Friday, November 27, 2015

I'm Going to Die

As November, a time for prayers for the faithful departed, draws to a close and Advent, a time for consideration of the Second Coming, draws nigh, it benefits us to think more carefully about our own lives, our use of time, and how the good Lord will judge us when our number is called and we cry ne me perdas illa die.

I had the unusual experience of walking through a cemetery near one of my normal haunts, Cafe Pretensé. I had not been in a cemetery in years. The ones I knew in my home area in Connecticut were almost all religious, affixed either to old Congregationalist churches or explicitly Catholic ones. The passing of years imbued the headstones with a mossy dignity befitting of an angel or a crucifix, whatever religious iconography had been selected as a memorial for the departed, so his loved ones could remember him until they finally stopped making their once-a-year visits and all remembrance of that individual had passed to ashes. This graveyard did not evoke the same ethos. Headstones, some looking quite expensive, reminded me of just how much effort people expend on creating meaning in their lives while ignoring the greater meaning.

At least a third of the graves in this cemetery bore Freemasonic imagery, the square and the compass. Others had more entertaining icons of life: guitars, musical notes, a Bible; one entire headstone was a comically proportioned fish flapping about in a sea of stone. These images are not necessarily who these people were, but who they tried to be and who they wanted to be remembered as being.

We are children of God, made in His image and His likeness, possessing a mind and a will, but, like the lower animals, a body as well. Through Adam we are fallen and flawed. Nothing will raise us from that state except the waters of Baptism and the embracing love of Christ. The state of the man outside the Church is not that of Calvinistic wretchedness. Privately I would describe the average man of irreligion to be an unfulfilled person. Many of material success are content, many are not. None, in my experience, are ever very satisfied, even those who get their proverbial kicks by dominating the politics and associations of a work environment. In the lower realms of the socio-economic ladder, fissiparous activities—strange vacations, poor music, substances—perform the same function. Very few of the self-described "spiritual" people of today spend time meditating on the source of their displeasure, merely assuming that it originates in an unmet goal rather than an unmet person, the Life Bestower.

I have always harbored a mild sympathy, but never an affinity, for romantics. Fr Chadwick spends considerable time promoting Romanticism, although I suspect his conception of it and my own differ. The Romantics were soul-searchers who felt that the old social trappings of art and religion had failed them, and who could not accept the modern paradigm of business and material success. Some of them seemingly yearned for a simpler, more adventurous past (considerable American literature in this mode) while others proactively repelled rationalism, all the while too influenced by modernity to embrace the mysticism of the Christian age. There were Christian Romantics; Newman may have been one of them, at least until he went through disillusionment and accepted the reality of the Church. Romanticism was not an explicitly Christian movement, but it may have been the last trend in the West that promoted implicitly Christian ideas about nature, art, literature, morality, and friendship. They were the last genuine soul-searchers before the middle class was born and dissuaded the lost sheep from searching for their Shepherd.

Admirable, but myopic?
I recently finished Hemingway's first bestseller, A Farewell to Arms. At some level I think Hemingway, despite his propensity to philander, was a genuine lost soul who, like those resting in the graveyard down the road from Cafe Pretensé, pursued happiness when he should have pursued satisfaction. Hemingway was involved in both World Wars, in no small part due to boredom, he lived in pre-Castro Cuba where he enjoyed big fishing, and he loved bull fighting. War, taunting raging animals, and oceanic hunting bring one to the point of death where one shivers with life. Had he been born a century earlier and on the other side of the Atlantic, Ernest Hemingway may well have been a Romantic.

The fact is that I am going to die. No, I am not in immediate danger of death, but I will, at some point, be just as dead as those in the cemetery near Cafe Pretensé. Relatives will dote flowers on my grave for a year after my death. Then it will be once a year. The following generation will forget me and any strange sculpture on my headstone. I will be quite dead and quite in the ground. And none of it will matter. At the moment of my death I will stand before the "awesome judgment seat of Christ" and have to answer to the two greatest commandments. Did I love the Lord God with my whole heart and whole soul? And did I love my neighbor as myself? I may turn into a reputable bull fighter, guitarist, or fisherman, but none of it will save me on the last day, nor will it give me satisfaction in this life, only moments of happiness.

When Newman came into the Church he was unwelcomed by the Ultramontanists and never as happy as he was in his naive days as an Anglican, when everything ancient was new. In the Church Newman did find the continuance of the "organ and oracle.... of a supernatural doctrine." He was home. He found happiness with the Oratory and with the Church he found the path to eternal life in the One he sought since childhood.

This reflection may all be for naught. My last visit to a night club convinced me that there are still some lost souls in the world, but the great majority have been conditioned to dissolution, [un-]comfortably numb to greater realities. Eventually all of us will die and move to what comes next. Happiness on earth derives from things on earth. Satisfaction on earth descends from heaven.


  1. Thank you for this posting. It inspired an article in my own blog. Relax: romanticism is just as delicate to use as any other defining label. To me, it just gives a vague idea of a vague world view. A holy Advent to you...

  2. It astounds me almost every day that people are so willing to give so much attention to what is fleeting and so little attention to what is eternal. It is especially worrisome when this is the case for our loved ones.