Sunday, 13 October 2013

Easter and Raymond Carver: A sermon preached by Dr. Larry R. Hayward: April 8, 2007

“Deep in the human heart is an unquenchable trust 
that life does not end with death.”

Not at all timely I know (other than the fact that it's Sunday) but I just came across this. I'm not a religious man but this is a beautifully rendered piece; a reminder of the importance of self appraisal and self love. Much as I adore my lady, I'm learning that to love oneself is perhaps the greatest love; 'you' are the only person that you can truly trust in a relationship so... you'd better hit the right notes. Of course, it's divine to be loved by others; more likely if you are not consumed by self loathing... The idea of a divine love from Him on high is beyond me. 
I've been accused in the past of over sincerity (by friends) but kindness, trust and loyalty are my only real demands from friendship. 
Call me mawkish, but love and hope remain my touchstones.
They surely endure 'beyond the bounds of vision'...

And did you get what 
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

Luke 24:13-35

A sermon preached by Dr. Larry R. Hayward on Easter Sunday, April 8, 2007, at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Alexandria, Virginia

Nearly every funeral I conduct features a prayer from 1946 edition of The Book of Common Worship of the Presbyterian Church. Those of you with Episcopal leanings will recognize it from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, revealing the fact that we Presbyterians are not quite liturgically-minded enough to come up with liturgy of our own. But in the case of this prayer, authorship doesn’t matter; for one sentence of the prayer is particularly beautiful, no matter who wrote it.

The phrase is this:

We thank Thee that deep in the human heart is an unquenchable trust that life does not end with death; that the Father, who made us, will care for us beyond the bounds of vision, even as He has cared for us in this earthly world.

“An unquenchable trust that life does not end with death”: these words lie behind, beneath, and around this sermon this Easter day. “An unquenchable trust that life does not end with death.”

I want us to approach the phrase “an unquenchable trust” first through the writings of a noted author as he lay dying of cancer, then through Luke’s account of two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus and encountering the risen Christ unrecognized. 

In my opinion, both the author and the disciples give evidence of “unquenchable trust” that “life does not end with death.” 

By looking at their trust, I hope to put us in touch with similar trust that lies in our hearts, draw that trust out, and connect it to the resurrection of Christ that it may empower us to live with hope beyond this morning’s lilies and music.

First, the author. 

His name is Raymond Carver. He was born in 1938 in Clatskanie, Oregon. His father was a saw filer in the lumber mills and an alcoholic; his mother, a waitress and retail clerk. Carver lived a hard scrabble life. He worked his way through college, drank his way through low-paying, dead end jobs in his twenties and thirties, and wrote his way to fame in his forties. Along with Chekhov, Flannery O’Connor, and Tobias Wolff, Carver is among the greatest writers of the unique and relatively recent genre known as the short story.

The story of his life is not pretty. 

· In 1976, at age 38, Carver nearly died of alcohol poisoning. 

· After his brush with death, he became sober. 

· He met and found genuine love with fellow writer Tess Gallagher. 

· In the Fall of 1987, Carver was diagnosed with lung cancer. 

· For ten months he struggled with treatment. 

· In the spring 1988 cancer returned as a brain tumor. 

· After a decade of life together, he and Gallagher married. 

· A few weeks later, he died, two months after his fiftieth birthday. 

While creating her own, respected body of writing, Gallagher has spent the twenty years since Carver’s death telling his story. 

What we have of Carver’s writings reveals a man who, in his last few months, sought to affirm life even as he faced death. Gallagher describes his reaction to the return of cancer. 

Much as Chekhov had kept reading the train schedules away from the town in which he would die, Ray kept working, planning, believing in the importance of the time he had left, and also believing that he might, through some loop in fate, even get out of this. An errand list I found in his shirt pocket later read “eggs, peanut butter, hot choc” and then, after a space, “Australia? Antarctica??” 

