Bishops of Rome teach infallibly ex cathedra (“from the chair” or, as Bishop of Rome) on questions of faith and morals. Granting their infallibility in matters of content, no one, so far as I know, has ever claimed on behalf of Roman Pontiffs a sense of timing that is without error. Consider, for example, Pope Pius XI, who, in seeking to close the Church’s liturgical year with an expression of eschatological completion, created the metaphoric Feast of Christ the King in 1925.
Ancient—in some cases millennial—European monarchies had collapsed in the previous decade. Among them, the Hapsburg, the Hohenzollern, and the Romanov. Calling Christ a “king” in 1925 was perhaps as much a disgruntled response to nascent democracy and a wistful mourning of monarchy as it was an expression of eschatological fullness. And yet, despite its monarchical overlay, the feast does give expression to a deep human longing and a profound Christian truth.
Here’s the longing: We desperately want someone to gather together both the disparate pieces of our personal lives and our planet’s history. One could say that we want someone to harvest history, our own and that of the world. And here’s the truth: the Church recognizes that harvester in the person of Jesus the Christ, the one whom the scriptures call the Alpha and the Omega of time.
Joan Didion’s newest memoir, Blue Nights, is written in response to the death of her daughter Quintana Roo, who died in 2005, very young, at age thirty-nine, from physical ailments ranging from cerebral hemorrhage to pancreatitis. The death of her husband John Dunne in 2001 had prompted Didion’s previously acclaimed work, The Year of Magical Thinking. In both works, Joan Didion acutely articulates the experience of loss and fragmentation that death brings.
Here’s a passage in Blue Nights, in which she writes of the burden that mementos become, at least when their effect is to remind us how fragmented and incomplete human life is.
I no longer want reminders of what was, what got broken, what got lost, what got wasted.
There was a period, a long period, dating from my childhood until quite recently, when I thought I did.
A period during which I believed that I could keep people fully present, keep them with me, by preserving their mementos, their “things,” their totems.
The detritus of this misplaced belief now fills the drawers and closets of my apartment in New York. There is no drawer I can open without seeing something I do not want, on reflection, to see. There is no closet I can open with room left for the clothes I might actually want to wear. In one closet that might otherwise be put to such use I see, instead, three old Burberry raincoats of John’s, a suede jacket given to Quintanna by the mother of her first boyfriend, and an angora cape, long since moth-eaten, given to my mother and father not long after World War Two. In another closet I find a chest of drawers and perilously stacked assortment of boxes. I open one of the boxes. I find photographs taken by my grandfather when he was a mining engineer in the Sierra Nevada in the early years of the twentieth century. In another of the boxes I find the scraps of lace and embroidery that my mother had salvaged from her own mother’s boxes of mementos.
The jet beads.
The ivory rosaries.
The objects for which there is no satisfactory resolution.
Of course a “satisfactory resolution” is precisely what the human heart seeks. We want what the Prophet Ezekiel promises, someone who can say to us, “The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal” (34:16). We want a Christ who gathers us in.
If death were a harvest and not a dissipation, if we truly believed the words of the Eucharistic preface-prayer that we use at Christian funerals, “for your faithful people, life is changed not ended,” then mementos would bespeak a promised future. They would not be reproaches of a past that refuses to congeal into something meaningful.
Pope Pius XI was right about the future being a question of belief. He understood that the issue is one of being able to move forward into the dark regions of our future guided and consoled by an ancient promise. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death. When everything is subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who subjected everything to him, so that God may be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). What other “satisfactory resolution” will the human heart accept?
I continue opening boxes.
I find more faded and cracked photographs than I want ever again to see.
I find more engraved invitations to the weddings of people who are no longer married.
I find many mass cards from the funerals of people whose faces I can no longer remember.
In theory these mementos serve to bring back the moment.
In fact they serve only to make clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here.
How inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here is something else I could never afford to see.
We speak of faith as a form of sight, because seeing is more than “taking a look.” It’s knowing what to look for. It’s allowing background to come to fore with the right sort of disquietude. We all view the present in the light of the past. The one who has faith sees the present in the light of the future. Joan Didion is superbly gifted writer in that regard. Even on this side of death, she can already see what matters.
Terrance W. Klein