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Without Remembrance There Is No Eternal Life
by Anthony Esolen
Behold,” says the Psalmist, “I searched for the place of the wicked man, and it was no more.”
The ancient Hebrews, it is commonly said, believed that the dead would go down to a shadowy place called Sheol, a realm of next-to-nothingness. “Can dust praise you?” cries David, pleading that God should vindicate him before he dies, as it would be to no avail afterwards. Even so, death was not the most dreadful fate they could conceive.
“Man dies, and his place knows him no more.” It is the second clause that expresses the greater dread, of a death beyond death. It is the terrible prospect of a total and unalterable severance—expressed as a loss of place. How should it be, if one were wiped clean from the memory of earth and heaven and all that dwell therein? How should it be, not to cease to live, but to have one’s few days of life delivered over—in their essence—to nothingness?
Alien to All
That is a foreshadowing of the doctrine of hell. It is also, I think, what modern man has accepted, somewhat uncomfortably, as his lot in life. He fears death, true enough, and seems ready to squeeze out a few final years by cannibalizing his offspring, farming human beings for spare parts to gerry-rig the rickety machine he has resigned himself to being. Yet he cannot understand, or will not confront, the Psalmist’s dread. That is because he already has no place: His u-topia, his no-place, is the price of his autonomy. He has made it the cornerstone of his ways and days. Search for modern man, and you may find him, for a while—anywhere, nowhere in particular.
I don’t simply mean that modern man moves about a lot. He does that; he conveys his body from place to place, or from subdivision to subdivision, whose streets are like little commercials, naming no revered man or celebrated victory, but “Julie” and “Dana,” or the trees that had to be cut down to build the thing. Such no-places resist roots, and that suits him fine. He draws enjoyment from his travels, as he’s a butterfly of a tourist, but he would scoff at the suggestion that he should belong to and love a certain place in return for the nourishment it has provided him. What nourishment? From earliest youth his strongest place-memories are of styrofoam: nowadays the garish colors of the daycare, the speckled tiles of a drop ceiling, the smell of cleaning fluid on linoleum, the ketchup oozing through the pores of one more hamburger bun among billions and billions.
He “chooses” here or there according to his autonomous taste, and that reduces his place already to insignificance. The philosopher Philippe Beneton puts it well: We are all different, says modern man, and the differences make no difference. I may choose to live in the Loire valley, because my caprice inclines me to rolling countryside and quaint little empty churches. Tomorrow I may choose the Arizona desert. It makes no difference. Any land is mine, because I am equally alien to all. I am the inverse of the old French peasant, whose boots might never have pressed the soil twenty miles beyond his farm and village, but who knew his home, as his home knew him.
Knowing One’s Time & Place
And who is the braver traveler? As a man’s commitment to love this woman, to cleave unto her alone until death shall part them, is not the end of love’s journey but its most adventurous onset, so it may be that a man’s commitment to one place—and by “place” I mean more than locale, as I will explain—fits him best to embark upon the pilgrimage. Even when he travels abroad, modern man is a commuter. The termini of his life are not birth and death, but this anywhere and that anywhere.
Compare him with the peasant who did not go abroad because he could not go abroad. When that farmer heard his church toll the noonday prayer, it might once in a while recall to his mind the hora mortis that awaits everyone. It might remind him that he really is going somewhere. If he is a good Christian man, he prepares his rucksack and chooses his walking stick well. Even when he sits still, perhaps especially when he sits still, eating his bulky fare at table with his wife and children, such a man is a viator. He knows his place, and is on his way.
He knows his time, too. The merciful exigencies of his life make it hard for him to forget it. When he turns his mattock in the loam, he may consider that his father and grandfather turned it there before him, as his son and his grandson would in the years to come. His life grips its roots down into the soil of time. Perhaps he might die of an early heart attack, or of a blister on his foot that does not heal. He sees fewer years and more hardship; still, his time stretches long before and long after his allotted days of sunlight. He almost cannot choose but dwell, living and working under the canopy of his fathers. Possibly they are in his sight each day, buried on the high hill overlooking the spire. He expects to lie there too, gathered to his fathers, exactly as if he were no ordinary farmer but a king of Judah.
I am not arguing for agrarianism; I might have used for an example a plumber in Paris instead. The point is that “place,” in the Psalmist’s sense, embraced time also, and a way of life, the treasured memory of one’s forebears, and the hopes for one’s children. It is incomprehensible without culture: the loving cultivation of one’s heritage, springing from a people’s deepest beliefs about what this place is, why we are here, and where we are going: “I will go in unto the altar of God, to God, who gives joy to my youth.”
