I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert…Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’
-Ozymandias by Percy Shelley
Shelley wrote Ozymandias as a meditation on the transience of human achievement and power. He referred to an antique land, but knew that his own time and ‘land’ would soon be antique, just as every epoch must become. His particular time saw huge technological advances in industry. Since then, time has marched on. Shelley’s time is already for us an ‘antique land’.
The Romantics sank into melancholy when they pondered the ephemeral vista of human existence and achievement (‘that colossal wreck, boundless and bare’). But it also inspired them to revolution and the fiery will to change. They easily saw through the artifice of established beliefs and philosophies. They saw the certainty with which empires ruled, the opportunity for success and wealth that industrialism presented, the complacent dogmas of worldly religions, and they scorned them. They knew that nothing would remain of such ozymandian works.
Shelley famously wrote in his A Defence of Poetry that it was poets and artists who were the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’. This meant that the creative processes of artists were the real life of the world—not the sham dogmas, politics, and works of institutions, or the limited paradigms of current thinking. No, it was the creating principle that bore and ordered the world’s life—the Son-God principle. In this sense, the Romantics were the true Christians of their time.
It was not human works that were important, but the creating, the working from Christ that was essential.
The Romantic philosophy rejected the materialistic rationalism of the Enlightenment. Out of it came the tender shoots of Coleridge’s philosophical musings on the power of imagination as a spiritual force. In central Europe, Goethe quietly developed a human-centered form of science, beyond the limits of materialism.
Their ‘works’ too have almost disappeared from human culture—but not quite. They have continued to flow as a source of life for the human spirit in the modern world, a world which is full of the ‘lifeless things’ of which Shelley writes the empty and crumbling edifices of much of our mainstream culture. One might say that modern culture is like the pedestal that Shelley describes. It boasts much, but there is nothing actually there.
The central lines that I would like to concentrate upon here are those of the long-forgotten King Ozymandias: Look on my Works, Ye Mighty, and despair. These words resound in an otherwise dead landscape.
They are narcissistic words, of a soul caught up in itself. The words return, empty, to themselves. They eradicate life around them. They offer no way forward. Nothing can live when such words are spoken. The ‘lone and level sands’ are testimony to that.
What if we were to say, ‘Look on my Works’? What would we refer to if we did so? What body of work could we point to? Would we perceive some coherence in its patterns? If we addressed it to ‘Ye Mighty’ then we would not mean the ephemeral might of earthly sovereigns, but perhaps the spiritual world. Would they despair? Only at our myopia and hubris.
All of our works eventually recede in memory. Everything that we do is swallowed up into life. Our successes and our failures, our originality and genius, our sufferings and torments. We pour ourselves into life— and eventually we are poured out and emptied. Everything passes, and quiet inevitably descends upon even the most cacophonous of lives. Paradoxically, the transience of human existence is intransient.
Our external works will all pass away. But that which lived in the soul, as we ‘worked’, that will surely remain. Did we work with joy, love, imagination, freedom? Were we ‘working from Christ?’ I would like to draw a clear distinction here between two aspects of human working. Let us call them ‘works’ and ‘deeds’. ‘Works’ are everything that we put out into the world. They are the sum of all our outer activity. One may think of a ‘body of works’; also our daily work and livelihoods. All of this will be no more, just as the everyday life of ancient Egyptians in their ‘antique land’ is lost to us. Work is subject to the forces of transience and will pass away when ‘heaven and earth pass away’.
Let us call ‘deed’ that which lives in our work. This is not what we did, but how we did our work. Deed is the mood and gesture of our activity. It is the manner in which we applied our will. ‘Deed’ is the enduring life of the will. ‘When heaven and earth pass away, my words remain’. Such are our deeds, like words spoken into the eternal. It is the deed which gives meaning to our work.
Our work will not remain. But our deeds do. Our will is inscribed through our deeds, however slightly, into the earth. In the 8th chapter of St. John, there is the scene of the woman caught committing adultery. This scene captures the imagination almost like no other, because something powerful happens here: Christ inscribes his will into the earth. A deed is written into it. The quiet deed causes the extraordinary turnabout. What remains is an unforgettable picture, sublime, simple and profound.
There is a moment (in our service) towards the end of the Transubstantiation where we acknowledge that before the Father God, we can do no works. Without wishing to pin down an interpretation, or take it out of the context of the living liturgy, it may be helpful to consider a perspective on this.
Our ‘works’ often have an egotistical character. We invest so much in our earthly works that we can become proud of them. We want to bring something good into the world. But inevitably, there is a degree of self-gratification involved. And there is also the intractable web of karma that we become further entangled in, when we bring our work into the world.
