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Friday, May 07, 2010

Reflections on Sir Philip Sidney's poem, “Splendidis Longum Valedico Nugis“

English author and statesman Sir Philip Sidney (1554 - 1586) penned the following farewell poem, “Splendidis Longum Valedico Nugis“:

"LEAVE me, O Love, which reachest but to dust,
And thou, my mind, aspire to higher things!
Grow rich in that which never taketh rust:
Whatever fades, but fading pleasure brings.
Draw in thy beams, and humble all thy might
To that sweet yoke where lasting freedoms be;
Which breaks the clouds and opens forth the light
That doth both shine and give us sight to see.
O take fast hold! let that light be thy guide
In this small course which birth draws out to death,
And think how evil becometh him to slide
Who seeketh Heaven, and comes of heavenly breath.
Then farewell, world! thy uttermost I see:
Eternal Love, maintain thy life in me!"

These farewell words are those of the son of the Lord Deputy of Ireland. He served as a royal attendant to Queen Elizabeth I, as an ambassador to the German Emperor and as a soldier who though living primarily in the presence of royalty, traveled quite extensively. He died at a very young age (32), in the prime of life. He is buried at St. Paul's Cathedral in London. A young man as Sir Sidney had remarkable insight about the temporal and eternal realms, and he reflects this through his poem. Sir Sidney helps us understand the necessity of having the right worldview, for worldview is how we make sense of life and prepares us for what comes after life.

Why is this a farewell poem? What is he bidding this goodbye? Sidney desires separation from the lowly world, the temporal realm, and aspires for the highest, spiritual and eternal realm. The temporal realm, the place in which we now live, is no higher than the dust, and here everything breaks down or fades. Whatever is born here, dies here and the best we can do is evil in the eyes of heaven. The eternal realm is a high place where that which truly matters grows, shines and is not hidden. The eternal realm is the place of light and life. These are the words of a man surrounded by wealth and influence.

The choice before him is say farewell to God's love, and embrace all that is fading lowly dust to eke out a miserable existence until a dark and impoverished eternity; or say farwell to the world and be embraced by God's love in Christ Jesus, and be the recipient of light and life maintained from above.

How does one cross the threshold from the temporal to the eternal? Sidney leaves us one small clue near the high middle of his poem, referring to "that sweet yoke where lasting freedoms be." This "yoke" breaks clouds, brings light and sight to the blind. This "yoke" is the essence of a life leading to death, through death and beyond death to life--it is life abundant. This "yoke" extends to the most unworthy of love who dwell in the dust of the temporal realm. When those appropriate what the "yoke" brings, they die to the dust of the world and have the eternal realm opened to them, being filled with Eternal Love and life!

What is this yoke? We begin to understand by considering first words of our Lord Jesus Christ, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:3). The kingdom of heaven belongs to the spiritually bankrupt. "The worldly idea is that happiness is found in riches, merriment, abundance, leisure, and such things. The real truth is the very opposite." (MacAthur Study Bible) When one realizes this truth, as Sir Sidney did, one begins to understand what God has provided in terms of things that really matter. "Salvation is a free gift, but an empty hand must receive it, and not a hand which still tightly grasps the world!" (A.W. Pink)

Our understanding grows when we consider when our Lord Jesus Christ said further, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." (Matthew 11:28-30) What relief does man's intellect, intuition, or influence bring? One must discover, nuture, cultivate and maintain autonomy if one desires to turn his back on all that God has provided in Christ Jesus. Burdened are the rich in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of this earth! Spiritual, eternal wealth is not gained by religious observances, but by the work of God in Christ Jesus. Sir Sidney recognized an exchange had to occur.

Sir Philip Sidney despises the world. Despite his wealth and position, he expresses that as long as he lived on this earth, that he would experience "the uttermost" of eternal life, by having new life breathed in him while he yet lived on the earth. The poverty of his heart, his spiritual bankruptcy, and his intense desire for the eternal may be glimpsed in the occasion he received the leg wound that, a few days later, would be the cause of his death. Nearby where he lay on the ground was another wounded soldier. Sir Sidney passed over his water bottle and was reported to tell the soldier to drink, for in his eyes, the other soldier had greater need for the water than did Sidney.

Sir Sidney reminds us that the eternal, spiritual realm contains the physical, temporal realm. These are not two realms that exist side-by-side (as it were). There cannot be an infinite regression of the physical, temporal realm. The eternal realm, by nature, has always existed, pressing in on the temporal. In other words, at very bottom, everything is spiritual. The problem is that man in his rebellion against his Creator, would rather exchange that which is passing for that which he cannot escape. Man, in bidding farwell to God, turns to come face to face with Him. Much like a man who, denying the existence of trucks, steps into the road and discovers the harsh reality that he cannot change.

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