For the Christian, the earthly place derives its authority and meaning from the place to which he is traveling, a city that will make Paris look like a bundle of sticks in the wind. But modern man has no heritage. He has forgotten his fathers, and expects to be forgotten in turn. He is like the rich man of the psalms, who amasses wealth as a stay against the hour and the destination that come to all, but “he shall carry none of it away.” Modern man must lengthen out his days, because they are all he has.
Am I too hard upon my man of nowhere? I don’t think so; I’ve seen the change occur within my own lifetime.
When I was a boy, we celebrated a feast called Memorial Day. It’s hard to describe, because the holy-day was, on paper, a secular feast, but it was our shared sense of the sacred that made the public celebration conceivable to begin with.
Just after dawn the men of the American Legion, followed by a brass band from the local high school, marched through our neighborhood. My cousins and I, having waited for this morning all week, praying that it wouldn’t rain, would bolt down a breakfast and run after them, climbing up to the Protestant cemetery. From that height, you could see half of the valley into which my town was tucked, with mountains of coal residue, heaped up from a hundred years of mining, towering over the river.
A well-done headstone has something disconcertingly eloquent about it. So it was in that cemetery. Some leaned at rakish angles, riding the natural buckling of the land. A stolid obelisk of the Propst family looked with satisfaction upon lesser men beneath. Some of the oldest white slabs were porous at the skin, covered with splotches of golden lichen. You could hardly make out a date, just a few curled numerals near “geboren” and “gestorben,” words that neither I nor my cousins understood, but that we guessed were full of meaning.
We knew we weren’t supposed to walk over the graves, but it was hard not to, so we did it, gingerly. Whole families lay beneath the mounding grass, under hemlock and pine. History lay there, too. Here was a Mrs. Yuengst who had four children, one of whom died when he was a baby. Here was a star that read “Grand Army of the Republic.” Next to that star, another grave and a small American flag, in honor of a youth who died in 1917, twenty years before his father.
The men commemorating the dead on that morning understood what they were about. The band would be still; a few drum rolls, then silence. Finally one man stepped forth, big chest, big belly. A barked command, the clock-clock of rifles loading. Aim, fire. Clock-clock, fire. Clock-clock, fire. Then a lone bugle playing Taps, that solemn call to rest.
I hardly knew what I was looking at, but my cousins and I stood transfixed, every year. We said nothing. I can recall it still: the light wind, the warble of robins, the gunsmoke drifting away, the booming persistent in the ear, and the men turning about in formation, in honor of sons who served their nation and died, who served us long before we were conceived. To stand and watch and hear was not simply to remember the dead, but to acknowledge their claims upon us, to carry them with us. It was to dwell in that place and time, fostered by the eternal.
The day didn’t end there. We hopped the fire trucks. We joined up with entourages of old ladies and boy scouts and gray-haired men in uniform and cheerleaders. We heard Mass at the Catholic cemetery on the opposing mountain. We converged upon the American Legion for doughnuts and orange juice.
It’s gone. My town has had no such parade in at least twenty years. Being a semi-modern man myself, I’ve moved far away. Where I live now, there’s a paltry something-or-other that blocks up Main Street on the long weekend that has usurped the holiday’s name. It doesn’t visit the cemeteries; it just peters out after a few blocks. No Taps, no service. The rags of an old form, without the substance; no felt reality of death and eternity, and therefore nothing vital. It is our Oblivion Day parade, no commemoration of the dead, but a specter of the living.
Machines of Oblivion
“Where are the snows of yesteryear?” asks the troubadour Villon, who loved this passing world all the more for his knowing that it was passing to somewhere. As for us, we no longer care about the snows of yesteryear. A snowflake falls upon a blade of grass, then vanishes in the sun, and who remembers? So has our own past evaporated, and we have fanned a breeze to speed the process.
In America, history is taught as if it were but a sorry tale of wickedness and bumbling. Children were once brought up on the heroic stories of John Paul Jones and Commodore Perry. In the Carolinas they knew the Swamp Fox; in Pennsylvania they knew Mad Anthony Wayne. Towns and counties were named after them. Not one student in twenty would now recognize those names. “Depart from me,” says the ungrateful nation. “I never knew you.”
We have cut ourselves off from the past, in large part to free ourselves of the deep bonds between secular life and faith. All we have done is to free ourselves of meaning, putting our hearts to slow death before we die. We remember maybe a verse of one or two national hymns. Historic sites are for tourists; Emerson writes in Old English; “Puritan” is a byword for “bigot.”
