Tuesday, June 3, 2014
C'est Son Métier
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go . . .
. . . . Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
-- From "Dirge Without Music" by Edna St. Vincent Millay.
There was a man I loved desperately when I was quite young. R. was witty, well-read, and almost impossibly good-looking. He was also louche, something of a hedonist. He spent a great deal of money on clothes and a lot of time in nightclubs, and he regarded himself as being on the cutting edge of cultural expression. I was a teenager from an unhappy home, and he became the first in a series of men about whom I believed that if I attached myself to them, I could escape and, in some essential way, save my life.
Predictably, this relationship didn’t work out. I became suicidally depressed in the wake of its breakup, but recovered, and some years later R. and I were friends. We didn’t see each other that often, but back in New York, in one of the lovely ways that New York can seem like a small town, we would often run into each other unexpectedly on the street. R. was a freelance journalist and didn't have a nine-to-five, and if I had the day off from whatever my bread gig was at the time – waitressing, or secretarial temping, or working as a cosmetics girl at Bloomingdales (my brother happened into the store one day and said of me and my colleagues, "You look like a bunch of Nazi nurses") – we would walk around the city and drink coffee and have conversations that were shimmering, transcendent, incantatory. I still have dreams sometimes about those walks.
As happens, however, our lives went in different directions, and I had not seen R. for many years when I heard the shocking news last year that he had died -- in his forties, and by his own hand. He had achieved some success, and had even written a best-seller nonfiction book, but some controversy had arisen around it, and I assume, though I can’t know for certain, that the minor scandal that ensued had contributed to the deep depression which apparently led to his suicide. R. was childless, but he left his widow behind.
His death, which I learned about around the time my mother also died, was crazy and unacceptable to me. As a young man, R. had been remarkably handsome, as well as generous, funny, and adventurous; but somehow he had become one of those tragic ones, those few who, as A.E. Housman wrote, would "carry their looks [and] their truth to the grave." He was not a Catholic; I don’t know what, if anything, he had come to believe, though, on one of the occasions I ran into him on the street, he had recently returned from a trip to Nepal, and on that occasion he urged me to read Andrew Harvey’s book A Journey in Ladakh, a luminous travel memoir about the author’s encounter with Tibetan Buddhism. And during much of the time I had known R., he was something of an obvious sinner. I couldn’t help wondering if, with this checkered history, and lacking both baptism and any formal sort of repentance, it was sensible or even seemly to pray for his soul. But because I profess to believe in the forgiveness of sins, I knew I must pray for him, and do so with great abandon,
One hears occasionally from Traditionalist types the maxim “extra ecclesia nulla salus” – there is no salvation outside of the (Roman Catholic) Church. This is the teaching of the Church, but what does it really mean? The Catechism of the Catholic Church asks:
846 How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body:
Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door.
Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.
847 This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church:
Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation [emphasis added].
It seems to me that the main problem with defining “extra ecclesia” is knowing each unbaptized man’s “fault,” which is, of course, impossible. There are all kinds of mysterious baptisms, including that of desire, about which we know little or nothing. "Betwixt the stirrup and the ground/Mercy I asked, mercy I found": there is forgiveness of which we know nothing.
In fact, God is a fountain of mercy. God is love. God did not create His children in order to damn them. If He did, He would not be God. As Heinrich Heine, the great poet of German Romanticism and a convert from Judaism, said on his deathbed, “Of course God will forgive me; c’est son métier.”
When we profess to believe in the forgiveness of sins, we are simply acknowledging, with Heine, that forgiving sins is God’s métier, His business. With this statement, we categorically accept that God can forgive all sins, including the ones (always, it seems, committed by others) that we may not entirely want him to forgive. What we talk about when we talk about forgiveness is actually the possibility of redemption for our enemies, of the complete falling away of what made them our enemies in the first place, of what made them hurt us and of what made us hate them -- nothing less than the belief that anyone can become good in the Platonic sense; that anyone can become holy.
Therefore, I'm constrained to believe in the possibility of R.’s radical spiritual transformation, and of his total moral regeneration. In the end, what we profess when we say that we believe in the forgiveness of sins, is that we believe that God loves everyone else, including those annoying ones in apparent darkness, equally as well as He loves those of us to whom he has given the great and wholly-unmerited gift of faith.
R.'s last book was published after his death. It's a nonfiction work about a morally-suspect character who became a quiet humanitarian, a narrative which parallels the trajectory of R.'s own too-brief life.