The insistent nature of Ray’s belief in his own capacity to recover from reversals during the course of his illness gave us both strength. In his journal he wrote: “When hope is gone, the ultimate sanity is to grasp at straws.” In this way he lived hope as a function of gesture, a reaching for or toward, while the object of promise stayed rightly illusory. The alternative was acceptance of death, which at age fifty was impossible for him.

During this time of reaching for hope, Carver read a passage from Chekhov’s Ward Number 6: 

“And do you believe in the immortality of the soul?” [one character asks]. 

“No, [a second character responds]…I … have no grounds for believing it.” 

“I must own I doubt it too,” [the first character admits]…but there is a little voice in my soul that says, ‘…you won’t die.’” 

Carver underlined the words “a little voice in my soul.” 

The frontispiece of his final edition, published after his death, contained this inscription: 

All of us, all of us, all of us
trying to save
our immortal souls, some ways 
seemingly more round-
about and mysterious than others. 

Perhaps, facing death, he began to consider – to hope – that his life might continue after his death. “Deep in the human heart is an unquenchable trust that life does not end with death.” 


Once cancer returned, Carver frantically strove to finish his final books. They did not even tell friends his cancer had returned; for rather than face “a parade of sorrowful goodbyes,” they preferred to focus on “the things we wanted to do.” 

One of the things we decided to do [she writes] was to celebrate our eleven years together by getting married in Reno, Nevada, on June 17. 

The wedding was what Ray called a “high tacky affair” and it took place across from the courthouse in the Heart of Reno Chapel, which had a huge heart in the window and spiked small golden light bulbs… Afterwards we went gambling in the casinos and I headed into a phenomenal three-day winning streak at roulette. 

After the wedding, Carver wrote a poem called “Proposal.” In the final stanza, he commented on getting ready for the hastily arranged wedding: 

We were getting ready, as if we’d found an answer to 
the question of what’s left
when there’s no more hope: the muffled sound of dice coming
the felt-covered table, the click of the wheel,
the slots ringing on into the night, and one more, one
more chance…

A few weeks later, he wrote a poem called “Cherish,” in which he describes the warmth of human love he feels watching his new wife out the window, even as he lay inside the house, dying: 

From the window I see her bend to the roses
holding close to the bloom so as not to 
prick her fingers. With the other hand she clips, pauses and
clips, more alone in the world 
than I had known. She won’t look up, not now. She’s alone
with roses and with something else I can only think, not
say. I know the names of those bushes

given for our late wedding: Love, Honor, Cherish –
the last the rose she holds out to me suddenly, having
entered the house between glances. I press
my nose to it, draw the sweetness in, let it cling – scent
of promise, of treasure. My hand on her wrist to bring her close,
her eyes green as river-moss. Saying it then, against
what comes: wife, while I can, while my breath, each hurried petal
can still find her.

The hope for “one more chance,” the eternity of “cherish”: “Deep in the human heart is an unquenchable trust that life does not end with death.”

In another piece written during those last few weeks of his life, Carver seemed to accept his imminent death. This piece is entitled “Gravy.” 

No other word will do. For that’s what it was. Gravy.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going. And he was going
nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. “Don’t weep for me,”
he said to his friends. “I’m a lucky man.
I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone 
Expected. Pure gravy. And don’t forget it.”

The final piece Carver wrote, before he slipped into the silence of death, is entitled “Late Fragment.” 

And did you get what 
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

Of this piece, Gallagher writes: “Ray…knew that he had been graced and blessed.”

“Deep in the human heart is an unquenchable trust that life does not end with death.”

By all accounts Raymond Carver was neither a believer in God nor a Christian. Once, when asked if he were religious, he replied: “No, but I have to believe in miracles and the possibility of resurrection.” It is as if Carver believed in resurrection but not in God. 

So why am I spending so much time in an Easter sermon on his writings? 

I do so for this reason. 

· I believe Carver’s sense that at the end of his life he was “beloved on the earth” reveals a sense that he was loved not only by himself – which as an alcoholic he struggled to achieve – but that he was also loved by a power higher and larger than himself. 