School, once devoted to the hallowing of hard-won learning and past accomplishments, is now an efficient machine of oblivion. Its wheels wear away every groove of memory still surviving—of coherent family life, of games passed down from child to child for centuries, without the deadening organization of adults, of summers free, of life apart from grades and scholarships and degrees and careers and diapered retirement and the unremembered grave. Universal schooling is our universal solvent.
The new freedom from the past, a freedom that makes us small, imprisoning us in ourselves and our fads, can be seen even in cemeteries. “All floral displays must be removable,” the signs read, because if you plant something that lives, it is presumed that you will not tend it. Then the caretakers, or rather the men hired by the landscaping outfit, will take too long trimming around it, and that would cost money. In the really New and Improved grounds for putting away, the landscaper mows over the memorials with his riding machine, and not gingerly either. For the sake of that machine, nothing but flat stones are allowed. Other New and Improved grounds allow the loved ones to choose pink hearts for headstones, engraved golf clubs, motorcars, whatever. Everyone is different, and the differences make no difference. Long or short menu, it is all the same at McGraveyard.
No wonder many people reject even the pretense of memory. They order their ashes to be whisked out of the community entirely, strewn over the vast nowhere of a hillside, or the sea, or stashed on someone’s mantelpiece, awaiting final and inglorious disposal. They are emptied, but not like Christ. And their place knows them no more.
Keeping Our Lamps Trimmed
Let the Christian resist. Let him honor the dead, and find wellsprings of life in that honor. Let him be a pilgrim, and know the virtue of stability. Let him not run from distraction to distraction, in a deadening attempt to forget death. Let him know his place, and in knowing it, go forth, even unto the last communion rail he will approach on earth, the moment of his death.
In the days of Bishop Ambrose, only the Christians could ensure that the poor were fed and that Roman justice was served, once the pagans had lost heart and had shrugged away what it meant to be Roman. Long after the paterfamilias had ceased to play a part in the civic life of the empire, the Christian remembered—and the abbots, fathers who followed the rule of Benedict, would lead their small platoons of monks to preserve for a better age not only the Christian Scriptures and their commentaries but even what was noblest in the pagan learning and customs.
Is our challenge any the less? For man’s temporal and eternal good, we must keep alive the very idea of a culture—to remember what it means to remember. Jesus himself lights the way, breaking bread at the Last Supper and commanding us to do the same, in remembrance of him. Whatever our doctrines about the Eucharist, we Christians must all break that immemorial bread and see in it the bread of life. Our treasuring of the Lord’s words and deeds, his miracles, his commandments, his consolations, his passion and death on the Cross, his glorious resurrection, his ascension into heaven, and his promise to return as our judge, does not bury us in a dead past but plants us in the truth that brings life to all time, past and present and to come.
Think of those holy women who went to Jesus’ tomb with great earthenware vessels of aloes that stooped their shoulders. Why did they go? They didn’t yet understand what Jesus meant when he said he would rise again. But he could not be, for them, simply a body, a broken vessel. They kept their lamps trimmed, and on that Easter morning they learned that the burial shroud had become a wedding garment. Had they not remembered the dead, they would not have been the first to testify to the living.
Did the women recall then a final plea for memory, on Calvary? The Jewish leaders, cutting their cloth to fit the Roman wear, still remembered that their fathers threw Jeremiah down a cistern and murdered Zechariah in the Temple. They remembered that David had been a mere lad, Moses a stutterer, Abraham childless and old. But they forgot what these things meant. They forgot the suffering servant, the stone which the builders rejected.
Remembering & Providence
To give them their due, they at least intended to honor their dead, and in this they were superior to us. But they, like us, were men of the passing day. They bought and sold, married and gave in marriage, while the clouds of doom were gathering. So they stood there in their ignorance, mocking.
Suddenly, one of the thieves crucified at Jesus’ side—called Dismas by tradition, though his true name is written in the Book of Life—was pierced with remorse. Mindful of his sinful life, this errant man, now at last fixed in one small spot of earth, turned to Jesus, saying, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Good words for the Christian to ponder at the hour of his dying, which is also this hour, here, as we sojourn to eternity. Then the Lord of time, whose remembering and providence and act are one, will surely reply, “This day you shall be with me in Paradise.”
He goes before us, to prepare a place.
Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of The Ironies of Faith (ISI Books), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery), and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books). He has also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's The Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.