O Death, Where is Thy… Tickle?

St. Paul in Prison. Rembrandt, 1627.

Death just isn’t what it used to be.  That is, if the conversation I heard the other day was any indication.  It was at a modest restaurant where a number of joined tables were accommodating a rather large family.  My ears shot up when I heard the odd phrase “bereavement team”.  Odder still was the seventyish, Italian woman saying it.  Trendy phrases like that are expected from soccer moms or deracinated chancery bureaucrats, not from an affection-oozing lady who could easily be pictured over an outsized dented aluminum pot stirring tomato sauce.  That wasn’t all.  This large ethnic woman, perfectly imagined praying at a Sacred Heart novena, began comfortably gabbing about a questionnaire required by the Liturgy Committee for Grandpa Tony’s Mass of the Resurrection.  Incongruities were flying.  It was as if Jimmy Durante had been delivering a lecture on Deconstructionist epistemology.  What was happening here?  Who turned that good Italian lady’s soul inside out?

As complex as Churchill’s definition of the Soviet Union – a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma – is the villain of that Italian lady’s anomaly.  It is a Modernism wrapped in secularism inside sentimentality.  This numbing error has taken not only holy doctrine hostage, but has done the same to the God-given web of noble emotions accompanying those truths.  After modernity impaled religion it knew its work had only begun..  It now had to reconfigure man himself.  He could no longer weep over Old Things like death or sin or disloyalty.  Man had become the New Man, or in a construal more suited to readers of a certain age, man had “come of age.”  Those New Men now weep over new things like intolerance or being judgmental or indifference to “difference”.  At one time the Church’s impregnable battlements protected us from such New Men.  No longer.  Those thick walls have been breached.  Our Italian lady is proof enough of the fissure.  It’s the old Italian woman on the outside, but it’s the New Man on the inside.

Only two generations ago men faced death as the Church did – with her ancient liturgy replete with glorious paradox, that eye-popping device that Chesterton explained as “truth standing on its head to attract notice.”  Men once sat close to their humanity, relishing all its mysteries, even ghoulish ones like death.  Glance again at Homer in the Iliad or Leonidas and his 300 at Thermopylae.  See what I mean.  But what were those paradoxical truths which Mother Church pointed to with her wise finger?  There were two:  death’s terror and Christ’s conquest.  Denying either is to be left with neither.  The Church began with the inescapable natural truth of death’s shattering tragedy:  one which was only an echo of the more primordial catastrophe of Adam’s Original Sin.  Death was part of the slime heaving from the festering swamp of Original Sin: unnatural, painful and utterly punishing, because it was decreed by God to be a punishment.   

For all of its fearfulness, the Church never cheated her children of death’s sublime, albeit mournful, reality.  As a Catholic brought his beloved into the arms of Mother Church for the final supernatural farewells of her Requiem Mass (properly called “requiem” because of the then, and even now, first words of the Introit prayer, “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine…” (“Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord…”), she looked for every opportunity to lecture about sin and its harrowing consequences.  For instance, after the Epistle, the choir would moan the piercing stanzas of the Requiem sequence Dies Irae, “Dies irae, dies illa/Solvet saeclum in favilla/Teste David cum Sybylla.”  (“Day of wrath and terror looming/Heaven and earth to ash consuming/Seer’s and Psalmist’s true foredooming.”)  This is certainly light years apart from the treacly therapeutic Muzak familiar to most Catholics today (I suppose some things are worse than death)..  Excising the grim stuff of death only results in producing papier-mâché men, able to speak only of lifestyle and never of life.  But bid man gaze at truth’s depths and you will find truthful men of great depth.

If Samuel Johnson was right in saying that nothing concentrates a man’s mind more than hanging, the Church knew it first.  She understands that nothing rouses our souls to existential clarity and fervent prayer more than death. Everything in the old Requiem Mass forced us to consider death and God’s judgment, Christ’s mercy and our complacency.  Enveloped in the Church’s ancient Requiem’s splendor, what man does not fall to his knees to pray both for himself and the deceased, now standing naked before Christ’s eyes?  The smarmy stanzas of On Eagle’s Wings simply shatter beneath this theological weight.  In the past, every distraction from those grand truths was chased away by the majesty of the Church’s Requiem.  All the senses of a Catholic were tutored by the mystery: he sat spellbound as he listened to the haunting Gregorian chant; stared uneasily at the eerie unbleached yellow funeral candles flanking the coffin; then was strangely consoled by the brooding black priestly vestments which gave fitting salute to the realities of man’s fallen condition.  Every symbol conspired in a profound wonder that acknowledged searing sorrow even as they refused to be conquered by it.

