[ by Charles Cameron — mostly written as news came from the hospital that his condition had turned critical, updated and posted now that his death has been announced ]
Already I am feeling the presentiment of grief, and so much of what I feel stems from this picture:
Nelson Mandela is dear to me not so much as the great first President of the new South Africa, nor as the statesman he doubtless was, but the man who loved my own mentor, Trevor Huddleston, so much.
So it is not global with me, it is personal, and as news of his health reaches the critical mark and his family gathers in deep concern, I sense my own potential for grief rolling in over the near hills.
Robert Frost, in his great poem A Silken Tent, speaks of “silken ties of love and thought” that bind us one to another, indeed to “every thing on earth the compass round” — in my case it is his love of Trevor that binds me to the man — and the little detail in Mandela’s autobiography where he recalls Trevor addressing a group of South African police who were approaching to arrest him, saying:
No, you must arrest me instead, my dears.
It’s that “my dears” that I can hear so easily in Trevor’s voice, and that Mandela was so brilliant to catch, recall and tell…
Less personally it is the Isitwalandwe, the signal honor these two men shared, for each was “one who wears the plumes of the rare bird”.
I respect also the insurgent Mandela, who emerged from his long imprisonment with calm and clarity — Mandela the meditator if you will. This passage from a letter he wrote in jail in 1975 moves me, as Merton moves me:
Incidentally, you may find that the cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the process of your own mind and feelings. In judging our progress as individuals we tend to concentrate on external factors such as one’s social position, influence and popularity, wealth and standard of education. These are, of course, important in measuring one’s success in material matters and it is perfectly understandable if many people exert themselves mainly to achieve all these. But internal factors may be even more crucial in assessing one’s development as a human being. Honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve others – qualities which are within easy reach of every soul – are the foundations of one’s spiritual life. Development in matters of this nature is inconceivable without serious introspection, without knowing yourself, your weaknesses and mistakes. At least if for nothing else, the cell gives you the opportunity to look daily into your entire conduct, to overcome the bad and develop whatever is good in you. Regular meditation, say about 15 minutes a day before you turn in, can be very fruitful in this regard. You may find it difficult at first to pinpoint the negative features in your life, but the 10th attempt may yield rich rewards. Never forget that a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying.
Here, I believe, is the secret which gave us this man.
And because it is so very beautiful, I offer you also Frost’s poem:
The Silken Tent
She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when the sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To every thing on earth the compass round,
And only by one’s going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightlest bondage made aware.
Mandela’s death has been announced, and I feel as though I knew it already, back in those days at the end of June when he was hospitalized, when every day and each breath might have been his last. I feel little grief now, I wish him peace — but more than that, I feel gratitude. Nelson Mandela showed us, through foul weather and fair, what a human with integrity is, and what such a single human, in the companionship of others, can do.
So many of us must be feeling this gratitude today. Mandela has gone from among the living, to exert his influence now — his person, his strength, his story — in the ever-opening realm of inspiration and human possibility.