Tuesday, April 18, 2017

For the Faithful Not-Quite Departed



When I was a kid I really tuned into the whole Holy Week thing. Aside from Christmas it seemed to be the only time of the year when there was an actual story being told, a compelling focus for all the ritual and sermonizing we had to put up with all year. Sunday School met in the chapel for much of Lent into Easter, and the chapel was like a secret, hidden little mini-church in which kids ruled.


But there was something else that struck me about Holy Week. There were these little vent windows in the stained glass displays and they were usually left open, since the chapel tended to get awfully warm. And I would sit by the window and take in the intoxicating-- and irreducibly pagan-- wholeness of Spring.


When I was a kid I spent most of my playtime outdoors, often exploring the woods behind our neighborhood. I walked to school until I got to 9th grade. I tuned into the sights, sounds, and perhaps most importantly, the smells of the natural world in a way adults are incapable of. I was able to process all of this sensory input in a way I would never be able to again, because everything was rich, new, unknown and alive.


Spring also meant baseball, which we residents of Red Sox Country took as religion. We'd play until the cold hurt your hands when the bat connected, then mess around with a football for a little while until the ponds froze and it was time for hockey. Baseball meant little league, when Watson Park turned into a city of kids every evening. It was there that I was initiated into the deeper mysteries of Spring.


But Easter was also a story of resurrection, a story that long predates Christianity. It's probably one of the oldest stories we have. But it's also a story of the Dead.


I understood the resurrection story, its power and its emotional appeal. When I was eight years old I lost someone very close to me, someone who died far too young. And died violently. It happened three days after Christmas, just because Fate is at heart a fucking sadist. (I still remember playing with my new GI Joe training center in the basement when my mother called me upstairs to break the news). In many ways, my childhood died then and I spent far too much time trying to claw it back later.


This boy was touched by the gods, everyone thought so. Even adults recognized the power of his charisma, his natural charm. He was a natural born leader, other kids just naturally fell in behind him. But most of all, he was a genuinely good person who understood his power over others but never tried to exploit it.


His death tore a hole through my family. Things I took for granted were going to slowly change, and something important was going to be taken away from me. So his death wasn't just a single tragedy, a focal point in time. It was to have repercussions for my human ecosystem.


The dead boy haunted my dreams for years. You know how it is- you lose someone and they return to you in your dreams, explaining that it was a big misunderstanding, they were still alive and well. In one dream he came back dressed like an astronaut. I met him by the grape orchard in my neighbor's yard. He told me didn't die, that he just had been in outer space. How's that for symbolism? I can still picture that dream, better than yesterday.


So, yeah, the story of a charismatic young man rising from the dead and returning to his friends and family had tremendous resonance for me. Add in the magic of Springtime, which promised a banquet of baseball and Cheap Trick records (and hopefully, girls) and you're looking at an admixture that Medieval alchemists would have sold their souls to replicate.


There are lots of theories about the Easter story. It's just a rewriting of the passions of Pagan fertility gods. A double died on the cross or the death was faked. It was a mass hallucination. Jesus's ghost appeared to the Apostles. Plus, the old standby- aliens.


I'm not going to litigate the debate here. It's besides the point. Because the Easter story spoke- and speaks- to generations of people who experienced loss and more than anything, wished that loss could be undone.


Death has insinuated itself back into my human ecosystem. A while back, I told our Gordon that I sensed its presence, that it felt like it had entered into a holding pattern overhead. This was when a family member was diagnosed with cancer, which he beat into remission like the tough little bastard he is. But that was a false dawn since Death has taken a number of trophies since then, nearly all at far too young an age.


So I know a bit about Death. More than I would like to. But I also know that Death is a functionary, a delivery man. I know that something of the human essence keeps on trucking along.


I also know about the not-quite departed. Those whose passage to the other side is blocked for one reason or other. I spent a lot of time in a house where the not-quite departed had taken up residence and had to be encouraged to leave by a professional medium. There was a time in my life when everyone I knew either knew someone else who had a ghost story, or if not, had a ghost story of their own.


The not-quite departed sometimes come to us and try to make themselves known. I think this is more common than generally understood simply because many of us don't recognize their language. For reasons we will probably never explain, they can sometimes influence our physical environment, particularly through electricity, and now, electronics. But that's just the stage show, like Jesus and his magic.

The not-quite departed don't want to haunt our houses so much as our thoughts.


Spectrology is as reliable as UFOlogy but there are some parameters that have been generally accepted for millennia. The not-quite departed are spirits with unfinished business on this plane. They were unloved or misunderstood, or they died unjustly or too young. Of course, that just described half of the people who've ever died but there seems to be other factors at work when the not-quite departed make themselves known to the living. Some think it's environmental, that geology plays a major role in these events. That very could be, but we may also never know that for sure either.

Truth be told, haunting is a pretty compelling explanation for the Easter story. If you're so inclined, of course. You have the prerequisite geology angle with the stone tomb, the fear and guilt Jesus' followers felt making them more receptive to spectral influence, the conflicting stories, the violations of the laws of physics. Throw in some dreams, visions and fantasies and you can wrap that thing up with a bow.

But again, that's not the selling point here. Because the pitch was that if you believed this story, your dead sons would one day return to you too. And for most of human history pretty much every family in Christendom - the world- were pining for a dead son.


I grew up in a heavily Irish Catholic neighborhood, with many first-generation immigrants*. The departed hold a special place in traditional Irish culture, as did the Easter story, certainly. The not-quite departed did as well. Given Ireland's history this certainly makes a lot of sense. It was common to see shrines to the departed in people's homes, more common in fact than shrines to the saints. I think this came out of a belief- perhaps never consciously acknowledged- that the departed were preparing the way in Heaven for the rest of us. A kind of variation on ancestor worship, if you will.


Which makes me think that the dominance secularism is currently enjoying will be short-lived. Secularism seems to be feeding into anxiety and despair among a lot of people, which in turn is leading to an epidemic of early death, from drugs, suicide or misadventure.

I think this is a self-correcting dilemma. Trauma will inevitably lead people away from secularism- to religion, to magic, the New Age, whatever. This in turn will have a knock-on effect for the rest of the culture.


All of which is to say is that as much as we think we can sanitize death and ignore the calls of the not-quite departed, I think the inexorable laws of nature have other plans in mind.