Hope amid change and decay

by
26 October 2018

The calendar prompts Ted Harrison to reflects on different approaches to mortality

volkerpreusser/Alamy

Grave lights for All Souls in an Austrian cemetery

Grave lights for All Souls in an Austrian cemetery

“THOMAS AQUINAS believed that God revealed himself according to the creature’s ability to receive him,” the priest-poet R. S. Thomas wrote. He went on to say that God’s revelation to him came “through the medium of the world of nature”.

Thomas was a keen birdwatcher, who spent many days on the moors and marshes of Wales, studying the lives — and admiring the beauty — of the waders and raptors he found there. He was expressing a view shared by many Christians, especially those whose faith was understood from a Celtic perspective. The sixth-century Irish missionary Columbanus once said: “If you want to know the Creator, first get to know the creation.”

The prayers of many early Celtic saints were inspired by the sacredness of all things. Like the Psalmist, they were full of praise for God’s handiwork in nature, and, in their poetry, imagined creation itself praising God: “Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord.”

It is a view that finds echoes within the belief system of many modern Western Pagans, such as Druids and Wiccans. Census figures suggest that, in Britain, there are almost 80,000 people who identify broadly as Pagan. They talk of encountering the divine in creation, in the beauty and awesomeness of nature, and in the perpetual cycles of birth, growth, and death.

Samhain, celebrated by Pagans at the end of October, is their festival that focuses on death. It is the time of year when the harvest is gathered, the leaves are falling from the trees, and, in times past, when farm animals were slaughtered to save feeding them over the winter and to provide meat to feed the human community over the lean times ahead. It is a time when the dying-back of nature and the imminence of death cause Pagans to reflect on the inevitability of human death, and presents an opportunity to recall friends, family members, and forebears who have died.

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THERE is something about this time of year which focuses the mind on our collective and individual mortality. In the secular world, the increasingly popular Hallowe’en looks very much like an attempt to take the sting out of death with party games. Dressing up as ghouls, skeletons, and zombies mocks or denies the darkness of earthly death and decay and the unresolved issues that it may leave behind.

Yet, barely two weeks later, the nation’s mood changes entirely. We come collectively face to face with the realities of death and human slaughter as the dead of past wars are recalled at Remembrancetide.

Like children at Hallowe’en, we may be tempted to mask, or sanitise, the ugliness and agony of death on the battlefield. With our red poppies, sombre music, and carefully choreographed rituals, most of us, who have not served in battle, remain distant from the grim experiences of those who have, even as we sense the suffering and the loss of so many lives.

 

THE church calendar provides the (traditionally) consecutive holy days of All Saints and All Souls. All Saints’ Day, a principal feast, celebrates the exceptional faithful who died in Christ. The commemoration that follows it on 2 November was introduced by Abbot Odilo of Cluny in the tenth century as a day of prayer for all the faithful departed. It became universal in the Western Church, in which its observance was shaped by increasingly systematic penal ideas about the intermediate state of the departed, the concept of purgatory, and the effects of prayer on their behalf — including those whose names are now forgotten.

It has evolved in Anglican practice since it began to be marked again in the Victorian Church of England. It has long been associated with reading aloud at the eucharist a list of names put forward by the congregation. Many churches now also invite the relatives of those who have died in the past 12 months to special services at which the names are read and other acts of reflection are encouraged. Candles may be lit, or names written on cards to be hung on the branches of a tree.

Such ceremonies may soften the pain of grief. Death in nature, however, is unsentimental and comfortless. For many animals, it is by killing that they eat and their young are fed and enabled to grow. Surely, one could argue, it must be ordained by God that the owl does not mourn the vole?

It is by seeking God in nature that we may discover the enigma of the divine. R. S. Thomas struggled with this. In his poem “Barn Owl he called the owl’s nocturnal scream “the voice of God in the darkness, cursing himself fiercely for his lack of love”.

 

THROUGH their nature-bound poetry and ritual, Pagans describe a pantheon of gods. They divide the divine into constituent parts, talking of the gods of the winds, for example, or referring to the moon as a goddess. Some of these gods bring peace, others bring conflict.

What divides Pagan theology from a Christian understanding of God is not whether to seek the divine in creation, but how to describe the divinity that they discover. God is, of course, beyond words, but Christians are not convinced by — or satisfied with — the Pagans’ “curate’s egg” of a God, who is love only in parts. This is a discomforting idea that some Christians see as dark and evil. It may also be seen as too reminiscent of the Cathar heresy, which viewed the God of the New Testament as different from the God of the Old, the God found in Jesus being a separate entity from the vengeful Jehovah.

 

SOON, we will start to prepare for the celebration of the birth of Jesus at Christmas. In this part of the world, we celebrate a new life — the infant in the manger — at the most barren time of year, “the bleak midwinter”. Conversely, the death of Jesus is marked on Good Friday, in the spring, when the earth wakes again. The cycle of birth and death represented by the incarnate Jesus is reconciled in the resurrection.

We have Christ’s promise of everlasting life. In this current season of death and decay, this promise does not deny the realities of nature. It does not answer questions about why God allows suffering in the natural world. That remains a mystery to us. It is simply a way of saying that we can transcend it. “My Kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus said.

In the material world, science teaches us that, when we die, every atom from our remains — buried or burned — will eventually be recycled and recreated into something new. Faith, however, teaches us that we will rest in peace and rise in glory.

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