Playing Chess with Death

Last night, I watched Ingmar Bergman’s film “The Seventh Seal”.   There’s nothing like hitting a gray mood smack on the head with a black & white film about Death!  Yargh!  Into the breach, mates….

First of all, the photography.  Beach scenes, faces, clouds and silhouettes, clean, stark, intense.  They just put me in a mood to ponder dark and light without looking away.  Bring it!

Characters.  One of the questions Steve always asks after we watch a film together is “which character do you think is most like you?”  The characters in this film are icons of human stereotypes, in a way, but rather like the roles in a medieval morality play.  The knight is questing, always.  He wants to know and understand; his intellect is never satisfied.  Steve has a lot of that in him.   Jof, the juggler, is a childlike observer.  He is easy-going and happy, and he has visions.  He sees with his heart and doesn’t understand why others don’t see what he does, but he doesn’t preach about his visions, he writes songs about them.  I think Steve has some of that in him, too.  I identify with Jof myself.  The squire is shrewd, ironic, confident and direct.  He seems very grounded in his ego.  There are some other players, more simply drawn: the actor, the cuckold smith and his loose wife, Jof’s young wife and their baby, a silent girl who attaches to the squire, a witch and of course…Death.

How each of these folks engage with Death is fertile ground for the imagination.  If you’re questing, trying to find answers, strategically engaging Death in a game of chess, what is the lesson you are likely to learn?  That Death doesn’t have any answers, but he’s going to win the game.  And how would you take that?  It makes me think of my younger days, when I was in the throes of religious fervor, convinced that I was learning the big answers to the most important questions.  I wrote terribly pretentious poetry and harbored judgments about everything.  I thought I was going to “figure it all out” eventually.  That was after Death’s first visit to me, and before his second.  I had a few close calls in between that made me think I might be on the right track.  His re-appearance convinced me that I wasn’t really onto anything.  So, the questions remain.  I like how the knight gets increasingly comfortable with inviting Death to sit down and join him.  He learns a few things, he postpones the inevitable, he diverts Death’s attention away from his friends for a while, and he even shows Death that he can be happy while they play.  I am learning from his example.

The scariest part of the film is the depiction of fear itself.  The wailing and flailing and pleading for mercy is utterly desperate and triggers all kinds of panicky feelings in me as I watch.  I do NOT want to slide into that.  That’s the worst evil in the film.   Those people are being tortured and destroyed from the inside out.  It gives me the shivers!   This is a great example for me, too.  I don’t have to engage with Death in this manner.  I have other options.

The storm scene reminded me of a camping trip we took one spring.  After a balmy evening, a thunderstorm rolled in from across the hills to the west.  The sun had set and it grew quite dark, but just over the ridge, the lightning blazed up like bombs in a great war.  It was like watching a WWII movie, all black and white explosions in the distance.  And we were the only campers in the park, in a little nylon tent.   I was kind of scared.  I thought about doing the “safe and prudent” thing, striking camp and driving away.  Steve asked me, “Why?”  Well, because something bad could happen!  Bad like what?  We could get wet.  We could get hit by a falling tree or lightning.  We could, but it’s not highly likely.  We could just watch it and see what we learn.  And we can always get in the car, too, if we want.

So we stayed.  We did get wet.  We eventually went to the car.  We went home the next day.  But we saw the most amazing light show and felt the wind and heard the rain fall on every surface with a different sound.   And we experienced it together, present, honest, alive.   Take that, Fear!  Check!

5 thoughts on “Playing Chess with Death

  1. any viewing of The Seventh Seal should be followed by Woody Allen’s Love & Death to put things in perspective.

    I was camping in a thunderstorm one time and a tree got hit by lightning about 10 feet from my tent. It was ear-splitting and tremendously exciting. Because it was about 4pm in an area with lots of tree cover, the light show wasn’t as spectacular. Good thing the huge branch that fell missed me. What’s more, mine was a big, old-fashioned canvas tent and I didn’t even get very wet.

  2. Hi Priscilla!! This is Lance Schaina. Rom Drever-Schaina (my sister-in-law) told me about your blog. Wow, I had no idea your were so smart and wise. I probably would have treated you with more respect in our college years. (Har, just kidding!)

    Just a comment or two about Seventh Seal. First of all I loved the acting, though I was a bit confused since I couldn’t figure out which character was being played by Demi Moore, the actor I was really looking forward to. But, regardless, Max von Sydow and the others were great.

    No, seriously, Seventh Seal is one of my all time favorite movies, though I haven’t seen it in, like, 20 years. I loved what your wrote about fear being the worst evil depicted in the film. I’ve found the converse of John’s “perfect love casteth out fear” to be true in my life: fear casts out love, self acceptance, acceptance of the world as it is, joy, hope, everything. All of my most self centered interactions with others arose out of fear.

    This world is a strange place. I’ve been watching a lot of old disney cartoons with my 2 year old niece Clea, and I’m seeing a lot of wisdom in those cartoons. Sometimes you’re walking on the sidewalk, doing everything right, and a safe falls on your head. And after you’ve been squashed by the safe, the fact is that it is everyone else that needs to be comforted, that it is your job as the squashee to reassure your loved ones and the viewing public that you’re ok, that life is ok, that it’s ok to have a safe fall on you once in a while. What a huge responsibility.

    I also loved what your wrote, which is a theme of your blog, about your encounters with death forcing you to be dissatisfied with the big Answers you had about life and God. I’m traveling down the same road. (Except, instead of tragedies, my re-evaluation has been motivated more by all the embarrassing and shameful things I’ve done.) Right now I’m finding the most comfort in focusing on the mission God has for me in the afternoon and evening of life. Being kind, loving and supportive. All that Christian stuff. Sometimes I take comfort in images like that moth that catches on fire in that Anne Dillard essay; like, maybe I can burn brightly in my last years here on earth. But that passes, and I realize the best I can do is make lemonade for my brother’s family.

    Well, anyway, thank you so much for putting so much time into a public blog. You’re still an amazing person. I see why all the IV Christian Fellowship women idolized you.

    Take care, Priscilla!!

    P.S. Oh, I have a facebook page if you want to keep in touch, as does Rom.

  3. Big Brother Lance!! So good to hear from you here! I do not do Facebook, which is how I find the time to do this, I suppose. Thank you for your comments, it helps me feel like it’s not so weird to doubt the beliefs I thought were certain when I was younger and knew everything. And I love your conclusion: kindness & love & support. In the final analysis, I do think we’ll find that’s all that matters. I bet your lemonade is really refreshing (as I remember, your hugs were, too!).

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