Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Remembering in November

As much as I try to focus on the now, being mindful of what's happening in the present and not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, there's something about November that keeps tugging at me to reflect on those who have died.

Being a scavenger of other's ideas, I turn to Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian minister, and to the writer Robert Pogue Harrison. I have included quotes from both in my journal; both provide material for reflection on ideas I'm not sure I fully understand.

First, Harrison: Culture, especially language and literature, is a living memory of the dead. What we inherit in law, religion and other areas is authorized (authored) by those who have come before us. We follow in the footsteps of the dead.

And, he continues, we do the will of our ancestors, whether consciously or not, since the spirit of those who have died resides in the earth itself, which is a repository of deceased animals and men. (I think of the primeval coast of Ireland with its rocks and desolate beauty.)

Only the dead (this is the hard part) can grant us legitimacy; by ouselves, lacking a past, we are illegitimate. To be authentic, we must submit to the dominion of the dead, even if we rebel against it.

Not only are our words made up of buried roots and meanings, but our psyches are the graveyards of impressions, desires, and memories with their own afterlife. If we were to take away the residue that consitutes the seas, forests, and mountains, we would lose the spirit that moves in and across them.

I trust I am paraphrasing accurately a perceptive writer who is saying, essentially, that we can't be fully human unless we are connected to the past as it is embedded in everything in and around us. We can't develop as individuals on our own. We need a conscious awareness of how we got here. This seems widely divergent from the individualism that characterizes much traditional American thought.

For me, being connected with the past, especially in this month of All Souls, is to think of those who have died and who live myteriously on. We remember the saints, whether canonized or not, not only as they were but as they are now, says Buechner.

"Memory," he writes, "is more than looking back to a time that is no longer; it is a looking out into another kind of time altogether, where everything that ever was continues not just to be but to grow and change with the life that is in it still." Wow: mindblowing.

If we are able to understand the dead in new ways, does that mean they will come to understand us better? It's a great mystery, this business of eternity; yet I believe we are all connected, the living and the dead, in innumerable ways,and I am grateful to those writers who raise provocative questions, especially in this month when the Christian world prays for those who have died but somehow live on.

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