Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Month of the Dead

No man, no matter how talented or learned, can fully appreciate genuine leisure unless he understands the after life. In heaven, we will have perfect leisure, and we need to know this in order to understand how to use our time here; and in purgatory we will have a kind of imperfect leisure, and in that we will realize how we failed to use our time on this earth.
Both in heaven, until after the general judgement, and in purgatory throughout, we will not have bodies. No senses. No eyes, no ears, no tongues, no skin. No imagination, either. In a sense, we get to be like the angels, finally: living, knowing, understanding, only through our intellects and wills.
Such a supposedly rarified modus operandi should be a cause for celebration. I mean, can we really be equal to all those spirits who have been around almost forever, nearly as omniscient as their Maker, and who, above all, have never been utterly stupid, wretchedly embarrassed, and in no need of the confessional? Nice work, if you can get it, that's for sure.
Well, nice work in heaven. Damned uncomfortable in purgatory, and unthinkable in hell, where, let me remind you, God once put my sorry ass, along with the rest of me.
Actually, he's done it more than once, although the subsequent immersions were brief, as I was by than no longer in mortal sin and the strict logic of His own thinking allowed Him to inflict only a brief participatory reflection on Protestant theology. (Brief, but still bloody uncomfortable) I was reading some Ralph Connor on of these occasion. Ralph Connor,although an entertaining novelist, and much featured on my grandparents' bookshelves, was a victim of the ridiculous excesses of Luther and Calvin and thus little qualified to be discussing the judgements of Christ. But the less theology men actually know, the quicker they rush to declarations more "infallible" than any successor of Saint Peter would dare to make.
This is the condition of living among the world, the flesh, and the devil that make novelists so useful, simply because no story can ever proceed well unless, through the dialogue among its characters, it reflects the reality of the human situation, caught between heaven and hell, limited day by day, even hour by hour, by the vicissitudes of life on earth, and reflecting on the passing of time and events with a depth neither historian, journalist, or film-maker/playwright can hope to equal. Each of the talents, or charisms, has its own special contribution, and the novelist's contribution is depth in its most profound sense, because only the novelist, being also a theologian if he is really up to the mark, has a full hold on silence. Journalism and film, for all their uses, are full of noise, and not even Henri Daniel Rops, and most readable and lovable historian of the Faith, can devote a full forty pages to the significance of a single Sunday afternoon in the household of a saint.
From the summer of 1959, in the weeks after my incredibly literate beloved and I were married, I mostly remember two writers: John of the Cross, from the copy of "The Ascent of Mount Carmel" she had given me as a wedding present, and Malcolm Lowery, author of a novel then getting a lot of notice from the academic community, "Under the Volcano". I actually never read the book in its entirety, although much later I did see the movie starring Anthony Andrews and company, and also the documentary of Lowery's troubled life. Like my late brother, he was an alcoholic.
But I did register great respect within myself for Lowery's opening lines, which were wonderfully simple, completely satisfactory according to the requirements of exposition, and referred to the Mexican way of celebrating November 2, the feast of the souls of the dead. Oh God in Heaven, I wondered, when will I ever get to write something so significant?
Twenty-one years later the answer came, and my author's field of observation had most definitely been moved up a notch or two: I opened my perambulatory narrative not by talking about souls headed for punishment, but about those in the short route to glory, those who knew perfection as well fitted as a pair of handcrafted boots, even up to possession of the Transformation in Christ, as the mystics know it.
And this time around, I am moved to get on with some pertinent studies of the angels and how they affect the life of individuals, especially individuals fortunate enough to be aware of the presence of these most interesting companions, counselors, rescuers.
This morning at the mass for all saints, I was particularly aware of how the angels are included in the reference to the holy men and women. I have never been more aware. This being the month it is, dedicated to the holy souls and their relief in, or relief from, the halls of purgation, I had been intending to concentrate on them. But the angels seem determined to insert themselves as well into my daily considerations of the parish, the town, the world, and the universal Church. The chapters of the latest blog are part of their reasoning for this richer than usual manifestation of the winged ones, but I suspect they have other reasons, perhaps even more concrete, for showing themselves so much.
All this confirmed, I think, by the Transformation coming for a lengthy visit at the end of Mass, although none of it was inspired by the external manifestations of liturgical music or clerical spirit.


Southview said...

"No senses. No eyes, no ears, no tongues, no skin. No imagination, either."
Ken, if we have no conscious then how do we even realize we are dead? How can one suffer or rejoice if one isn't conscious of that fact? Then it doesn't matter because we are just in a state of non-dreaming sleep with nothing but nothingness and no awareness! So what is all the fuss about?

Anonymous said...

I read "Under the Volcanoe" while I lived in your household. I can still remember the sense of hope of redemption I felt upon finishing this amazing novel. Lowry died under tawdry circumstances but he wrote a magnificent and inspired piece of writing. I still remember the last words of that novel. Thirty or more years later. Lowry's novel was ultimately a prayer. In the best sense.