Part of my time at Rush University Hospital in Chicago on Monday was spent having a psycho-social evaluation. The young and delightful Ph.D who interviewed me asked how I would get through all that follows. I answered “my faith.” Now by that I did not suggest that I feel or think that God has singled me out for special treatment. Of course that might be true. Women and men have been so “elected” since the beginning of time. But rather like pretensions to the prophetic charism, the suggestion is best left alone except perhaps in the judgement of others! Rather, my faith enables me to suggest that God includes me in his love, despite myself, my sins and failings, and thus in the company of the faithful, who no one may number or identify. God knows. Whatever happens, God is and therefore I am. If I am wrong, when I draw my last breath I won’t even have the luxury of admitting my “foolishness”. But I am sure that I am not wrong.
Now I don’t base this conviction on such thoughts as regarding life itself as a cruel joke if there is nothing beyond. I’ve made my fair share of ridiculous decisions and wretched actions, but I’ve also experienced great beauty and the marvels of forgiving love from those I’ve hurt and disappointed. There’s beauty in that too, a beauty worth living for. Music, literature, architecture (some of it!), friendship, laughter make life worth living and worth the living. So even if the way we regard life is diminished terribly if we have no belief, it would be still worth it. Even people who experience lives the rest of us might regard as hopeless, dismal and tragic, recognize that living it is somehow important. True some give up, just can’t hang on anymore, and that is a state which should draw from us all our empathy.
So I have no time for sentimental piety which views this life as a vale of tears and the next as glory. There’s truth in both ideas of course. I believe that this life is as much in God’s purpose for us as the next. I like that line in Rite 2’s absolution of sin, which ends “and keep you in eternal life.” I believe strongly that we get it wrong when we draw a great distinction between life now and life then. After Baptism, there’s only one life, my life by the Spirit, through Christ, in the Father.
I’ve never thought that Heaven is a state of being far far away, or espoused Reformation ideas which cut us off from daily intimate relationship with the Church Eternal. This belief isn’t for me solely intellectual. When I pray and particularly at the Eucharist, I experience fellowship. There’s nothing spooky or esoteric about it. I just feel it.
Four years ago I was dying of pleural pneumonia. I began to smell Condor pipe tobacco in my hospital room. Condor isn’t sold in the US and I am not sure it is sold in England anymore. Only two people in my life who were close to me smoked that dark, strong tobacco, bought in a block, cut off and rubbed before inserting in the pipe. One was my maternal Grandfather, Walter Clarkson, a retired coal mine “deputy’ or foreman and the other his brother in law, Harry Graham, also a retired coal miner. They lived in a row of houses on New Street in Worsborough Dale, Yorkshire. They bought the houses in 1912 for five hundred pounds each. Both were gentle men and both loved me dearly. Their wives, sisters, were formidable little women with sharp tongues, best avoided when they were on the rampage. When I smelled that familiar tobacco in my hospital room in West Virginia I knew that these men still loved me although they both died when I was in my twenties. Like a majority of working class north Britons, these men were unchurched, except for baptisms, weddings and funerals, as were their forensically Roman Catholic wives. I know that God has forgiven that omission in their lives. Neither disbelieved. Church was for their “betters.”
Each evening, before going to sleep, I pray for those I have met during the day, and then for my family and relatives by name, my colleagues and friends come next and finally I get to the departed, for whom I pray and whose prayers I ask for. Included are my parents, uncles and aunts, a growing number of cousins, my grandparents, great uncles and aunts, and also some priests and one or two bishops who have helped me along the way. I tell you this not to blow my spiritual trumpet; far from it. But, you see, I’m not suggesting that these people need “saving”, but as they love me, I love them too. True I’ve known a few people, mostly church people but others notable atheists who did not seem to be able to flinch at hurting others. I can’t judge them although I can lament their actions. But the state and quality of their future, even if they elect to live apart from God willfully and cruelly, is God’s business. Love can’t abide unlovingness, that’s what judgement eventually means, but God is that love, that judge. Is there Hell? Here and Jesus taught “there” too. But a faith that delights in that distinction is a depleted one and I think God will eventually give harsh people, particularly harsh Christians, a taste of their own medicine, even if only for a terrible moment at their end/beginning.
Perhaps it is because I am now “old”, but those we number in the Communion of Saints are my companions, and that is not merely those who get in stained glass windows with dinner plates behind their heads, but all the faithful departed, those in whom God has faith, to whom was given faith, who lived faithfully as best they could and who touched others, often unconsciously, with a love beyond themselves and their capabilities. Because this is true for me and I hope for you, this life is worth living because ordinary beauty “in God” takes upon itself a quality which does not depend on our receptive mood, but which illuminates even our “down” periods.
So I face what now begins when the port is inserted in my vein tomorrow knowing that I have the thoughts and prayers of so many of you, for which I am so grateful and humbled, the prayers of the greater Church which surrounds me and as a penitent by grace in communion with God through the coming, passion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus my King.
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