Never As Good?

With some regularity, I have a habit of listening to song lyrics addressing one topic, and seeing how they could be re-interpreted to address another.  In the song “Never As Good As The First Time” for example, pop-jazz singer Sade croons about how nostalgia for the past, the good memories and thoughts of what might have been, always seems better than starting over again with second chances.  “The rose we remember,” she sings, “the thorns we forget.”  I have always thought rather a nice turn of phrase.

Now, this is not merely an excuse for me to plant a song earworm in your head, gentle reader.  Rather, I would like you to consider whether in the present age, we increasingly look at the world around us as a series of compartmentalized experiences of either roses or thorns, when the truth is that both are essential parts of the whole.  This is true not only in the romantic, as this pop song points out, but also in the broader questions of life reflecting on society as a whole, and our role within it.

This weekend I had three separate, rather long conversations with three different friends in three different cities and time zones, about the question of living out one’s purpose in life. When one is no longer young but not old YET, as Mac and Katherine Barron like to put it on the “Catholic in a Small Town” podcast, certain doors are closed. It is almost guaranteed that if you are now over 30 and have never played tennis in years, you will not now be able to dethrone Roger Federer from the top of the heap. At the same time, you are not going to be toddling your way down the hallway on a Zimmer frame for many, many years yet, so to become despondent over this realization would be the height of self-obsession.

One thing which came to light during all three of these conversations was a common perspective of a sense of uncertainty about the future, as compared to what people experienced in the past. Grandfather started working for a certain company as a young man, and stayed there for decades until his retirement, when he received his gold watch and his pension. That world in many places is already long gone; those of us in Gen X or Gen Y will most likely never experience it.  Yet however much we may bemoan the death of some of the virtues which made Grandfather’s life seemingly more certain, we compartmentalize what he went through in the Depression and World War II.

This present life promises us only one absolute, unavoidable truth, and that is that there are always going to be barbarians at the gate. It may be illness, or heartbreak, or disappointment, but it will indeed come, with the ultimate reward of leaving this life entirely.  What has happened in the Western world is particular in the second half of the 20th century, is that a majority grew up not really knowing what it was like to be hungry and cold, stalked by disease, armies, or other predators.

This is why what we see going on in places like Ireland, Spain, or Greece is so shocking to many of us in the West, even though the kinds of misery we presently see are as nothing compared to what people in the Third World go through all the time, with no hope of relief.  It is also why the Third World in so many respects is much tougher than the First: for they expect disappointment, and while they hope they will make it through today, they have no illusions that they will be cheating suffering and death of their due.  We have grown too lazy in assuming that comfort is something we are entitled to, rather than privileged to receive.

Yesterday at mass Monsignor used the Gospel reading as a jumping-off point for the exploration of these ideas of uncertainty and suffering.  We are no doubt familiar with Christ’s rebuke of St. Peter who, shortly after declaring Jesus to be the Son of God, then takes Him aside to upbraid Him for talking about His forthcoming suffering and death.  Christ then turns on him and rebukes him in front of the other disciples, warning them that if they expected to be His followers, they were going to have to accept suffering.  In his homily, Monsignor pointed out that no one likes to talk about the experience of uncertainty and suffering, or ultimately death, but Christ tells us that it is in how we accept our trials that we prove our worth.

This was further echoed in the reading at Lauds this morning, for the great Jewish heroine Judith points out to her people in the midst of a terrible crisis that:

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God who, as he tested our ancestors, is now testing us. Remember how he treated Abraham, all the ordeals of Isaac and all that happened to Jacob. For as these ordeals were intended by him to search their hearts, so now this is not vengeance that God exacts against us, but a warning inflicted by the Lord on those who are near his heart.

Judith 8: 25-26, 27

Returning to Sade, who of course is speaking of romantic love in this song rather than about the overall purpose of one’s life, reflection on what might have been and what is “rightfully” ours is a deadly exercise.  Too many spend their lives trying to recapture a moment when everything seemed wonderful and new. Or they use the irritation of suffering and loss in their lives, in the mistaken belief that by so doing they are making some sort of pearl, when in reality they are merely creating an ulcer which will eventually perforate. The line between the formation of each of these is very slim, indeed.

There is of course nothing pleasant about experiencing pain, suffering, setbacks, and loss, but we will experience all of them. If you believe that you will have everything easy in your life from now on, you are exceedingly naive and ill-prepared for what lies ahead.  Better to stay focused on the task ahead, of using your gifts and abilities for the greater good of others, in recognition of and preparation for the life to come.  It may not always be as good as the first time one experiences that thrill of something good – a first dance, a first touchdown, a first job, a first apartment – but at least we will take the future as it comes, without staying stuck in the past.

