Sunday, October 31, 2010

All Hallows Eve

Surprisingly, many people don't seem to know that the Halloween we associate with kids and candy has serious implications--or even what the word itself means. So much for the loss of Christian tradition.

Today is the eve of All Hallows or All Saints Day, followed by All Souls Day, the Dead of the Dead, not just in Mexico but throughout the orthodox (Catholic) world. If we laugh at skeletons and the scary part of dying on the eve, we honor the dead with prayers on the solemn days that follow. I have always found Nov. 2 especially moving and important, in part because it is ushered in, even here in Florida, with dying leaves, a reminder of life's endless cycle of birth and death.

There is something poetic and reflective in this time of year.

So it was appropriate that I attended a funeral yesterday. The priest read, "Life is not ended but changed." As I looked at the urn containing the ashes of the lively writer known as Edward Hayes, I had to reflect: is death mainly a change, a metamorphosis--or more of a continuation? We carry a bit of eternity with us, the divine presence within us, and when the body is no longer needed, the soul continues in that mysterious realm from which no traveler returns. Perhaps that's what the church's prayer means.

When I came home, I thought about my own funeral, as I often do after attending memorial services, and wrote a draft of a eulogy, added to the file I keep called "Last Things." I want to be sure that whatever clergyman presides at my rites goes beyond the usual comforting words to talk about who I really am and what I did and believed in. I have also outlined the music to be used. It's called leaving nothing to chance.

And like Halloween and the days that follow, doing this isn't at all morbid. I look forward to the great change--and the great love that awaits me.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Listening to Myself

In today's mail, the November issue of 'Liguorian' magazine arrived with an article on listening that I wrote 18 months ago. It's called "Listen, Pray, Love."

As I read the printed version, with its new title and fancy design, I had the strange sensation of being someone else, as if the words and ideas I created last year were the work of another self. Maybe this was the result of the considerable editing that the article underwent: whole paragraphs were cut; others were moved. The result is better, tighter, over all. But seeing this new version came as a surprise.

We grow fond of our own carefully wrought drafts and forget that every piece of writing can be improved (mainly by reducing wordiness).

The other, more important point I discovered on seeing my article in print was to reflect on the main point: the lack of good listening I continue to observe in so many quarters. It's not that people who talk a lot but rarely stop to listen are entirely egocentric; it's just that their tension, and their habits, don't let them stop long enough in the rush of ideas and words so that they can pay attention to the person they're talking to.

It takes rare traits--patience and skill in listening--to give another person good attention. Most of us are in a terrible hurry; God, Kazantzakis wrote, is never in a hurry. Life unfolds as it must and can't be rushed.

But we, in our impatient rushing, upset this basic rhythm of life. The result is not mere miscommunication or frustration but a failure of love, of the communion between two individuals that comes only out of patient attention.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Autumnal Reflection

If I could count all the bodies I've seen dragged out of rivers or lakes, all those corpses stretched out under sheets in various morgues, all those shot, stabbed, strangled, poisoned, blown up or killed more slowly, you'd think I'd be used to death and would fear it less.

These fictional deaths, however gruesome and realistic they seem in films or on the page, remain ultimately a contrivance. The real thing is always a shock.

Just to read or hear that someone you know has died, even someone who's led a long life, is startling: it happened this week when Ed Hayes died at 86, a writer for the Orlando Sentinel. Suddenly, he, that unique, gentle, wise person, no longer exists. Perhaps I should say he no longer has a body. Whatever self remains is unknown, unlocalized. Gone is the person with his unique voice, face, consciousness, memory.

The shock always involves my own recognition that I, too, will disappear, along with all the memories of what I have seen and done.

But, though consciousness ends, my spirit will live and that too, I believe, is real, disembodied and vague though it is. I don't need a body to exist outside of time and space. Some essential part of me, the divine spark, will endure in an eternity that is unknown.

At this time of my life, I should be discarding things, the way I disposed of old files today and some dusty items from the utility room. Yet I continue to buy and consume and live, planning trips and purchases, pushing the fear of the great unknown aside so that life can take over. I try to live in the now.

It has been said that the idea of never dying, of living on indefinitely in this world with all its horrors as well as delights, has little appeal. So I should look forward to the great casting off of this mortal coil, even though I don't imagine "heaven" as a place of endless delights.

Quite by coincidence today, as I threw away old papers, a fragment of a poem by Par Lagerkvist (trans. by Auden) fell to the floor. I read:

"Some day you will be one of those who lived long ago.
The earth will remember you, just as it remembers the grass,
And the forests, the rotting leaves.
Just as the soil remembers,
Just as the mountains remember the winds.
Your peace shall be as unending as that of the sea."

Saturday, October 16, 2010

History without Medication

How different history would have been if certain leaders had been given the medication they needed. I speak anachronistically, of course, since I am preparing to give a talk next week about "The Lion in Winter," the 1968 film about Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, which is filled with intentionally amusing anachronisms. The screenplay by James Goldman spits and sparkles with sarcasm and memorable wit.

The real Henry II (Plantagenet) seems to have been hyperactive, in today's language; the various chronicles record his restless energy, his refusal to sit down (except on a horse). He preferred to conduct business standing up, and was always in a hurry, moving from one castle to another (no permanent home) or from one battle to another. He died at 56, worn out, in 1189.

Peter O'Toole, who seemed destined to play this king (twice on film), roars and bellows while Katharine Hepburn as his troublesome wife Eleanor plots and schemes with their unlovely sons. Quite a family. Quite a movie.

