Eschatology: The Last Four Things
—The Penny Catechism
It is a widely accepted axiom among people in publishing circles that books about cooking and dieting routinely draw a far greater readership than any other category, save possibly that of sex. The one tells you what to make; the other says why you shouldn’t eat it. Books about death and dying do not make the same splash. I learned that hard lesson firsthand when, a few years back, I wrote a book on the subject, sales of which did not exactly take the literary world by storm. It is entirely possible, of course, that mine was so wretchedly written that nobody would want to read it. But I have dismissed that notion as unthinkable, leaving me to suppose that since no one really wants to think about either death or dying, even the most scintillating treatment is unlikely to succeed in persuading people to go out and buy the book.
In my case, this was dolefully confirmed when—placing a couple of copies in the hands of a kind and enterprising owner of a bookstore situated in a high-end section of town, I waited long months before even a single copy was sold (I suspect the owner bought it.)
What’s going on? Is there perhaps a connection between income and interest? Is it that the more affluent the neighborhood, the less appetite there is for reminders of losing it all—death being the ultimate impoverishment? Who wants a sneak preview?
Such a strange and perverse silence fills the air the moment the subject of death is brought up! While our pagan ancestors incessantly reflected on the nature of the next world, having wisely intuited the impermanence of this passing one, hardly any self-respecting modern appears the least bit interested in the hereafter. Respice finem—“look to the end”—is an ancient pagan anthem whose message Christianity embraced early on. Indeed, Jesus himself enjoined his disciples to watch and wait, mindful always of the End. “So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come” (Matthew 24:44). But for most enlightened folk, it is hardly the thing to which they care to think about. The irony, of course, is that by the time they finally do turn their minds to the end, it will very likely be the end. Pascal tells us: We run heedlessly into the abyss, after putting something in front of us to prevent our seeing it.
I can still vividly remember that splendid Edwardian tale of the Forsyte family, its members cozily ensconced in upper-middle-class complacence, which ran for years and years as The Forsyte Saga on Masterpiece Theatre. “When a Forsyte was engaged, married, or born,” noted its creator John Galsworthy, “the Forsytes were present.” And when one of them died, what then? Ah, but no Forsyte had ever died. “Death being contrary to their principles, they took precautions against it, the instinctive precautions of highly vitalized persons who resent encroachments on their property.”
We are all Forsytes now. And in light of the far-reaching extent of modernity’s flight from death—from the whole realm of that world beyond the wardrobe about which, for instance, C.S. Lewis spun his enchanting The Chronicles of Narnia—one has to ask in all seriousness whether the human hunger for heaven has become some sort of vestigial organ. Will the wings of the human spirit atrophy for want of use? To speak nowadays of our pilgrim status, of a promised homeland beyond the stars, of the travail of the world and hope for life after death, is to invite a blank stare of stupefaction among people who appear to have lost all relish for eternity.
Such silence surrounding the End exacts a heavy price. We surely know the “last act” will be bloody, however pleasant the balance of the play. None of us, including even the most vitalized of the Forsytes, is exempt from that final nightfall, through the silence of which we shall all some day pass. Naked and alone, admitting only one at a time, we shall all walk through death’s door. As Karl Barth writes:
Someday, a company of men will process out to a churchyard and lower a coffin and everyone will go home; but one will not come back, and that will be me. The seal of death will be that they bury me as a thing that is superfluous and disturbing in the land of the living.
It is a staple found in all of Shakespeare. “The worst is death,” he tells us again and again, “and death shall have his day.” And whence begins this great fall of night? Before even we are born, reports another inspired Elizabethan, who, like Shakespeare, saw the skull beneath the skin. That spellbinder, John Donne, in a sermon preached before the king, reports:
We have a winding-sheet in our mother’s womb, and we come into the world wound up in that winding-sheet; for we come to seek a grave….We celebrate our funeral with cries, even at our birth.
Asked once by an interviewer what bothered him most about life, poet Robert Lowell answered bitterly, “That people die.” “It is the blight man was born for,” announces the narrator of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ haunting poem “Spring and Fall” to the young child who has wandered innocently into the late autumn woods where, weeping but not knowing why, she watches as all the leaves die.
We must all die and so, like young Margaret, we are given over to grief at the loss even of the leaves since, in nature’s passing, we glimpse the clearest foreshadowing of our own. But we are not resigned to die—nor to suffer, or to remain always alone—and so we rage against the dying of the light. These things are a problem for us, an outrage even, against the heart of what it means to be human, which is the yearning to live always in communion with others and without pain. And because being human means, at the deepest level, to be always in relation to another—most especially to the One who is Wholly Other—then death, to the degree it shatters that necessary web of relation, represents the supreme and final affront. It is the most awful blight imaginable—which God, from the beginning, never intended to inflict.
So how might one escape this thing that rudely intrudes upon us, so utterly determined to destroy those we love? Who will unmask the pretensions of the fearful ruffian on the stair, as someone once described him, whose sudden appearance stains the opening pages of the Book of Genesis? Who will disarm Death? Only the One who suffered to enter a world already bloodied by sin is able to deliver us from death, indeed, from all the horrors that fall upon a race unredeemed by the grace of God.