All are guilty.
Unbridled assertion of self. Satanic pride. Pure and simple devilment. All are Judas. All are Caiaphas. All are Pilate. All have spit in the face of Christ wantonly, offhandedly, and spitefully. All have smilingly skewered God to a gibbet. All wretchedly wear their Albatross. And some, through it all, have found salvation in sentence and suffering; have found life in death.
The holy season of Lent calls for Catholics to make focused reparation for those sins the Lord Jesus bore before rising from the dead. It is a time to participate in His Passion through privation, penance, and purging. It is a period of inward searching while looking far forth. In short, Lent is for spiritual adventure: a striking out from the common boundaries of the spiritual life in quest of new discoveries, new worlds. The sea voyage is a rich analogy of the Lenten journey, for it is the pilgrimage on dry land that is more common—and safer. Lent is the occasion to hazard beyond ordinary shores and undertake adventure, and accept the consequences.
This motif is what makes The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge an unpredictably rich source for Lenten meditation. Written in 1798, the poem is a perfect and poignant blend of the truth of natural experience and the mystery of supernatural exposition. It tells a tale of sin, whose wages are death, and the life that exists within that death and beyond. As Coleridge himself said of his masterpiece, it “turns out to be the idea of transgression and absolution, and of the train of consequences which persists even after absolution.” Lent is part of the consequence of crime and an extension of absolution; and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is the allegorical voice of this Christian condition—the condition of life in death.
The poem begins, as many conversions do, with an interruption. An old sailor—an ancient mariner—arrests a young guest at the gates to a wedding feast with a bony hand and glittering eye. So it begins, as so often it does: when business-as-usual or festivities are obstructed by a haggard, disturbing reality that cannot be gainsaid. It is all too easy a thing to overlook the struggle all are challenged to participate in; and many must needs have their privacy invaded, their peace shattered, in order to face the facts of faith and the perils of redemption. Thus the Mariner holds the will of the wedding guest who cannot choose but hear as the Mariner, with strange power of speech, tells his tale of horror and hope.
The good ship was southward bound under a fair wind and fair weather, when it charged into the teeth of a storm blast over the equator. Immediately the sea voyage becomes a poignant symbol whereby man happily hurls himself into dangers that terrify him and threaten his existence. This is the challenge for every soul, and especially in Lent: to risk spiritual death for the sake of spiritual life, navigating life through death. After the storm comes blinding mist and snow. There will always be some mysterious, mad reason why the holy places of Kubla Khan’s pleasure-dome were savage caves of ice. Somehow elemental hostility reflects divinity—and it is terrifying. It could be that the ice-bound ends of the earth naturally evoke that fear that leads to wisdom.
For it was in that misanthropic wilderness that salvation came—a salvation discovered only because the icy murk was embraced. An Albatross descended through the fog and brought sun and salvation to the Mariner and his shipmates. They hailed it like a Christian soul with joy and hospitality as the healing wind came whistling beneath its wide wings, bearing the ship to warmer waters. The symbol is too rich to label. Could the Albatross represent Christ Himself? A Savior to correct man’s course? The shock that follows suggests so much.
Without provocation, without reason, without thought, the Mariner raised his crossbow and shot the Albatross. Echoing the Crucifixion, this giver of life and happiness is mindlessly done to death, with no cause existing for the act save the inherent iniquity that eats at the heart like the eternal worm of the pit. Such deeds are perpetrated countless times every day—acts that reduce the living to the living-dead, and in need of the purgation and resurrection that only Lent brings.
The fair winds continue, however, making the seamen retract their curses upon the Mariner for having killed their good omen—but the curse is inevitable. As soon as hopes arose, down dropped the breeze with the sails, leaving the ship baking in a motionless sea beneath a burning, bloody sun.
Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere
Nor any drop to drink.
Evil sowed bears evil fruit: this is the sheer truth of human existence, a reality faced in Lent. The balance of narrative power and perception in Coleridge’s poem is precisely what renders it a Lenten inspiration. Lent is the Christian desert, and just so the Mariner thirsts in the desert of a painted ocean, and recoils at the demons that crawl upon it with slime and slither. The dying men hang the dead Albatross around the neck of the Mariner—the sign and burden of sin. Memento homo…
Then, creating perhaps the most thematic tableau in the tale, a spectral bark floats onward over the deep without wind or tide, driving between the motionless ship and the merciless sun. A skeleton ship: bare ribs and tattered, gossamer sails come into view; and on the deck—Death; and for his mate, a white woman, the Nightmare Life-In-Death who thickens man’s blood with cold. The Mariner beheld these two as they cast dice for the souls languishing under the slaughter of the Albatross. Death won the souls of the withering crew, leaving the soul of the Mariner to Life-In-Death. Under this sentence, the Mariner lives on while his comrades drop dead one by one, he alone suffering a living death, imprisoned with the dead, alone on a wide, wide sea. Alone. Forsaken by his God.
Thus and on runs the Rime: rushing through living-death into life by a sudden and strange act of love; followed by a descent of elemental beings, a raising of vivified corpses to challenge any ghost ship of nautical lore, and the inescapable retribution for sin committed. But the turning point, the crisis of the adventure is that unearthly gamble. The crux of the poem is that life in death is mankind’s lot. As Christ won man life by His death, so must man renew his life out of the death of sin—out of mortal sin—and live bravely and boldly on in a world rank with guilt and corruption. Love alone bears life out of death, but even so, death never disappears. Once tasted, death’s flavor lingers on as a sharp reminder of horrors survived and that ever threaten. Lent challenges Catholics to die to themselves that they may live in the glory of the Resurrection, embracing the penitential sentence of death in the hope of life, living in death through love.
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a beautiful and brutal reminder of what all men have done, what all have suffered, and what all have been redeemed for. The brutal beauty of Lent arises out of the reflection on times of transgression, desperation, isolation, and death, calling us all to live our lives motivated by the memory of our deaths and to live out our purgatories. Lent beckons us to live despite death, to live in death as Christ Our Savior did. And so was the prayer of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, as can be seen in this epitaph which he wrote in expectation of his own passing, which he suffered in 1834:
O, lift one thought in prayer for S. T. C.
That he who many a year with toil of breath
Found death in life, may here find life in death!