PMGenesis: Chapter 30

Peter Milward's Autobiography: Genesis of an Octogenarian (2008)


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Who is Peter Milward?
0. About PM Genesis of an Octogenarian
1. Attempt at an Autobiography
Pre-conscious World
Local Patriotism
Wimbledon in Wartime 
Pastoral Peace
Pastoral Philosophy
7. Life at Oxford
Between England and Japan 
9. A New Language and Culture
10. Rural Japan
Pastoral Theology
12. Teaching Shakespeare in Japan
13. A Missionary in Japan
Student Revolt  
A Floating University  
16. Literary Pilgrimages  
A Scholar's Paradise  
To and Fro in Japan  
Words, Words, Words  
Annus Mirabilis  
21. Renaissance  
Lost Years  
Two Papal Pilgrimages  
Two Peninsular Pilgrimages

More American Adventures
26. In the Footsteps of Hopkins and Newman  
Two International Conferences  
Catholic Shakespeare  
Last Words  
Bibliographical Afterword  


 New St. Ignatius Church, Tokyo


 Sunset over Sophia


Blog Brittonia

All About Francis Xavier


Who are the Jesuits?

Joining the Jesuits in Japan



 A Lifetime with Hopkins  by Peter Milward

        Jacobean Shakespeare
by Peter Milward


Shakespeare the Papist by Peter Milward 


 Mystical Journey, the autobiography of William Johnston, S.J.   

All About Francis Xavier (Articles on Japanese Catholic History and Jesuits) 



30. Last Words


  Now that I have at last come to an end of this “attempt at an autobiography”, I may perhaps be asked, as at the end of a TV interview, what, if anything, I have learnt from life, from my past eighty years in this world?  What can I say?  What but Cordelia’s answer to her father, “Nothing!”  Or rather, I feel at a loss for words.  It is as when I am suddenly asked by a taxi-driver, who may have noticed I am a Catholic priest, why Catholics believe such nonsense as miracles?  All I can say is that it isn’t nonsense.  Only, in such confined circumstances how can I be expected to give a reasonable explanation, apart from saying, “Well, if you are interested, you might read CS Lewis’ book on Miracles.  Or a more effective answer might be to tell the taxi-driver not to ask such nonsensical questions!

   The more I come to think of my original question, the more I come to the conclusion that Cordelia’s answer is after all the best.  I also suspect it was the answer Shakespeare himself liked the best.  He further went on to say, through the other mouth of Timon of Athens, “Nothing brings me all things.”  Yes, that’s surely the best way of putting it.  All I have to say is, like Cordelia, “Nothing” – not the negative nothing of Aristotle or Lear, who can only say, “Nothing will come of nothing,” but the original Word by whose utterance everything was created out of Nothing.  This isn’t just a vacant, empty, meaningless nothing (spelt with a small n), but the Nothing (spent with a capital N) symbolized by the Spirit moving over the waters when all that was made was made, the Spirit preparing the way for the utterance of the Word, the way for the emergence of everything out of Nothing.


   “Nothing” – how much meaning is implied in that one word!  At least, how much meaning when uttered by such a heroine as Cordelia, whose name means “the heart of Lear”, or in French “Coeur de Lear” – analogous to “Coeur de Lion” in the case of Richard the Lion-heart.  What Cordelia means in the context of her father’s question to her is nothing but “Love, pure love,” a love that is unable to express itself in words, such words as are so glibly used by her sisters, but only in deeds.  She is willing to do anything for love of her father, even to die for him, as she does in the infinitely sad ending of the play.  Only, she can’t put that love into words.  Such love can’t be put into words.  Or if it is put into words, those words are at once misunderstood in “this all-hating world”.  God himself, we may say, is at a loss to express his love for men in human words.  Words are so weak, so frail, so incapable of fulfilling the function for which they were intended.  “Words strain,” says TS Eliot, “crack and sometimes break, under the burden, under the tension, slip, slide, perish, decay with imprecision.”  Even for God, we might say, it took the whole Bible, Old and New Testament together, to put his meaning into human words.  And what has been the outcome?  No one has ever understood the Bible, least of all the Biblical scholars, who may well be compared to those Confucianist scholars who are the last to understand the meaning of the Analects.  Even Jesus was unable to put his love for his disciples into words, even at the last supper.  And when he at last he attempted to do so, he was betrayed by one, denied by another, and misunderstood by them all.