Still from the video for “Never As Good As The First Time” by Sade

Learning Life from the American Cemetery

I was saddened recently to see the state of one of the historic cemeteries in my neighborhood of Georgetown, of which I became aware in a post by Topher Matthews over at The Georgetown Metropolitan. The Mount Zion United Methodist Church/Female Union Band Cemetery is located on 27th and Q Streets NW, here in the nation’s capital, and as you can see from the photograph is in rather a sorry state; a similar situation exists at the Holy Rood Cemetery on Wisconsin Avenue, just outside of Georgetown proper but owned by Georgetown University, which has let the place run to ruin. While graveyards may not be, for many of us, a place where we care to linger, their continued existence in large American cities serves both an educational and a moral purpose, worthy of our preservation.

One of the features of the urban landscape in many parts of the country is the old church graveyard, something which  European visitors have observed to me as being a particularly unusual historical survival. While cemeteries and churchyards containing graves are common in rural locations on both continents, in many cities in the United States and in the Old World beginning in the 19th century, they disappeared from downtown areas by being paved over or moved into the suburbs. Oftentimes this led to the creation of large, landscaped parks specially set aside for the purpose, such as the Montjuich Cemetery along Barcelona’s waterfront, or Highgate Cemetery in London.

There are certainly many logical, practical reasons why cemeteries are no longer located in the midst of inner cities, though their rarity is really not such a new development as is their near-total absence. The burial of most of the dead outside of city centers has always been a feature of human civilization. We can look for example at the magnificently decorated Egyptian tombs located in remote deserts; the various Mosaic laws regarding burial contained in the Torah; the funeral practices of the Ancient Romans, including the building of the catacombs as virtual cities of the dead; or the attempts by medieval towns during the Plague to keep the living and healthy away from the dead and dying, by sending the latter far away to die or be buried.

Yet even though most people were not buried in the centers of the towns in which they lived, there were always some cemeteries located in the hearts of our cities, whether inside of churches and hospitals themselves, or located on their grounds. Last week, for example, I wrote about some religious art created for a cemetery in Belgium, which was considered to be so exceptional that pilgrimages to visit it were encouraged by Rome; unfortunately, the art and the cemetery disappeared during the Napoleonic period. That disappearance, along with the disappearance of countless other urban gravesites from downtown areas, is a phenomenon that deserves to be questioned, for there does seem to be a rather curious political and sociological coalescence which has lead both to the removal of the graveyard from the city, and the rising tide of secularism.

Beginning with the Enlightenment, continuing under the development of secular, civil law in both its American and European versions, and finally through the coming to power of various strains of socialism, not only has religion been pushed out of the public square, but so has Death itself. The worship of God has been replaced, initially by the worship of man, and finally by the worship of the self. We do not want to be reminded of our mortality, by seeing the graves of those who were unable to escape their own, when there is so much hedonistic pleasure and self-indulgence which we can have today without giving a thought to what will happen tomorrow. The reader is certainly welcome to disagree with me, but I do wonder whether the removal and neglect of our cemeteries in urban centers is not one of the best indicators of the horrific level of selfishness we have sunk to in the present day.

For those of us who live and work and cities, where the focus tends to be on materialistic concerns such as the obtaining of wealth or power for personal gain, the visual presence of a cemetery can be a powerful witness of the inevitability of Death. No matter how successful we may become, in the end all will turn to rot and ruin; there is no way to prevent this. While focusing on that fact too much can lead to nihilism, or sitting in the closet cutting yourself whilst reading the “Twlight” saga, I believe there is something very beneficent about taking the time to remember that man is dust, and unto dust he shall return. A society which cannot face Death, cannot face old age, nor physical frailty, nor physical deformity, nor ugliness, nor poverty, nor suffering, with anything approaching charity, decency, or empathy.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with being successful, or having nice things, or wanting to look your best. Yet it is the spirit with which one views these things that we need to take issue, for none of it is going to keep Death away from the door, when the time comes. Death is, after all, the great leveler of all things, and Americans would be well-served by being reminded of this fact on a more regular basis.  I wonder how much of our time, talents, and treasure we waste trying to delude ourselves into thinking that we are never going to grow old and die: no doubt the reasonable dollar figure would be staggering.

Turning back to where we began, the very sorry state of these two graveyards in Georgetown certainly deserves our criticism. It is disrespectful to the memory of those who are buried there, but also indicative of a very unhealthy attitude toward Death on the part of those charged with the upkeep of these places.  And particularly given the fact that these are religious, rather than civic cemeteries, their respective religious communities should be scandalized by this inexcusable negligence.

On a more personal note, I would suggest that for my readers who are willing, take advantage of a visit to the cemetery you pass on the way to work or school, even if you do not have any connection with the people buried there. For one day, you will have a very obvious connection with them, whether you like it or not. Reminding yourself of that fact from time to time, even if only by a brief stroll through the grounds, may go a long way toward helping you gain some perspective, and a healthy dose of realism to counteract the bitter pill of contemporary selfishness.

