John Milton, "When I Consider How My Light is Spent"
When I consider how my light is spent, Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide, And that one Talent which is death to hide Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent To serve therewith my Maker, and present My true account, lest he returning chide; “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?” I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest: They also serve who only stand and wait.
A Discussion of the Poem by two Scholars of English Literature
Joanne Diaz and Abram Van Engen
About John Milton
John Milton (1608-1674) was an eminent English poet, writer, and civil servant hailing from London. He is best known for his magnum opus "Paradise Lost," considered one of the greatest works in English literature. Despite grappling with blindness in his later years, Milton's literary prowess remained undiminished. Alongside his poetic endeavors, he was a staunch champion of political and religious liberty, expressing his convictions through persuasive essays and pamphlets. His profound contributions to literature and ideas have left an enduring impact, shaping our understanding of the world.
An Interpretation of the Poem
“When I Consider How My Light is Spent” is a reflection on his blindness and how it affects his relationship with God. The poem can be interpreted in different ways, but one possible meaning is that the speaker is struggling to understand God’s purpose and plan for him, as he feels that his blindness prevents him from using his talents and serving God effectively. He wonders if God expects him to work despite his lack of light, or if he will be punished for hiding his talent. However, he also hears a voice of patience that tells him that God does not need his work or his gifts, but only his obedience and faith. The speaker learns that God is a king who has thousands of servants who do his will, and that he can also serve God by simply standing and waiting for his guidance. The poem suggests that God is understood as a sovereign, benevolent, and mysterious being who does not judge people by their outward abilities, but by their inner devotion and trust in him. The poem also implies that God has a different way of measuring time and value than humans do, and that he has a plan for everyone, even those who seem to be suffering or disadvantaged. The poem is a testimony of the speaker’s faith and humility in the face of his blindness, as well as his hope and confidence in God’s grace and mercy."
Standing and Waiting: A Process Appreciation
Above you find a sympathetic interpretation of John Milton's "When I Consider How My Light is Spent." Open and relational theologians do not find it easy to respect the idea that God has a plan for people's lives, or that God demands obedience, or that God is a sovereign, mysterious being who judges people by their trust in "him." Often they, we, can be quite intolerant of such ideas, pretending that our ideas are quite superior.
Nevertheless, for some people in specific circumstances, classical theistic beliefs can serve as a source of strength and contribute to their spiritual development. Different theological perspectives can offer unique insights and benefits to individuals, and it is essential to respect and appreciate diverse perspectives.
Take Milton. The idea that God could have prevented his blindness but chose not to, entails a belief in divine providence, where God's ways are beyond human comprehension. There may be reasons behind events that he cannot fully grasp. This adds a layer of mystery and humility to his faith. And Milton's discovery that God measures time and value based on inner dispositions rather than outward actions emphasizes the importance of one's character and inner life. The idea of "waiting and patience" as valuable spiritual gifts resonates with the idea that personal growth and spiritual maturity may come from enduring challenging circumstances with faith and resilience.
Do these four virtues - a sense of mystery, humility, inwardness, and endurance - arise with help from or despite Milton's classical views of God.
Joanne Diaz and Abram van Engen read the poem as involving both the help and the anger. On the one hand, at the beginning of the poem Milton is angry at God for having caused his blindness. The line “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?” is Milton's voice, not God's. He is challenging God. But then another cosmic voice, that of patience, chastens his anger. He realizes that God does not need his labor but rather his endurance, which itself is a form of service to God. To stand and wait is to be still and to serve in the stillness, which is itself a form of obedience. Standing and waiting is a state of awareness in which there is attention, openness to ambiguity, and no clear resolution. It involves a letting go as well as holding on.
Does God speak in the poem? Perhaps so, perhaps not. It is not clear that patience is God's voice. It may be Milton's voice, or a combination of Milton's and God's voice: an act of co-creativity. What is clear is that patience has the upper hand, and offers a way of dealing with life and with God. As a process theologian, I like to think that patience is God's voice and Milton's voice, together.
People's beliefs and ways of thinking about God can vary significantly. For some individuals, a belief in an all-powerful and potentially controlling God can provide a sense of comfort, security, and direction in life. Such beliefs may offer a framework for understanding the world and finding meaning in difficult situations. For others, such a belief can be harmful and destructive. And for some, Milton, the belief may be in process, both challenging and comforting, both problematic and helpful, at the same time.
Content and Context
The need among open and relational (process) theologians is to recognize that the value of beliefs in God and about God lie, not simply in the content of the ideas, but in how they function in people's lives. This is true of open and relational approaches as well as classical ideas. Milton's poem is a reminder that "truth" is not simply in ideas, but in how we live, and that, in some circumstances, standing and waiting is the most beautiful thing a person can do. Even the God of open and relational theology, even the God of amipotence not omnipotence, can call us, sometimes, to stand and wait, not because God causes and controls the circumstances, but because standing and waiting are the best and only option for the situation at hand.
In process theology providence lies in the fact that, whatever happens in our lives, there are fresh possibilities for response derived from God and tailored to that situation. God wants the best for us. This includes circumstances of illness, of going blind. The fresh possibilities are to respond with courage and with trust that, even when circumstances obstruct whatever Talent we had, some kind of consolation is at hand and perhaps some kind of hope. Difficulties in life, including illness, can be a context for creative transformation, for awakening to deeper truths.
For some people, this awakening can be enriched by open and relational (process) understandings of God: the idea that God does not know the future in advance, that God does not exercise unilateral power, that difficult circumstances are not part of a divine plan. But for some, John Milton for example, other ways of thinking about God provide a context for such an awakening.
There is no need to be a fundamentalist. No need to so prioritize one way of thinking about God that others are quickly dismissed as "bad theology." The better option is to stand and wait: that is, to be still and listen for a while. Listen to how given ideas of God are functioning in people's lives. It is certainly true that sometimes classically theistic ideas function in destructive ways. But it is also the case that open and relational ideas might likewise function in less than ideal ways, if not also destructive. There are people who, amid great difficulties, need to feel that God is in control even as they aren't. They need to feel that there is a plan. Open and relational ideas can be, for them, harmful not helpful.
The need in life, in times of health as well as illness, is to approach the world in a listening way, open to ambiguity and fluidity. Milton's poem is a friend to that approach.