Death Makes Angels of Us All
Death makes angels of us all
and gives us wings
where we had shoulders
smooth as ravens claws.
In the past twenty-four hours, this quote has come up randomly for me three times. Every time I hear it or see it it’s like sticking my finger in an electrical socket. It jolts me into rapt attention so I cannot help but think the dead are trying to tell me something here.
Over the past few days I’ve been having an ongoing discussion with one of my very, very Christian relatives. While she used to be a devout Catholic, over the years, as she has gotten older and more rigid in her views, her theology has likewise become far more dogmatic and far more Protestant in its approach (I am not equating Protestantism automatically with dogmatism. Her theology has gotten more Protestant AND it has also become more dogmatic and fundamentalist). She was asking me about my ancestor shrine and what it was for. When I explained she said “HOW do the dead help the living? How can they do that?” because for her, it was a matter of the dead going to heaven, hell, or purgatory with no in-between and in her world, if one went to heaven, one was totally happy and unable to see the living (which I don’t think even actually accords with Catholic theology, which has the communion of saints each of whom can be petitioned to pray and intercede for the living).
I gently explained that it doesn’t quite work like that. Corporeality is no more than a curtain that is then drawn back and the dead, when freed of the pain of living, of the hurts and wounds of their lifetimes are often (not always but often) able to watch over and aid us in our endeavors. She could not grasp it, not even when I gave some simple but relatively concrete examples. One of the stumbling blocks, over and above theology, was that I think she was assuming that if the dead interact with the living it is always by means of an apparition, when nothing could be further from the case. The dead can come in dreams. They can give a burst of fragrance in other wise closed rooms to herald their presence. They can be the presence, the whisper around a person, the soft voice, the nudge toward certain action and insight. Sometimes they speak clearly and sometimes they overwhelm with the strength of their presence but often it is a deep in the belly knowing, a sense of support and well being that comes from an ancestor house in good, consistently maintained order. Apparitions are the exception rather than the norm.
I think this discussion with my relative really brought home how black and white some people’s theology is. There was no room in her understanding for engagement with the dead because that would imply that they did not immediately go to their eternal abode. I was, I will admit, a bit stunned at the sterility of her worldview. It is one that discourages even praying for the dead, unless they are believed to be in purgatory. It was almost mechanized.
Usually I have found Catholics pretty easy to deal with, at least where ancestor work is concerned. I mean, praying for your dead is generally viewed as a good thing in Catholic doctrine, which gives us a certain amount of common ground when it comes to discussing ancestors. It’s only when there is such rigid denial of the past that I find problems and that is what was happening here. It wasn’t just honoring the dead that perplexed this relative, it was also doing genealogy work or asking questions about recent ancestors: “why would I want to revisit that? My upbringing was bad enough.” It really highlights for me how deeply the hurts we sustain in this world can cut us off from the nourishment of the spiritual.
Suddenly, connecting with the dead becomes something potentially harmful; the power and immenseness of the Gods becomes a thing that heralds potential abuse. There is no safe space in the halls of one’s mind or heart when one has learned so early on that the world is full of hurt and one must be ever vigilant. It takes even more courage then to begin, when one cannot perceive a sanctuary in the holy, in the ancestors, in even the Gods Themselves.
It really makes me think how hard it is to find anything that encourages reconnection to our ancestors in our culture, even in the best of circumstances. I think about my relative: she goes out and about her day in a town where the graveyard is hidden away on back streets, there are no ossuaries or bone shrines, the church is typical American modern: barren and ugly – nothing rich or vibrant, nothing to feed a heart hungry for beauty. Rather than bring the family together, the last couple of family funerals scattered them to the winds. As one gets older, we are not surrounded in this culture by respect and care. We’re shuffled off nursing homes. We’re cut out and gotten out of the way. There are fears of having enough money to pay for medicine and doctors. There is loneliness and fear of dying alone. There’s nothing that says to older people, “ you are valued. You are important.” We say the exact opposite.
Honoring the ancestors is something that also connects one to the living. It demands that we turn an eye toward how we engage with the living and tend those connections too. It demands active engagement. It is predicated on compassion. When you deal directly with the dead, and you see how the best of them are with the burdens of corporeality removed, moreover; and occasionally you see someone who was bitter and damaged in life, blossom when the grief and anguish that was so much a part of their human experience is stripped away…it engenders a great deal more empathy for that human experience. It’s with the ancestors that so much resolves. It can give a profound perspective.
Maybe I needed to have that quote shoved in my face a few times to figure out how to articulate that it’s through the blessings of our dead that we have the capacity to become better human beings. I for one am grateful.
(photo mine, of the ossuary at Brno)