Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

At the hour of my death, call me and close to you, bid me

In the 1991 film, Black Robe, young, French Jesuit Father LaForgue has come to North America. Escorted by Algonquins, he is being sent up river to start a mission to the Huron Natives. The river scenes are uncomfortable: full of suspicion and alienation.

Along the way, Father LaForgue is being questioned about heaven by the doubtful chiefs. They want to know if there will be women and tobacco in heaven. Father LaForgue is uneasy and resorts to a catechism answer. The chiefs effectively roll their eyes and mutter among themselves, why bother? The young priest is well-intentioned, but he's failed to make heaven in any way real for these men, who are asking a legitimate question.


In  The Green Mile, Arlen Bitterbuck is in State Prison's Death Row awaiting execution for having killed a man in a drunken argument over a pair of boots. Arlen is a silent man, deeply introspective and remorseful. One night as his execution approaches, he opens up to the Tom Hanks figure, Paul,  who is in charge of the inmates, wondering aloud about heaven:

"Do you believe that if a man repents enough for what he done wrong, that he'll get to go back to the time that was happiest for him and live there forever? Could that be what heaven's like?"

Paul answers: "I just about believe that very thing."

Christians haven't done a very good job of convincing people that heaven is especially desirable. Lots of people, so unable or unwilling to explore what heaven means, have us all becoming angels when we die. In Emily Dickinson's poem, Going to Heaven! she doesn't sound especially excited about the prospects saying, "How dim it sounds!"

Jesus knew how to talk about the Kingdom of God - the full realization of which we call heaven. He more often than not made references people could identify with in happy, sensory and satisfying ways: a great banquet, a wedding feast. Food is one of the most memorable aspects of life on this planet: This food is heavenly, we might say.

But here the author of the Anima Christi uses the words call and bid in reflecting upon one aspect of heaven. Calling and bidding can be understood in many ways, perhaps signifying danger or trouble: the soldier being called-up for active duty, or being called to the Principal's office, or a refusal to do someone's nasty bidding. But here the sense is a warm invitation.

Keeping Arlen Bitterbuck's thoughts about heaven in mind, perhaps we're able to think of some time in our lives that was particularly wonderful, when we felt most alive, perhaps when, if even for a few moments all was well, when we were called or bidden into something that was, happiest. 

I have in mind when I was 8 years old, the third graders took a field trip to Farmingdale Agricultural College on Long Island. It was spring and when the yellow buses pulled onto the college property, the lambs were literally jumping up vertically in the air.

I was fascinated as we spent the day seeing all the animals: calves, turkeys, horses, chickens. This was a working farm and not agri-business. I was typically an introverted boy who would have moved throughout the day staying on the edges and in the rear - silent - almost invisible.

The last stop was the sheep pen with the lambs. The farmer-professor took the class right up to the fence and told  us about  the newborns. He ended by saying, "Would anybody like to hold the lamb?" I don't remember anything else except that my right arm shot up in the air from the back of the group and the voice calling - bidding: "You there, in the back, come on up!" and walking up to the front and having a lamb, just days old, put into my arms. And I doubt I had the words for it, but I remember feeling this happiness could last forever."

There's a death-bed for all of us. This week an 8 year old boy was killed by a bomb in Boston.  Saint Irenaeus says that we should think of death often. I think we should think of life often - real life, then death will take care of itself. Maybe Arlen Bitterbuck is very right, that when death comes we might go back to that time which was happiest for us and live there forever. And Jesus-God will be there, who has said, "I have come that  you may have joy and have it fully," (John 15:11).

1 comment:

  1. No comments. I found that there were no comments very odd as this post was the most moving. I couldn't read beyond,,, when you were happiest. Its been a bit dark for so long. I had to stop and cry and think and pray. The tension is incredible. Will be sitting with this one for a while.

    ReplyDelete