Writing the Saturday Sermon for our North East paper The Press and Journal, and chasing a quotation to its source, I picked up Dag Hammarsköld's book Markings. I've read this book off and on since I first came across a reference to it in a slim book by Mark Gibbard, Twentieth Century Men of Prayer. I bought a Faber pbk and read it through in a sitting. And my mind was as uncomfortable as an overloaded digestive system. It isn't a book to devour, but to sample; it isn't fast food for the soul, more a health food to be eaten slowly, and in small increments. This is a writer who is unpredictable in tone, theologically subversive, either interrogative or imperative in mood, at times enigmatic and perplexing, at other times inspirational, energising mind and heart alternatively, and occasionally simultaneously.
Markings is the English translation by W H Auden of a diary written in Swedish by a man of immense intellectual vision and global diplomatic reputation. Hammarskjöld was the first Secretary General of the United Nations, a man of profound and at times anguished Christian faith, a quiet and private person who confided his self-doubts, prayers, and his hopes and visions for humanity to his diary. He wrote in brief poems, sharply observed epigraphs, meditations no more than a paragraph long, zen like riddles and one liners and frequent quotations and references from the Psalms. One or two entries at a time is enough to be going on with, so that the book is best read the way it was found after Hammarskjöld's death, at the bedside; or failing that, on a seat with a coffee or tea, and five minutes to listen and think in the company of a remarkable man.
Reading Markings again I hear that same stern voice calling for integrity of thought and action, and articulating a near stoic acceptance of human life as a gift laden with responsibility. But Hammarskjöld was no mere moralist, and no under-resourced humanist facing courageously an indifferent universe. Markings is a gathering of his best ore, wide seams glittering with the gold of a faith that had grasped forgiveness, experienced grace, surrendered to vocation, and envisioned peace as a purpose worth living and dying for. Indeed to die for what one believes in is the proof that we believed it in the first place. "Never. - for the sake of peace and quiet, deny your own experience or convictions."
This is a man who understood sacrifice, and the Gospel truth of the seed that must die or it will forever be merely that, - a seed, an unfulfilled promise, a locked up promise never realised. That stern voice again: " Pray that your loneliness may spur you into finding something to live for, great enough to die for." Remember these words were written for his eyes only, in a diary that went everywhere with him. These were words addressed to himself. And here is the zen like puzzle that he sets himself, and afterwards, those of us who read these remarkable pages:
What makes loneliness an anguish
Is not that I have no one to share my burden,
I have only my own burden to bear.
I cannot help but love a man talking to himself with such searing honesty about himself, and at the same time, looking beyond himself to a burdened world, and feeling personally the weight of that suffering and and a sense of responsibility for all that weighs down human lives. These are the words of a global diplomat, a man of huge prestige in his time, and he takes time to write in his diary words that unlock the secret places of one who saw himself as a peace maker and a hope builder in a world divided by the Cold War and riven by post colonial conflicts in Africa and Asia. That he died in a plane crash while on a peace mission to the then Belgian Congo is one of those ironies that adds even greater mystery to a man who lived at a level of political and ethical vision, rare in his day, and verging on extinction in our own media ridden politics of the 21st Century. "In our era the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action." That is one of his most anthologised lines. He lived and died living out of that conviction.
(The quotations are from page 84-5 of my edition, published by Knopf 1964)