Friday, July 12, 2013

Journal of a Soul 27

Facing Death

Ireland's Eye from Baldoyle
Those who live close to nature learn its mysteries with a certain ease that is always foreign to us city dwellers.  That is why I love travelling back to the county where my father was born and lived for more than half his life.  He truly shared in that country wisdom.   Likewise, do the simple country people of Calabria where I have been holidaying for some recent summers.  Tribes and more primitive peoples also share in such simple wisdom.  Modern sophisticated humankind, which works so much from the neo-cortex, has almost forgotten what it is like to live close to nature and its cycles. Often, alas, we moderns only meet nature when it interrupts our plans through the natural evils of tornadoes, snow blizzards, floods and so on.  Indeed, we have learned of late that much of the natural disasters are caused by man-made pollution to our atmosphere.  Alas, we moderns have done so much learned thinking about the world that we have quite forgotten that we are part of it, too.  We are creatures, albeit self-conscious, but creatures nonetheless of the world, in which we live, move and have our being.

Be that as it may, what I want to write about here is the last few hours of my mother’s life.  That frail life is slowly but surely leaking away now at the grand old age of 96. My brother Pat and I have been called home from holiday to await her passing from this world.  And yet, with all the knowledge we have gained about what it means to be human, we have never really bettered the ways of coping and dealing with dying and death than the many religious traditions of the world have put at our disposal.  The community comes around and ritualises the passing of this person from our presence.  As a philosopher, I would like to believe that I am open enough to allow all creeds the dignity of their individual beliefs.  Dying and death, and indeed how we deal with them, are not matters of pure science that can rule as to what is the true and right way to celebrate the meaning of a life that has passed or indeed rule upon the belief of a life to come.  Comforting ourselves in our lonely grief is quite fittingly the province of faith, religion and indeed of the imagination, and it is my considered conviction that both faith and religion belong firmly within the ambit of the intricate mystery of the imagination.  It is not, therefore, a question of whether the next life exists or not or of whether it can be proved one way or another. It is simply not a question that falls within the province of science at all.  It is one that falls within the ambit of the psychology and sociology of religion and within humanity’s many learnt ways of coping with its crises.  These are the factors that such trenchant atheists like Hitchens, Dawkins and Denneth leave out of the picture.  Their arguments are good and valid, but only good and valid within the narrow parameters of a delimiting and dehumanising science, in effect within the confines of a sheer scientism.

My mother and I about five years ago
The imagination is a wonderful faculty which leads us individually and collectively into mysteries which the rational or cognitive faculties of the mind cannot fathom – great works of music, wonderful pieces of art, marvellous buildings and bridges and so on.  Over 100 years ago the great John Henry Cardinal Newman pointed out that even scientists had to use their imagination as well as their cognitive or rational faculties in bringing their discoveries and inventions into the world. The imagination of a culture is a rich world that cannot be reduced to the parameters of any science.  We meaning-making creatures need our beliefs, no matter what their standing in a purely cognitive or logical sense. The brain, and the mind which resides principally though perhaps not entirely there, and even the soul which some believe lives mysteriously there, too, are all more than just firings on and off of various neurons.  Yes, they may be that, but not just that.  We humans are more.  And it is in the quest to find out what the “more” in us is that all true inquiry lies.

And so, as my mother’s life leaks out, I am in many ways diminished.  The womb that begot me is no more.  That was the human animal womb.  Was there or is there, as the great psalmist David put it, a womb before the dawn that begot us all?  Our questions are legion, our feelings confused, perhaps numbed.  The existentialists are right.  Death makes dust of both our individual achievements and dreams.  However, it cannot reduce to ashes the memory of the collectivity, the shared emotions and feelings of the race, the drive to meaning within any culture. In times like this, all I can do is take refuge in the wisdom of the culture which begot me.  Rest in peace, Mary Quinlan.  I hope I will live the remainder of my life with the courage and determination to see no task left undone as you did! Your task is finished – a job well done!    Consummatus est! I will miss you sorely!

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