Thursday, March 25, 2010

Ashes to the earth Which is already flesh, fur and faeces

In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.
--T. S. Eliot, East Coker

When I read this passage, the opening lines of East Coker, I cannot help thinking of the Sunday when I drove into the Ninth Ward of New Orleans and beheld vast expanses of grassy fields where there were once homes, streets, and people living their lives. The photo above is not from there; it is a field where homes had been bulldozed and cleared. I drove by it most mornings on my way to work. In the Ninth Ward I could not bring myself to take many photographs. It seemed too intrusive on human grief.

If we pay attention, nature will remind us how brief our lives are. I never cease to marvel at how swiftly vegetation will rise up through our concrete and asphalt, tearing apart our momentary construction, covering it over with vines, digesting it, obscuring it, obliterating it. I think about the six thousand years of history for which we have written records, then the thousands and tens of thousand years before that. I read at Wikipedia that "Anatomically modern humans first appear in the fossil record in Africa about 195,000 years ago...." On a planet 4.5 billion years old that is hardly impressive.

A silent motto is woven into an arras, probably a slogan with no little arrogance, some dynastic slogan or weighty scriptural citation, or something form the classics.

Hercules tapestry (an arras)

Whatever the motto, meant to endure for the ages, it is now part of a tattered arras (tapestry), a memory of an age gone by. This sends my mind leaping to Durham Cathedral where I could see old battle standards hung in a chapel where I attended Mass early one morning. Unraveled glory of dedicated warriors, shreds of battles now forgotten by most. Only a military historian or archivist is likely to know the tales behind each standard hanging high overhead, gradually yielding to time until nothing shall remain except, perhaps, the iron pole that holds it now.

"Old stone to new building...." My imagination remains in Northumbria, visiting Hexham where Wilfrith brought relics of St Andrew. As one descends beneath the abbey, carefully if one is of my height, one can see old Roman stones, still bearing remnants of transcriptions, re-used to create this Christian shrine.

Impermanence. One of the most basic realities, yet one we face so poorly.

My body gives a little snort as I think of Disney's The Lion King and the song "circle of life." I am glad someone, I can no longer remember who, noted that the experience is very different if you are a dead lion disintegrating into grass or a live antelope about to be ripped to shreds and eaten.

I am quite opposed to embalming, more or less hermetically sealed coffins and concrete liners. It is right and good and holy that my body return to the earth. The rest is artificial, a whole industry based on denial and illusion. Would you not rather become rich soil than some disgusting slime in a sealed box? Really. You get my point.

Personally, I am opting for cremation and my ashes scattered on hillsides because I love the mountains. There are two places where I would like to join the earth again. The old road into Hume Lake overlooking Kings Canyon, one which I have ridden so many times, and Sandia Peak looking down on the Rio Grande Valley. (My future survivors, take note.)

I digress, perhaps influenced by chemicals after a dental adventure. And yet, not. We are born, we live, we die. To be born is to be destined for death. "In my beginning is my end." In my beginning may be found my gene sequence and my historical particularity - born into this setting at this particular time, with all the gifts and curses and indifferent constraints that this entails. In theory, if one could know all the constituent factors at any given moment one could predict what must follow. "In my beginning is my end." Yet since I am incapable of knowing the location and motion of every subatomic particle, and since things get very indeterminate at the subatomic level, well.... the future remains open.

To God it may all be patent. To us, not so much. Still, I know that things will happen in succession. I look at photos of myself as a young boy, a teen, a seminarian, a thirty-something, on up to recent photos. Like a house I rise and fall, crumble, and am extended, removed, destroyed.... Well, we have not yet gotten that far, but it is coming.

There will come "a time for the wind to break the loosened pane."

Can I embrace the totality of my life? Can I embrace my impermanence?

Of course, "end," as John Booty reminds us, is not merely terminus but τελος, goal as well as cessation. In Burnt Norton Eliot led us on "the way down," the via negativa, the way of loss, purgation, and denial. Now we begin to explore the meaning and purpose of it all. There is, indeed, meaning in our lives. We can look to our beginning (more than Roots) for clues.

I love the open fields of New Mexico. They exhilarate me. Perhaps they echo the agricultural expanses of the Central Valley of California where I was born. I feel that I am a child of the dusty soil of the vineyards in the San Joaquin Valley. I shall become, I suppose, part of the soil of the Rio Grande Valley some day.

This thought does not depress me. It comforts me.

As we rapidly approach Holy Week, I hope you have had a blessed Lent.

--the BB


Fran said...

This is an amazing post - the poem, your words and reflections.

I think that enbalming has issues too. And the whole notion of sealing the coffin in such a way and entombing the coffin in cement!

My mother died in 1991, when I had only been back to church for a year and had not really thought about what I believed deeply about such things.

In any event, she had been very clear that she did not want a fancy coffin, in fact her words were "put me in a pine box and throw me in the ground!"

When my brother and I went to funeral home the guy really pressured me to buy a fancy casket for my mom. I knew she wanted something plain. (we did not do pine, they did not have any!) And when he suggested that cement business I really bucked him.

Upon asking why anyone would do this, he said to protect the remains. To which I wondered aloud why.

He pointed out that this was my mother and I, even in my relative Christian infancy quoted the words from Ash Wednesday... You are dust and to dust you shall return.

I love that you have given this thought. I have too. We all should. And if we do believe, we know that the corpus here is that dust and that our eternal life awaits. I am intent on making the best of this time and I am not afraid of what comes. (However, let's not rush it!)

Thank you for starting my day with such provocative thoughts as we make our way from the desert to Jerusalem.

You have been so much in my prayers these days.

Paul said...

Fran, my mother always said the same thing: a plain pine box.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Amen to the four of you!