by Howard Hain
Francisco Goya, “The Third of May, 1808 in Madrid”, 1814-15 (detail)
I hear, ironically mostly among clergy, that the spiritual classic “The Imitation of Christ” is no longer really relevant—that it is too hard, too negative, too oppressive—written for a time when plagues and famines and wars were rampant, when men hardly lived to what we now call “middle age.” But most of all, perhaps, I am told through cute smirks and smug expressions that it is a book not for our “age”, that it no longer applies to our advanced “civilization”, that it no longer rings true in the triumphant “West”.
I ask: Are we free of plagues, free of war, free of famine?
Are not our priests and religious sisters dying off rapidly? Are not babies systematically massacred inside their mothers’ womb? Are not children starving for their fathers to marry their mothers, for there to be a man who actually lives in the same home?
Do we no longer thirst?
Or have we “moved passed” Christ’s inconvenient cry from the Cross?
It seems to me that Christ Himself put little value on living past “middle age”.
Perhaps imitating Him would not be such a barbaric idea.
Lord, have mercy on us.
Francisco Goya, “The Third of May, 1808 in Madrid”, 1814-15, oil on canvas, (Museo del Prado, Madrid)
The modern funeral has become largely a time of tribute, when we remember the one who has died and try to assess the contribution he or she made to life in this world.
It’s less about acknowledging the mystery of death as someone passes from this world to a world beyond, and that is surely a loss.
I suppose that’s why the internment of Senator Kennedy’s body in Arlington Cemetery the other day moved me most. As darkness fell the television cameras could only see dim images of a graveside flame and occasional flashes of lightening in the night sky. It was a ceremony taking place in the dark. The simple words of the senator’s letter to the pope and the answer he received seemed to be signs of our helplessness and hope before this great mystery.
In the words of the Imitation of Christ, “the din of human words” had come to an end.
“You thunder your judgements upon me, O Lord; you shake all my bones with fear and dread, and my soul becomes severely frightened. I am bewildered when I realise that even the heavens are not pure in your sight.
If you discovered iniquity in the angels and did not spare them, what will become of me? The stars fell from heaven, and I, mere dust, what should I expect? Those whose works seemed praiseworthy fell to the depths, and I have seen those who once were fed with the bread of angels take comfort in the husks of swine.
There is no holiness where you have withdrawn your hand, O Lord; no profitable wisdom if you cease to rule over it; no helpful strength if you cease to preserve it. If you forsake us, we sink and perish; but if you visit us, we rise up and live again. We are unstable, but you make us firm; we grow cool, but you inflame us.”