Yet through all that grim reality of death, the other side of the paradox revealed itself.  Christ shone through like some blazing horizon, glowing all the more brightly because of the liturgy’s carefully articulated dread.  Anything less airbrushes death’s terror and miniaturizes Christ’s victory.  The old Requiem palliated none of the stark edges.  Rather, it armed us with the grace to stand erect and carry their awful weight manfully.  Pity those who rob death of its metaphysical punch by dressing it in the epicene white folds of unctuous sweetness and light.  For them there is Flannery O’Connor’s stinging rebuke in A Memoir of Mary Ann, “In the absence of the Faith now, we govern by tenderness.  It is a tenderness which, long since cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory.  When tenderness is detached from the Source of tenderness its logical outcome is terror.  It ends in forced labor camps and the fumes of gas chambers.”  Slightly overwrought, you say?  Look at Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, with the inhuman atrocities of the futuristic committee acronymed N.I.C.E.  Or Huxley’s Brave New World, with its mummified humanity suckled at the teats of the Master State.  But leave fiction aside, just glance at what modern culture nonchalantly tolerates in the name of compassion.  Overwrought?  Hardly.

Even when we rightly pray to St. Joseph for that much desired happy death, there is still the paralyzing horror of separation.  Nothing can soften that agony, as St. Bernard of Clairvaux testifies when he weeps at the news of  the death of Gerard, his first companion in religion and a close collaborator in his work, and declares,

                                “You tell me not to weep?  My bowels are torn out;

                                  shall I have no feeling?  Nay, if I suffer, I do so with

                                  my whole being.  I am not made of stone;  my heart

                                  is not a heart of bronze.  I confess my woe.  It is carnal,

                                  you say?  I know that well for I know that I am a

                                  creature of flesh and blood, sold under sin, delivered

                                  unto death and subject to suffering.  What would you?

                                  I am not insensible to grief;  I have a horror of death,

                                  both for myself, and for my own.  Gerard has left me,

                                  and I am in pain;  I am wounded unto death.”

Alas, paradox again.  Hope in Our Lord’s mercy is sharpened even as death’s lessons are made more graphic.  Is this what Dorothy Sayers was trying to tell us when she wrote in Creed or Chaos?, “It is hopeless to offer Christianity as a vaguely idealistic aspiration of a simple and consoling kind; it is, on the contrary, a hard, tough, exacting and complex doctrine, steeped in a drastic and uncompromising realism.”  Tell that to the sunny priest giddily dispatching his bereavement teams, or commanding you to be happy at the next Mass of the Resurrection you attend.  Better yet, quote him Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman:  “We like to abandon ourselves to the satisfactions of religion; we do not like to hear of its severities.  The age, whatever its peculiar excellences, has this serious defect:  it loves an exclusively cheerful religion.  It is determined to make religion bright, sunny and joyous.”  Or, when he hollers about not being in the spirit of the “new liturgy”, show him Our Lord weeping over his friend Lazarus.  The spirit of the “new liturgy” must have passed Him by too.

When St. Paul thunders, “O Death, where is thy sting?” (I Cor 15:55), he admitted that it was a sting that death inflicts.  Modernity turns it into a tickle.  Bereavement teams and Liturgy Committees make what was once the solemn committal unto God’s throne of Judgment into a piece of Disney kitsch.  Lay people undoubtedly labor on these things with the very best intentions.  Little do they know that they are being used as props in the dehumanization of man, to say nothing of the trivialization of God. 

But what of the old Italian lady?  How can she prefer the grave assurances of the solitary priest to the gauzy hugs and smiles of a team?  Wouldn’t she quickly surrender the liturgist’s slickly bureaucratized questionnaire for a simple Rosary with Father Brown?  Of course, she would.  If only she could be left alone to be herself.  But modernity and Modernism won’t let her.  No surprise.  If they won’t leave death alone, how can old ladies stand a chance?

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