Today I step out on to my ninetieth year on planet earth – with a strong feeling that it may indeed be my last. It is, however, a factor that causes me little concern. As that enigmatic genius Simone Weil said “Salvation is consenting to die”. I have no time for some kind of life after death. It makes no sense to me. We live and we die, and that’s it. Well not quite! As my friend Albert has pointed out: past, present and future are part of the one reality. What a genius that guy was!
A new year of this life is opening up before me and I need a new heading to express its “potential significance”. At one point I considered “The Downhill Run” but it conjured up for me the picture of a hunched up skier approaching the finishing line and throwing his hands into the air as he finishes in triumph. That, however, seems too competitive as far as I am concerned – competitiveness being something that dominates life today and is contrary to the more significant goal of loving one another.
I have decided therefore to simply state the theme for the coming year in terms of its potential personal significance: “Finish Line Ahead”
This is the reality which confronts me today. In a short space of time I will reach the finishing line. What is the significance of that for me?
It is the question all of us need to ask. As Martin Heidegger put it: The contemplation of death is the key to authentic existence.” Heidegger, of course, did and said a lot more. He joined the Nazi Party in 1933 and remained a member until it was disbanded after World War 2 – something that has puzzled and divided philosophers over his significance as such. Be that as it may, his statement remains for me a striking one, and one well worth spending the rest of my days contemplating – using the word “contemplation” in the sense of Simone Weil’s superb definition of prayer as “Attention taken to its highest degree”’, something which I would suggest rules out the idea of “pie in the sky when we die”. I continue to be appalled that such could ever be used as a goal of the Christian faith. When the Emperor Constantine placed a cross on the shields of his soldiers he may have won the battle of the Milvian Bridge but he lost the significance of the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth and his final word from the Cross “It is finished!” Jesus’ death was the beginning of a of a whole new approach to the phenomenon of life – phenomenon being defined as “a tile falling off a tin roof”
One of the most delightful expressions of a person contemplating death is that by Morris West, one of Australia’s most gifted novelists who came to enjoy a kind of guru status among Catholics.
“As I begin to write, I feel like a climber who, after a long and arduous ascent, has reached the high ridge of the range and now pauses to draw breath and get his courage up for the last stage of the journey.
When I look back, I see a long, gradual slope, with all its features plain: the dark forests, the green pastures, the rocky outcrops, the flashing streams, the swamps, the dangerous defiles, the post-houses, the places of ambush. The landscape is silent and empty, like a relief map set for a mock battle, but once, in truth, it was a battleground, loud with the noise of combat. I offer my salute to the fallen. I wonder what happened to other survivors. I wonder too why I have been spared to stand in this high place and contemplate my yesterdays.
I am surprised that the moment is so calm. Then I remember that what I see is all gained ground. It can never be disputed again, but nor can I ever again go back to it. I cannot even stay here in the momentary, windless calm of this high place. The pilgrimage is not over yet.
Before me the land falls steeply into a dark valley, beyond which I see – or think I see – the lights of the city which is the goal of my pilgrimage. By any measure of time, space or probability, I am not far away from it, but I wonder, as I have often wondered before, whether the city is not an illusion, whether its lights are not folly-fires, jack-o’-lanterns. However, I have always known that one day I would have to go down, alone into the dark valley, and make my own discovery of what lies on the other side.
Strange as it may seem, I am not afraid. I have accepted long since that a confession of faith is a confession of not knowing. I have accepted to trust that the city exists, that the lights are real and that what awaits the pilgrim is a homecoming.
Prove it, I cannot. Deserve it, I do not. If my trust is proved a folly, then so be it………
I write, therefore, at a constant risk of misinterpretation or misunderstanding. I accept the risks; I beg your patience and tolerance. I do not seek to impose my opinions on you. God forbid! I seek only to share my thoughts as a Christian before I step down into the silence of the dark valley.”
“A View from The Ridge” Morris West 1996
I am not so concerned about the lights of the city as he, but the last paragraph is superb and I endorse it as expressing my hope for what follows.