   Yet “Love, pure love” is, I insist, the hidden meaning of everything I have written in this book, of everything I have said or done or written in the past eighty years of my life.  This is also the love hidden in all the plays written by Shakespeare, those plays which, more than anything else, represent his lasting monument among men.  It is a love of all human beings, their characters, their actions, their words, in a word, everything about them except their too frequent rejection of love or misconception of love.  “I am a man” is the motto of the Renaissance humanist, derived from the Roman Terence, “and nothing that is human is alien to me.”  I wonder if any man, apart from Jesus himself, had more love of his fellow-men, or of God himself, than Shakespeare.  Not even, I make bold to say, St Peter, St Paul or St John, not even St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas or St Francis of Assisi, not even St Ignatius Loyola, St Francis Xavier or St Edmund Campion.  Even such great saints as these might be challenged by Shakespeare in reply to the question of Jesus, “Do you love me more than they?”  Then he might well answer, like St Peter, spurning such invidious comparisons, “Lord, you know all things, you know that I love you!”


   If therefore, as I claimed in my last chapter, I take Shakespeare to myself and make him my own, I must also make his love my own.  I must love both him and all my fellow-men and God above all and in all.  I must love all that is human in the world, not only human beings but also animals, plants, rocks and stones and trees, all that has any existential connection with human beings.  I must love all the thoughts, words and deeds of human beings, especially those with whom I am most involved in daily life, my Jesuit colleagues and my Japanese students.  Such is the love of which the Duchess tells Alice in her wandering through Wonderland, “Oh, ‘tis love, ‘tis love, that makes the world go round!”  Now we are standing at the brink, as it were the edge of an abyss, at the beginning of the twenty-first century and the third millennium, trying our best to be optimistic about it, while not really believing ourselves.  “We’re all right now!” we keep on repeating to ourselves, like the children in a fearful jungle I remember from a children’s pantomime.  But we aren’t all right, nor is the world all right!  Even as we watch, we see everything in the world, as reflected in the daily press, going from bad to worse.  Can things become, we wonder, any worse than they are?  Then we hear Shakespeare’s Edgar offering his pessimistic version of Cordelia’s Nothing, in the warning, “The worst is not, so long as we can say, This is the worst.”  What we need when faced with such an appalling situation is not the willful blindness of an ostrich or the fearful refusal to open our eyes, but the faith that moves mountains, that hopes against hope, that loves with pure love.

   In the end, therefore, I come back to love, that divine Love whose simple Word in the beginning drew all things out of Nothing, and whose legacy to all human beings is that Nothing which brings us all things.  Everything we think we see around us is nothing, even in the emptiest, most negative, most Aristotelian sense.  Yet out of Nothing, when embraced in a spirit of love, everything returns to us, reborn, renewed, regenerated, as Shakespeare insists in his final romances, arising as they do out of the negation of Lear and Timon.  In their tragedies everything seems to have relapsed into a primeval Nothing.  Yet in the subsequent romances everything seems to come back into the light of everything.  Such are the last words of Shakespeare himself in the last of his plays, when he reflects with Prospero, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”  Such are the words recorded on his statue in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey.  Such is his reflection on the end of Cardinal Wolsey, who, he says, in losing everything in this world, found “the blessedness of being little”.  Such, too, are the last words I would like to make my own at the end of this poor attempt at an autobiography, whenever it is published, and of my poor life, whenever it comes.  That is all.  And that is Nothing.  But that Nothing is my all.

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