· I believe as the cancer gnawed away at his body, his heart became focused on something larger than the fifty years of his life. 

· And I have a hunch that this focusing on something larger than himself marked the beginning of a belief in God, the beginning of a belief in life after death, the beginning of a belief in resurrection. 

· I am willing to say that his writings reveal not only “an unquenchable trust that life does not end with death,” but also one way such belief can materially alter the quality of life, leading to greater commitment, greater acceptance, deeper love, and most of all, hope. “Deep in the human heart is an unquenchable trust that life does not end with death.”


  1. I've been thinking of Carver a lot theses last few days. I'm reading a novel by Gordon Lish, his editor.
    If for unquenchable trust you read unquenchable desire, I find this more true. Such trust I have found all too quenchable but the desire remains, even if in deep hibernation, like a seed in the desert.

    1. "Desire is a seed in the desert"?
      Another co-write for you Seamus.
      The next album could be a Jones/Duggan affair...

  2. Morning Seamus. Up early! I've got 'Beginners' on the go; Carver's pre Lish edits. It's an interesting read, knowing the edited versions so well. Def not a case of 'Lish is more'...
    The 'unquenchable' quote is from the Bible btw.

    1. Lapsed I may be but I still recognise when things have gotten biblical on my ass! I thought I might as well get on board the whole rewriting the bible to suit myself thing...

  3. Bloody Hell Trevor. That's a bit deep. Are you feeling unwell???

    1. Better now thanks Nick. The power of pop eh?

  4. Sorry Seamus, that's me stating the bleeding obvious again. Pious to the end; I should have been a whisky priest... Speaking of which; wasn't it Paddy Mac who saw "desire as a sylph figured creature who changes her mind"? Unsure where I'm going with this. I've got at least six things on my mind; cannot focus on any of them!

  5. You do realise that you're quoting God again? :)

    1. It's a fair cop Macwood. It's a good job that he never sues for plagiarism (or indeed deformation of character). He must have a shitty lawyer...

  6. It's Thanksgiving Day here in Canada, and the "sermon" & RC's poems surprisingly relevant...
    But you do realize Trev that you've hit on a topic that's bound to tee up a blabberfest response from me? I'll keep it shorter than usual...

    I must say that I admire the optimism, gratitude, maybe even burgeoning faith which Carver eventually embraced. Perhaps he fell for the "There are no atheists in foxholes" aphorism, however given his extraordinary personal transformation, I'm sure the sentiments were genuine. Funny how for some, adversity kindles faith; whilst for others (myself included) it begets an estrangement, a septic doubt about a "higher power."

    I often wonder if I'd rather be a "happy idiot" who adopts a blind faith which no doubt provides great comfort and hope; or an enlightened, empirical fatalist who holds no hope beyond our finite journey? Perhaps TS Eliot had a point when he said "Human-kind cannot bear very much reality."

    In your intro you speak of hope & love as touchstones. I couldn't agree more, and for now maybe those are enough. Nonetheless, there remains a wisp of longing in me that eventually faith of some form reawakens to complete the triad. That "unquenchable trust that life does not end with death” sounds pretty good...

    Um, Amen?

    1. Some wag once said "The atheist can't find God for the same reason that a thief can't find a policeman". I also love Winston Churchill's "Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened."
      I guess that we all need to give shape to 'faith' from time to time. Even if that's what helps us disregard it. Not so much 'name it and claim it', more a case of checking the ropes on the safety net. Regarding the hedging of bets CS Lewis said 'Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.'
      I'm definitely one of your 'happy idiots'; although my conscience is acute I'm blessed with a terrible memory; absolution comes easy to a forgetful man.

    2. Nifty quotes from the Illuminati, but the one from the so-called "happy idiot" is my favorite... "Absolution comes easy to a forgetful man."

      Note: The term "happy idiot" I borrowed from Jackson Browne's "The Pretender." What a great song...

  7. For you Tim - one of my songs of 2013 - have a great day :)

    1. Stephen Kellogg? Never heard of him, but this is terrific. A little like Josh Ritter...