As Eliot twisted Chaucer in “The Waste Land,” allow me to rewrite Tennyson in “Locksley Hall”:
In November of the holy souls, an older man’s fancy dimly turns to thoughts of death.
It may seem strange to write of death for a website devoted to the sanctity of life. But a bit of reflection reveals the related nature of the topics. What would we know, or even appreciate, about life without the specter of death? Is there something to finitude that enhances our grasp of the present moment and excites a longing for eternity? These questions were put to me many years ago, not by a theologian or a philosopher but by an avowed atheist English professor teaching Milton’s Paradise Lost. When God warned Adam and Eve that if they ate of the forbidden fruit they would “surely die,” what did the lone couple know of life, and how could they relate it to this thing called death? It was a question this cradle Catholic had never thought of, akin to, but deeper than, the more familiar “Did Adam and Eve have belly buttons?”
Indeed, what did our first parents think when God decreed death as a punishment for disobedience? They must have figured death was bad, something to avoid at all costs, since the Almighty had placed such a pall upon it. Yet at the same time, it must have seemed mysterious and hidden, and thus intriguing to two inquiring human minds thirsting for knowledge.
The professor then injected questions he knew would get a rise out of the handful of religious believers. “Did God set up Adam and Eve for sin? By putting a ban on one tree did he tempt them unduly and thus set himself up to become the hero of this epic we call life?”
In the context of the poem, they were fair questions. In Milton’s imagination, God does come off a bit like a super hero, just as Satan stands as a tragic fallen figure, along the lines of Joker. We feel a bit of sympathy for the devil, he of such elevated sentiments and speech as characterize his “Hail, hell” monologue:
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; the almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition though in hell:
Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.
How shocking to find elements of the modern mind so explicitly expressed in this 17th-century epic: the omnipotent mind that can decide right and wrong, the exaltation of choice for its own sake, the will to power, and an all too literal situation ethics, where it is better to reign in hell. So modern is the character that some critics have branded Milton a satanist, misreading his intent. Milton was a biblically versed Puritan with the prescience to see the logical result of the dualistic, lone cogito posited by his contemporary Descartes. That was the professor’s view. Unlike other Marxist materialist deconstructionists (as he described himself), he read Satan as tragic only in the sense that the fall of any great figure is tragic; yet his “reign in hell” placed the character in a conundrum of his own making that he could never escape. The professor said, “Satan’s ‘Evil be thou my Good’ is the ultimate negation of language. Satan is incapable of telling his own story because he is a liar and a loser.” Not a bad insight for an atheist.
Death, it seems to me, comes from the ultimate lie, the ultimate loss, the final denial. To disobey the Creator, as did Adam and Eve, is to deny life, the being by which everything exists. It is to step outside of the eternal into a faux world where “I think therefore I am.” Or, in the “words, words, words” of the tragic hero Hamlet, in a play written by an older Milton contemporary, “. . . there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Yet Christians don’t despair with modern man over words or their meaning. We have the Word made flesh, the ultimate expression of life whose final act is victory over death.
In this perspective, November is a month of hope. We begin with the commemoration of All Saints, the souls eternally with God in heaven, and we move next day to remembrance of the holy souls in Purgatory, who are undergoing purification on their assured path to heaven. In this light, the ghosts and goblins of Halloween are revealed as superstitious figments of a primal fear that comes when we doubt that the good news is really true. If you don’t believe in eternal life, death takes on a dread demeanor. There is darkness ahead, not light; annihilation, not resurrection.
After that class of long ago, a fellow student said something to me he thought brave and liberating: “Religion is just a system of rituals set against our inevitable death.” Conceding his point, I replied, “Yes, but what if it works?”
—Brian Caulfield is editor of knights.net and fathersforgood.org at the Knights of Columbus headquarters.