What the Act of Consecration asks us to concentrate on again and again is not our work, but our ‘offering’. This is the will-life at its most religious. ‘Offering’ is more inward, more spiritual than our ‘work’. Everything that is true and serving in our works—our will’s deeds— has an offering gesture; and this is what can flow onwards and evolve through all cycles of time yet to come. At the very beginning of the Act of Consecration, we invoke our own powers to be mindful of the deed of Christ; that is, to enter into the mood of sacrifice that concentrates around the mystery of Golgotha, not the external events of ‘the life of Christ’ and Golgotha. And so we come to the crux of our existence. For it is not our works upon which the Mighty (‘Before You…’) should look, but our deeds. And we hear soon enough what the inner dynamic of these deeds is: the overcoming of sin.
This is what we would do. This is the mystery and deepest desire of our will. What lives in our will is a desire to overcome sin. Sin sunders our Self from itself. It has a deathly grip on the human being, causing a sickness unto death in our being itself. All our works should be directed to this purpose: joining with the deed of Christ that overcame death—and thereby also overcame the dynamics of sin.
Let us return to the scene in John 8. The death of the ‘adulteress’* was practically inevitable. This is because she was ensnared in sin. In this sense, whatever her ‘crime’ was, is irrelevant. Her fundamental tragedy (her sin), is that she is sundered from her true self; she is living inauthentically. She is caught in externals (‘works’) and is sundered from her will—God’s will. And it soon becomes clear to her accusers that they all share in this ensnarement—and they are not alone in this: we are all in the same boat.
It was no longer enough merely to keep the Law. Our outer works could do that. But now it was being shown that the Law had been covering a deep underlying sickness. Christ’s sojourn on earth provided a diagnosis of this sickness. The deed on Golgotha begins the healing process.
Faced with the accusers, Jesus doesn’t try to reason with the mob, which would catch him in their intended trap. Instead, he allows the Christ in him to work. He is working from Christ. Externally, he does little—outwardly a few words are spoken and the hand writes into the dust. But this allows Christ’s will to work all the more powerfully. Jesus makes himself a vessel through which Christ can write a deed of freedom into the dying earth existence, thereby re-enlivening it. The deed of Christ Jesus in this episode already overcomes the forces of death. Everyone becomes potentially more free. It is with this that we would join. In this way, we would overcome sin. For we are all adulterating souls. We all join ourselves too much with what we do (our works), often at the expense of our relationship to what we might call God’s will. So it is that the adulterating soul is told to ‘go—and sin no more’.
‘Go—and sin no more’. We could express this thus: Go on your life’s path—and learn to receive your will. For when we learn to truly listen to our will, then we receive our will, like a longed for guest.
The scene with the ‘adulteress’ is an exemplary picture of freedom, a deed which frees her and us from the iron consequences of the Law, of karma. It shines like a light in our imaginations. It is what a human Self—an ‘I am’—can do. Therefore, ‘(the) I am (is) the Light of the World’ (John 8:12).
If we failed to learn this working from Christ, we would enmesh the earth further in our works until finally it would no longer breathe and live—and become a dead being (‘boundless and bare, The lone and level sands stretch far away.’) And the human being would then become merely a ‘colossal wreck’ in the cosmos.
Finding a relationship to our inner life of deeds, as opposed to our outer works, involves a fundamental acceptance of our status as spiritual beings. It asks us to learn to know who we truly are: that we are not protagonists of the project of earthly permanence. It is not ‘Look on my Works, ye Mighty’, that we should stamp on the life of the soul, but rather, ‘before the Almighty, no works can be done’. Otherwise, the heart feeds upon the purblind vanity, and becomes sick. To ‘see’ our life of deeds, our will, requires a completely different attitude of soul: a modesty and an ability to put our lives into true proportion. That is our work. In this way, we find our true place in life. All this contributes to the overcoming of the sickness of sin.
When our outer work can begin to be informed by such thoughts, then perhaps we can approach the mystery of our own will—that mysterious force within, which causes so much chaos in the world-harmony. It is so sensitive and embryonic that it can easily be swayed by adversarial might. CCan we learn to see beyond the work of the adversaries in our souls? Can we begin to get to know the will’s unique dynamic, and align ourselves with it? Can we learn to receive this will? If so, then perhaps we begin to live into those words of the Lord’s Prayer which calls for the will of the Father – which is our deepest will – to be done as deeds on earth, as it lives in the heavens.
We were inhabitants of an ‘antique land’ – an earth which was constantly passing away, dying, subject to transience. The Law had covered up this fact. Then an ‘unacknowledged legislator’ came and made us the new executors of the Father’s will. Such are our deeds. It is these which gradually lay the foundation [can a basis unfold?] for the preservation of our life, destined for eternity.
*We will call her this without implying judgment, and take it as an allegorical picture of the state of the soul.
This essay was written by Luke Barr, a priest of The Christian Community in Aberdeen, Scotland.It appears in the summer 2018 issue of Perspectives on the theme of Inner Activism, and it is posted here by permission of the editor. To subscribe to Perspectives, and receive issues via email, please visit their site.
In this essay, Luke refers to the adult service of the Christian Community, called the Act of Consecration of Man. You can read more about our service here.