Some of the toppled gravestones at Holy Rood Cemetery, Georgetown

Living an Abnormal Life

No doubt some of my readers have gone on a spiritual or business retreat. These day or weekend-long events are usually programmed with a schedule one is to follow, mixed in with time spent alone for reflection. They can be quite useful, though they can just as easily be little more than a sleep-over for grownups, where everything returns to normal fairly soon after the retreat ends, and nothing appears to have been learned or internalized.

Yet sometimes life puts us into retreat mode with no program whatsoever for us to follow, through circumstances such as illness, travel, or pure happenstance. At these times, we find ourselves withdrawn from the world without a retreat director to turn to, to provide us with some kind of structure. This is an opportunity for us, if we but take it, to get a real assessment of ourselves and where we are going. It should make us aware of the fact that life as we know it is not as normal as we like to think.

Like many of my readers in the U.S., I was off from work for several days due to Independence Day falling on a Monday. In my case, besides serving as lector at Sunday mass, and morning coffee each day at a local cafe, with a few, brief errands immediately thereafter, I spent much of the past four days on my own. True, I did have a long, chatty phone call on Sunday evening with an old friend, and of course e-mail and social media from time to time to respond to, but equally true was the fact that there was little in the way of real, social interaction with others – something that is definitely not normal for me.

When we are on our own for long periods of time, and have little other than our own thoughts rattling about in our brains, we become aware rather quickly of our own mortality, as well as our vulnerability. This is not normal for most of us. And it is why those who live in what seems like the peaceful reserve of the cloister do not have it as easy as we might like to imagine. Thinking about sin and death all the time is their “normal”; for us in the so-called real world, that seems “abnormal”.

Sometimes we have a false, romantic notion of how nice it must be, to read and pray all day long, without worrying about the outside world and all of its woe and strife. We do not appreciate that the men and women who choose to pass their lives in such an environment are battling evil in ways which most of us are ill-prepared to handle. If you ever spend several days with little outside contact, as the religious do every day, you will quickly come to discover that the world, the flesh, and the Devil have been lying in wait for just such a moment to all jump on you at once.

The laity have it different, of course. We think that even if we are on a retreat – intentional or otherwise – we know fairly soon we will return to what we perceive as normal, everyday life. If we are ill we will get better, or if we are bored we will get back to the office, or we will eventually arrive at our destination after being stuck in some transit point for hours or days.

The truth is that normal is not a combination of meetings, paying bills, arguing, after-work drinks, telling jokes, road rage, cleaning the pet poop, what’s for dinner, and so on. We are deceiving ourselves, or are being deceived, if we believe that these things are anything but transient. Opportunities for self-sacrifice, charity, and using God’s gifts they are, yes; but they are a means to an end, not an end in and of themselves.

The noise and distractions of daily life do little other than mask the fact that we are grappling with sin, and headed closer to death with each day that passes. The real, rather than perceived, “normal”, at least for those of us convinced of the immortality of the soul and the teachings of Christ and His Church, is going to be either Heaven and the Beatific Vision, or the torments of Hell. There is ultimately no other destination for us: it is our ultimate “normal”. The business of daily life is very good at distracting us from that fact, and to our peril.

And let’s be very honest with ourselves and admit that, much as we appreciate the opportunity which a temporary retreat from the world provides, we do not particularly like the things that start coming out when we are alone with ourselves through some type of enforced confinement. In those circumstances, to paraphrase the Psalmist, our sin is ever before us, and we perceive such a state as being abnormal. Nor do we particularly like reflecting on death, much as we do not want to pretend that it is not on its way, at any moment.

Yet the reflection that comes from being on one’s own is not only ultimately beneficial, it is the real normal. It pushes trivial things into the background, and reminds us both of our imperfections and our derelictions of duty to God and our fellow man. What is normal for our immortal soul at this stage in its existence is to try not to become fixated upon the passing and material aspects of the present life.  And the more we realize that fact, the more we will be able to live what the rest of humanity may perceive as an abnormal life – but one which is ultimately far more normal, based on a belief in the eternal, rather than trying to live a life based on the temporary, and the acquisition and management of things which crumble, rot, and pass away.

I would challenge those among my readers who find themselves too taken up with the noise and business of life to try to find some time – a few hours, a weekend – and to spend most of it in relative isolation and silence, to see what happens. You may be surprised by how much it puts things into perspective. And you may come away from it realizing that you have some changes that need making to your normal, everyday life.  The challenge of what the world will tell you is an abnormal life, but ultimately is the only true normal life for our immortal souls, awaits us.

St. Dominic, detail of “The Mocking of Christ” by Fra Angelico (c. 1440)
Museum of San Marco, Florence