Monday, October 2, 2017

Worldviews Apart - From Mummification to Cremation

Here in the Confessions is St. Augustine describing and qualifying the nature (rhetorical) of his first interest in St. Ambrose:

XIV "Thus I did not take great heed to learn what he was saying but only to hear how he said it: that empty interest was all I now had since I despaired of man’s finding the way to You. Yet along with the words, which I admired, there also came into my mind the subject-matter, to which I attached no importance. I could not separate them. And while I was opening my heart to learn how eloquently he spoke, I came to feel, though only gradually, how truly he spoke. First I began to realise that there was a case for the things themselves, and I began to see that the Catholic faith, for which I had thought nothing could be said in the face of the Manichean objections, could be maintained on reasonable grounds: this especially after I had heard explained figuratively several passages of the Old Testament which had been a cause of death for me when taken literally. Many passages of these books were expounded in a spiritual sense and I came to blame my own hopeless folly in believing that the law and the prophets could not stand against those who hated and mocked at them. I did not yet feel that the Catholic way was to be followed, merely because it might have some learned men to maintain it and answer objections adequately and not absurdly; nor did I think that what I had so far held was to be condemned because both views were equally defensible. In fact the Catholic side was clearly not vanquished, yet it was not clearly victorious. I then bent my mind to see if I could by any clear proofs convict the Manicheans of error. If only I had been able to conceive of a substance that was spiritual, all their strong points would have been broken down and cast forth from my mind. But I could not. Concerning the body of this world, and the whole of that nature which our bodily senses can attain to, I thought again and again and made many comparisons; and I still judged that the views of so many of the philosophers were more probable. So in what I thought to be the manner of the Academics—that is to say, doubting of all things and wavering between one and another—I decided that I must leave the Manichees; for in that time of doubt, I did not think I could remain in a sect to which I now preferred certain of the philosophers. Yet I absolutely refused to entrust the care of my sick soul to the philosophers, because they were without the saving name of Christ. I determined, then, to go on as a catechumen in the Catholic Church—the church of my parents—and to remain in that state until some certain light should appear by which I might steer my course."  [Augustine. Confessions (pp. 91-92). Hackett Publishing. Kindle Edition.] 

What struck me in this passage was Augustine's critique of himself before baptism, as a young adult: he confesses his obtuseness and materialism, his sad state, incapable of discerning the truth for him and generally rendered more attractive by Ambrose's oratory. The drama of Augustine's sad state is further underlined as he classes himself a catechumen, a seeker of the Catholic faith and baptism. I found myself asking, how many young people must there be like St. Augustine before his conversion, what are their chances and just where are people's heads today?

If for a moment I might apply the question to the issue of how we look at our destiny, I find myself asking where in the world folks find themselves. In a photo news story the other day, documenting the discovery of a very, very ancient, but perfectly preserved Egyptian mummy, I got to wondering how far the mummification mentality of upper class ancient Egypt is from the nearly all-pervasive cremation mentality one encounters here in Switzerland, and which is also making advances in a better part of the United States.

This puzzle came up for me as I considered the perfect symmetry of that mummy's head and face wrapping, which though beautiful said to me nothing comparable to our Catholic belief in the life of the world to come. The world of the ancient pharaohs was a world caught up in death and taxidermy; resurrection, eternal light, happiness and peace were not what they were wrapping up so neatly in linen after having salted away the cadaver for a goodly time. 

Is mummification back when really all that different from those who rush to cremate today, scattering ashes on lakes, off of mountain peaks or out in the woods somewhere? Both processes incline toward a denial of the great truth of Christ's Second Coming to judge the living and the dead (from the earth, from the depths of the sea or from wherever) and to take to Himself in Glory all who are His own. Two worlds, one ancient and one present, both too obtuse to be touched by the Word of Life!

St. Augustine deplores the hardness of his own young heart, held bound by the Manichean heresy, which he judged totally material and leaving no space for the Almighty. Our own culture of death (evidenced in the eagerness for the destruction of all human point of reference through cremation and scattering) is no less hardened than the Manichean to the words of life proclaimed by Christ's Church today in His Holy Name.

Who will save the young Augustines of our day? Are there enough insistent prayers accompanied by the tears of their mothers, Monicas for our day and time? I love the way this intellectual, this sophisticate, this big man Augustine, blubbers away finding no other key but she, who in God's great mercy, unlocked the treasure of saving grace for him despite his pride and unworthiness. 

Augustine, from all appearances, was drawn first by the rhetorical skills of Ambrose, paying no heed to his wisdom and truth. My guess is that the young Augustines of our day don't even cherish rhetoric in their obtuseness. Maybe it is indeed a new age of barbarianism in which we find ourselves. In any case, from parents, family or friends, I pray that the young sophisticates of our day could be brought to confounded blubbering by the tears and prayers of the loved ones who would claim them for Christ!


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