this tendency, we are certainly not the only people to have struggled with dread. The world as we humans have experienced it for millennia is, as Tennyson put it, ‘red in tooth and claw.’
In the Old Testament accounts, David had often found himself in an anxiety producing situations. One such situation in particular probably occasioned the writing of Psalm 4. He probably penned the psalm while in exile after his own son, Absalom, had conspired to remove him from the throne. David laments the situation he found himself in. But then, most strikingly, at the closing of the psalm he prays:
You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.
In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me to dwell unafraid.(vv. 7-8)
Remarkably, David could declare that even in the midst of deep turmoil he has more joy and peace than those who are without God in this world, even in the midst of their most splendid moments. And then, beautifully, David says, “I will lay me down to sleep—and sleep peacefully.” For God himself has calmed David’s heart, and made him to rest unafraid.
In a couple of the Gospel accounts we are given a story about Jesus and his disciples in a boat. This story paints a rather different image than that of Cole’s Manhood. Jesus got into a boat with his disciples and told them to cross the Galilean Sea to the country of the Gadarenes. While on their way a storm arose. This storm apparently consisted of more than choppy waters; it had seasoned seamen crying out in terror, pleading for their lives. Jesus like the man in Cole’s painting was at the back of the boat. Unlike Cole’s man—tensed, braced, and anxious—however, Jesus was asleep. Like David, he had completely entrusted himself to God; and like David, he was able to rest peacefully even during the storm.
As we put 2021 to bed, ready to rid ourselves of the clouds overhead but dreading that we shall awake to grey yet again, we at MR wish you peaceful sleep in this coming year of our Lord, 2022.
And we at MR confidently wish you a happy New Year. Not because we know the future; not because we know the waterway of your own life and can predict calm, serene, and lush. We cannot. But we do know the God who puts his joy in the hearts of his children.