I have also dipped into a new book, "The Tudors," by G. J. Meyer, whom I knew in college when we worked together on the St. Louis University News. The focus of his very ambitious book is on later kings named Henry: Henry Tudor and his notorious son, Henry VIII. How different history would have been if the latter had eaten more sensibly and had some of his egomaniacal tendencies controlled by more than alcohol.

This is not a point made by Meyer, who successfully portrays the Tudors as a far cry from the glamorized Hollywood figures we know almost too much about. Henry VIII here is seen as an arrogant, opinionated bully who ended up as a tyrant; he bankrupted England after acquiring more treasure than any of his predecessors.

What is sometimes called, mildly, the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s, was really a destruction, a wholesale slaughter of thousands of men and women and of the schools, hospitals, and homes for the poor and aged whose inmates were now turned loose.

This has always been for me one of the worst events in English history: destroying libraries and art treasures as well as a way of life, insisting on everyone believing what the king believed. Henry insisted on conformity even while causing a division and confusion in religious belief and practice that continue centuries later to haunt his realm, setting Catholics against Protestants--and all to satisfy his colossal ego.

I don't know if history is essentially biography, as Carlyle said in the Victorian era, but the power of an unbalanced individual, unchecked, has wreacked havoc on the world in other eras. Why is such power unchecked? In many cases, like Henry VIII's, fear is the answer. Tyrants establish reigns of terror.

Meyer in his huge popular history of the Tudors has made this clear.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Needless Worries

Tim Parks has written a lively biography of the Medici banking empire of the Italian Renaissance.

As usual in my reading, I find one or two sentences that leap out at me and demand to be saved. One refers to the longest-lived of the dynasty, Cosimo de' Medici (1389-1464), who, like several other famous people who lived long lives, was a hypochondriac.

Here's the sentence from Medici Money that resonated for me:

"Ever in a hurry, he grew old fearing he would die young." Cosimo died at 75 at a time when 50 was considered old.

Now that I have reached, as of yesterday, the age of three-score and ten, I can breathe a sigh of relief that I have not collapsed, as I often felt sure I would, and been rushed to the hospital, there entering the "undiscovered country" from whose region "no traveler returns," as Shakspeare's Hamlet says (odd because of the presence of his father's ghost, a presumed traveler from beyond).

It has never comforted me that my parents lived into their early eighties or that I have always been physically strong and healthy. I have convinced myself from an early age that any problem I developed in my body was life-threatening and a cause for major alarm. I could not imagine living into the 21st century: too unreal.

It seems comical now to recall these anxious moments, the products of a lively imagination, and to see that fear magnifies the ordinary into the urgent and dire.

Fear of death has always been strongly felt in my life. I think now it is lessening a bit as I reflect on how far I have come. I meditate on moving from darkness to light, and I read some of the many reasssuring words from saints and sages.

One of my favorite statements comes from John of the Cross, the Spanish mystic and poet of the 16th century: "I don't know what lies on the other side; I only know that a great love awaits me."

I pray that I continue to have such a high level of knowing.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Death and Ireland

Just recently, I learned of the fine work of John O'Donohue through the DVD "A Celtic Pilgrimage." This film has tempted me to return to the west of Ireland to see more of the wild and ancient landscape that made him who he was.

The sad news--and there is always something sad about Ireland--is the John died at 52 just over two years ago. He left behind a beautiful legacy of poems and books and people whom he influenced. He wrote, "The greatest privilege of a human life is to become midwife to the birth of the soul."

He spoke eloquently of death, as if he were aware that his life would soon come to an end: Death, he said, is an invitation to freedom, a great letting go. "If you really live your life to the full, death will never have power over you." We can stop fearing it, he believed, if learn to let go of things, living spiritually with greater openness and generosity.

As I think back to the unforgettable Irish landscape on the Dingle peninsula, with its ancient stone huts, you know without being told that you are in a land with a continuous civilization going back 9,000 years, one recorded in stones of various shapes and colors taken from the earth to build walls, forts, churches, castles, and tombs. These stones, most of them born several hundred million years ago, bear witness to the millions who died of starvation, especially in the 19th century, and of the countless farmers (including my maternal ancestors) who fled that rocky terrain to the corners of the world.

John O'Donohue gave testimony to this land and its enduring power. I wish I'd met him earlier.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Faith and Politics

I discovered this tidbit of news on the Internet today and assume it happened: When Michelle Obama visited Spain this past August, she visited a community of Salesians in Ronda. There she said that her husband "always carries a picture of Mary Help of Christians in his wallet" and that the family is devoted to her.

This intrigues me not because Obama might be a crypo-Catholic but that, for personal reasons, he has not made much of his Christian faith. Only when asked in recent weeks has he indicated his beliefs. No wonder some people believe he shares his Muslim father's religious heritage.

The Obama team has been reluctant to publicize what then candidate Obama wrote in his autobiography: that he attended two schools in Indonesia, one of them a Catholic school, St. Francis of Assisi, led by a Dutch priest. Maybe this was the source of the religious picture he carries. Only later, in Chicago, did he join a Christian church and receive baptism.

This reluctance to go public with the president's religious beliefs would be understandable in ordinary times, given the problems that mixing faith and politics have historically caused. But these are not ordinary times: millions of Americans want to believe either than the president is not a native-born American, and thus illegitimate, or that he, with that exotic African name, is a Muslim, not "one of us." In other words, they hate the man and his policies and will defy reason to justify their feelings.

Somtimes these right-wing smears anger or sadden me since they smack of the kind of bigotry once levelled against Catholics in this country; sometimes these smears have to be taken with a patient smile of tolerance because of the misinformation or willful ignorance they reflect.

The White House could do more to make Barack Obama's colorful background clearer.