Passing away, immortality, ourselves and those we love
I have had occasion over the years to mention the time each Summer which my wife and I have been able to spend at the family “camp” (as summer places are called) on Willsboro Bay—in my opinion by far the prettiest bay on Lake Champlain in northern New York State. This is one of the experiences that is still publicly suggestive of God’s presence in New York, a reality which political leaders in the Empire State typically ignore, even when they are nominally Catholic.
The drive up from Virginia is about 600 miles, longer than strictly necessary because we avoid I-95 in favor of the scenic route through the mountains of Pennsylvania, all the way up to Binghamton, NY, and then east to Albany and up the Northway (I-87) through the Adirondack mountains to the Lake. This route means we miss the equally lovely and mysterious Catskills (do read Washington Irving’s tales), but we also miss the dreaded I-95 corridor, which is always dense, frequently ugly…and rife with tolls.
Even an earthly paradise, of course, has its flaws. For example, we own a small sailboat which we still drag along behind the car for those 600 miles up and back each year, but when checking the trailer this year on July 2nd I found the wiring for the lights had gone bad. Therefore, with exactly zero chance of a quick repair on July 3rd or 4th, I had to rush around to find a temporary lighting kit which would magnetically attach to the trailer. (I recount this because I like to think that people read what I write to learn about real life.)
We arrived, of course, during a period of frequent rain, unusually high humidity, widespread flooding, and rising lake waters (not to mention dense and smoky air courtesy of the huge fires in Canada). But the camp location is still beautiful. It’s an old place with uneven floors and three tiny bedrooms, built without a foundation in, perhaps, the 1950s, and bought by my wife’s parents in 1985. They fixed it up some, notably expanding the covered porch overlooking the lake, which can double as extra sleeping space, and generously allowing even our family of eight to visit for a week each year. That’s ten people in a place with beds for six, tops…and for some time only one (ahem) toilet.
After their deaths, my wife’s older brother, who had lived closer to the camp and worked more on it than anyone else, was given first right of refusal to purchase it. He did so and began a slow process of improving it so it could be rented to people other than family—family not being sufficient to occupy it during the full period this little three-season place could be open. Sic transit gloria mundi: In the old days, we visited free of charge.
Then, about a year ago, this oldest brother died, and now his widow is struggling to continue improvements or, if it becomes too burdensome, she will presumably sell. This year we were still able to trundle up and then welcome a daughter and seven of our seventeen grandchildren (her four and three others) for a week of swimming, hiking, canoeing, kayaking, ferry rides, and renewed acquaintance with nearby scenic wonders. The surrounding beauty is staggering and long endures, but though the people are even more wonderful, they grow and change, escape childhood, and—in due course, as Hamlet put it—shuffle off this mortal coil.
The good earth and everything in it are destined to die and pass away. My wife and I, at least, are long past the age of finding this surprising, let alone unforeseen, which is undoubtedly also true of my readers. And yet too many in all our extended families are without any hope beyond this world, instead persisting in a denial of the obvious which they apparently suspect would inhibit their freedom or unhinge their reason. This is what comes of being raised in a profoundly materialist culture. Yes, it fosters the reflexive assumptions that only the material world is real and only the material world can be conserved. Or perhaps, if there is anything beyond the material we cannot know it, and it is essentially as useless as it is counter-cultural to speculate.
Thus the idea of miracles is considered nonsensical, which means that alternative material explanations must be supplied for what we humans have always taken to be signs of Revelation, or at least proofs for the existence of God and the spiritual soul. The darkness smears over our contemporaries like so much grease and, far from becoming more rational, they end by accepting the most ridiculous assumptions for no better reason than these assumptions are fostered in them by that dominant culture in which they hope to live and move and have their being. I shall eschew elaboration, for I have been down this path very frequently in the past.
But no intelligent being not in the grip of cultural or even diabolical denial can fail to reflect on all these things when confronted with even something so relatively paltry (on God’s scale) as the beauties of Willsboro Bay and other natural sublimities, with opportunities to renew our acquaintance with them at intervals, to see them fresh, and so to witness not only to what has been created but to the Creator. This is in fact a human instinct, built firmly into our nature, and it is only through either serious pride, severe confusion, or an enculturated rebellion against being that we succeed in denying what must otherwise be obvious (since it is instinctively so) to even the meanest intelligence.
This rebellion is in itself a sign of the alienation from self which characterizes our technocratic modern world. Having become so adept at creating technological fantasy worlds, particularly in film and now in “virtual reality”, we deliberately shield ourselves from our own nature in deference to our wayward and selfish desires, which are so often purposefully stimulated by the world, the flesh and the devil—these three which, in their lonely finitude, are nothing at all like the three that endure, the faith, hope and love described by St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians (13:13).
In the fullness of time
It is no wonder that we treasure the arrival of so many of our grandchildren at this place where, gifted as they are with parents who care about ultimate things, they have a chance to experience a natural joy and wonder which uplifts and inspires. Indeed, these surroundings still uplift and inspire me at age 75, and I think my wife is even more positively susceptible to their penultimate goodness. But I choose the world “penultimate” advisedly, precisely because it means second to the last. Moreover, such a natural experience can occupy even a penultimate position only by its inclusion of the human beauty of those who visit, who are always their own signs (however dimmed in each of us) of that ultimate beauty which St. Augustine described so succinctly as ever ancient and ever new:
Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.
This Augustine wrote after a long and sometimes unsuccessful search for truth, which is also the search for God. But we are all passing away more hastily then we usually imagine, and this too is a lesson learned from natural beauty, which changes moment by moment.
In the end, Augustine acknowledged the constant tears and prayers of his mother, St. Monica (who could sometimes be a bit of a pest to her son), as harbingers of the grace he needed to reach his unknown goal. Just so are our own tears and prayers likely to be vital for our children and many others—for all who live in denial of ultimate reality (very probably not entirely through their own fault), for all those in purgatory, for all those who are distressingly late in opening themselves to God’s healing Presence. And surely even the natural beauty we experience ought to call to mind especially all those dear to us who have not yet come to know and love God through Jesus Christ, in the incomparable sacramental life of his Church—in that Real Presence which alone in the realm of matter, really is ever ancient and ever new.
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Posted by: cvm46470 -
Jul. 21, 2023 11:10 PM ET USA
I do read what you write - been there with the broken trailer lights! Thanks for the renewed reminder to keep praying "especially all those dear to us who have not yet come to know and love God through Jesus Christ, in the incomparable sacramental life of his Church." As St. Monica was told - so many tears and prayers will not go unanswered.