October and November in these mountains often seem to me a time of melancholy and bereavement, of Demeter grieving the loss of Persephone, the good earth receding into itself. In Look Homeward, Angel, Thomas Wolfe, who grew up less than a mile from here, and who lies buried around the corner, connected October, the month in which his brother Ben died, with mortality and the tomb: “we shall not come again. We never shall come back again. It was October, but we never shall come back again.”
My melancholic mood today brought to mind another piece of writing, an essay from With Love and Prayers. Here F. Washington Jarvis, an Anglican priest who for many years served as headmaster of Boston’s Roxbury Latin School, recounts the story of another headmaster approached by a mother about the direction of her son’s education:
“Are you preparing Henry for a political career?” she asked Alington.
“No,” he said.
“Well, for a professional career?”
“No,” he replied.
“For a business career, then?”
“No,” he repeated.
“Well, in a word, Dr. Alington, what are you here at Eton preparing Henry for?”
“In a word, madam? Death.”
Despite our lust for violence and death in the movies, many Americans don’t handle death well, particularly when we contemplate our own demise. I’m not even sure whether many of us would understand all the ramifications of Dr. Alington’s comment: to discern, and then to live, a noble life, to recognize unflinchingly that this life will end, to seek a good death.
Our Catholic Faith goes to great lengths to succor the dying and their loved ones. The Sacrament of Confession allows us at our own death to meet our Lord in a spirit of reconciliation. The Sacrament of the Sick helps us greet death not as some obscene adversary, but as the gatekeeper to a new land. With Her understanding of the communion of saints, the Church encourages prayers for the souls of the dead, reassuring us that such communication, so strange to the understanding of some of our Protestant cousins, possesses an efficacy extending beyond the grave. We remember our dead at every Mass, and though we don’t celebrate the Day of the Dead with chocolate skulls and picnic lunches like our Mexican kin, we nonetheless set aside November 2 as All Souls Day, when we recollect the departed with special prayers.
Of course, Alington clearly had more than sacraments in mind when uttering his acerbic comment. He meant, I think, that he was teaching his young charges how to die by teaching them how to live. Would not the man who has lived truly be prepared to face the reality of death? Here, too, the Church offers guidance and help, having spoken through her saints, philosophers, and theologians about the good life, a life centered not only on rectitude but on a deep and abiding joy.
One of your priests, Fr. Ray Williams, understands this idea, this joy found in a rollicking Catholic life. He has encouraged parishioners to explore the fullness of Catholic living, to seek out the pleasures provided by marriage, love, sports, and true leisure. By hiking, reading great books, cooking delicious meals, and drinking rich red wine, Father Williams inspires his parishioners and spreads his enthusiasm for these passions among the young.
Some priests, however, overlook the encouragement and direction their parishioners need in this area. Our Church excels in urging charity for the poor, justice for the oppressed, and love for our neighbors, and these are indeed all worthy goods deserving of our attention, yet have we not in some way lost sight of the needs of parishioners themselves? Why do we hear so few sermons promoting the joys—and yes, the sheer adventure—of living life to the hilt as Catholics? We find such enthusiasm for the Catholic way in the saints, men and women living and dead whose lives shine like lights in the darkness for the rest of us, yet how much greater might the impact of our Faith be if we became lights ourselves, if we understood how Christian prayer, precept, and practice can change the way we see our world, how such a sense of adventure can convert this old, beaten-up globe, what Hopkins called “seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil” into a palette of vibrant colors?
Perception transforms us. Interpretation colors reality. Once, an English mother on holiday with her daughter missed the train that would take them on the next leg of their journey. The little girl burst out crying. “Our trip is ruined,” she said.
“Quite the contrary, dear,” her mother said, brushing away her daughter’s tears. “Our trip just became an adventure.”
From what I know of you, Your Excellency, you clearly live each day as an adventure in faith. I pray that you and your good priests find a way to inspire adventure in the rest of us.
To the hilt,