Monday, May 25, 2015

Αιωνία η μνήμη

At their first meeting, Reginald Fleming Johnston, the British tutor of the last emperor of China, Aisingioro Pu Yi, the young prince asks him, ‘Where are your ancestors buried?’ Comes the reply, ‘In Scotland, Your Majesty.’ This was the emperor’s first personal question to his new tutor, after which the conversation quickly moved on to other things, but it demonstrates how important it was to know where one’s ancestors are buried.

When we think of East Asian culture, one of its features that comes to mind is the idea and practice of ‘ancestor worship.’

When I go to an Asian store, anything from a humble grocery to a full-fledged shopping mall, there I always see a shelf or an entire aisle or two devoted to merchandise necessary to the cult of ancestors: statues of Chinese gods, memorial tablets, incense pots and vases, joss sticks (incense) by the bundle, ‘hell money’ in bank notes and gold foil ingots, and joss (burnable) versions of everyday articles and clothing, consumables for the afterlife.

But it isn’t only the East Asians that have this concern for their ancestors. This is intrinsic to many cultures, in my own in fact as an Orthodox Christian, except in my case, and for many Americans and others living a mobile lifestyle, I don’t know where most of my ancestors are buried, and even when I do, there is little or no possibility that I will ever visit their graves in my entire lifetime. Yet, in my childhood I remember visiting graves with my parents, and leaving flowers.

Cemeteries. In theory I love them, and whenever I drive past one, something in me always pauses and I feel like my heart is on the edge waiting for something, waiting for a voice to speak, or for faces to appear: There are people buried there under those stones, hundreds of people, hidden under that vast blanket of comforting grass.

A child said
What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child?
I do not know what it is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition,
out of hopeful green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners,
that we may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child,
the produced babe of the vegetation.
Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means,
Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff,
I give them the same,
I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
It may be you are from old people,
or from offspring taken soon out of their mothers' laps,
And here you are the mothers' laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.
O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues,
And I perceive they do not come
from the roofs of mouths for nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints
about the dead young men and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers,
and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life,
and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas'd the moment life appear'd.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

(Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, Book 3, ‘Song of Myself,’ Canto 6)

The nature god lover and praiser Uncle Walt’s words come to mind because they announce so well what I feel inside me, though my rational mind rebels against this as mere sentiment, rebuking my heart’s hopes while envying it for them. Like the rest of the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve, I want to believe that my life and their lives are not, were not, all for nothing, that the universe is tamed and given meaning by love, that all that goodness doesn’t just run to waste.

If there is a God—and I do not doubt this—He must have made provision for us. He too must not want all this goodness to just run to waste and disappear. Those corpses in the graveyard once were men and women and children. That’s what they were once, and that they will be again, but now? What are they but objects waiting to be revivified? Is there any real connexion between those endless iterations of decay prevented by vaults and boxes from returning to feed the earth, and the living beings they once were?

‘I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come.’ With every new translation of the original Greek προσδοκώ, proz-dho-KOH, ‘I expect, I anticipate,’ comes a new muddling of the real meaning. ‘I look for’ is about as weak a translation as I can imagine. It implies that something has been misplaced, or lost in the shuffle, but maybe in fact something has been lost: whatever it is that, beyond all appearances trimmed to visible size by time, really joins us to one another and to our ancestors.

C. S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity,

Human beings look separate because you see them walking about separately. But then we are so made that we can see only the present moment. If we could see the past, then of course it would look different. For there was a time when every man was part of his mother, and (earlier still) part of his father as well, and when they were part of his grandparents. If you could see humanity spread out in time, as God sees it, it would look like one single growing thing—rather like a very complicated tree. Every individual would appear connected with every other.

Every year Memorial Day comes round, at least here in North America, a ready-made ‘holy day’ piled on top of other memorial days that have migrated with every culture that has ever come home to these shores. I live two thousand miles away from the graves of any of my recent ancestors and have never gone to visit their graves. It puzzles me and mystifies me, the feelings some of my ethnic neighbors have for the actual sites and contents of their ancestors’ resting places.

I envy even those of my own ethnic heritage whose little walled graves in church yards, some even surmounted with stone tables for memorial suppers, still understand what it means, still feel it, still feel them, the ancestors, alive and hidden in their own living flesh, and can therefore truly stand firm and confident in their προσδοκώ, in their expectation of the resurrection of not only the dead, but of their dead, their loved ones, who now live only by being carried in the memory of God.

Yes, Αιωνία η μνήμη, aionía i mními, ‘eternal [be] the memory,’ of all my pious and God-fearing ancestors, and yours, and all those who have cried out to Christ, ‘Remember me, Lord, in Your Kingdom.’

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