The Greatest of These
August 30, 2009 § 2 Comments
Teddy Kennedy’s funeral was very moving. It reminded me of the Catholic funerals I went to in my teens—my uncle and my cousin? I can’t remember. So many people died in those years—my cousin in a car crash on the night of his high school graduation, others by illness and suicide—but I do remember that two of the funerals were Catholic, long, beautiful, with music and incense.
None of us had fathers we could talk about as Teddy’s sons did about him. We all wanted to. We remembered the good things and tried to make them be more than they were, as well as sometimes exaggerating the bad. Then I grew up, sort of, and watched my husband be a less good father than he should have been, and felt complicit because I was. I was distracting him with youth and sex and freedom, and felt like I deserved his attention because his kids at least had a father, and I didn’t. If I were Catholic I would have gone to confession over that.
I try to respect faith; it awes me sometimes. But listening to the priest talk about Teddy being in Heaven with Jesus, and being with his dead siblings, I think: how is that not more delusional than my beliefs about romance that make me feel so stupid and sad?
The obvious answer is that if Teddy’s wrong he’ll never know it and while he was alive he had the comfort of it. After all, if there is no God and we die into darkness, how does believing this help us bear it? All I have is my cat, jumping up here now to present me with his amber and white furriness, glistening and clean, not quite angelic but pleasingly tangible. His small head and swanlike neck. His stupid, beautiful, tawny eyes.
I suppose the purpose of God is to be pure. Nobody we love here is. God can betray only us by not existing, and then it’s not anyone betraying us. But I can only say so because I don’t believe. If I did—if I were absolutely certain there was a God who saw and spoke and could change things, if I were like my Aunt Vera or Teddy, thinking all the doctrine was absolutely true—I’d want to kill the crazy bastard in a nanosecond.
My friend Philip thinks I don’t understand religion. He thinks I’m a Godless Unitarian hippie nonbeliever. But I savored faith early on, studying Aldous Huxley’s collection of sacred writings The Perennial Philosophy, which remains the best of its kind. He made me understand the sweet potency of a belief no human power could shake. I remember especially (from another book of Huxley’s) a description of a martyr holding fast under torture. Huxley made me see that once you’re in the place of torture, faith is all that will keep your mind in one piece. To renounce it in order to stop the physical pain is a false bargain. Your soul splinters.
This doesn’t apply if your faith is slim and you’re not being tortured. Huxley’s words didn’t make me believe—not on that level—but they made me understand the mechanism.
Still, I had radiant months and days of a faith that didn’t know quite where to land, that was looking at the worlds’ doctrines like a girl looking to marry. Trying to choose wisely. I had love and devotion to spare. But I was like Eve. I wanted to know what I wasn’t being told. I got kicked out.
But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.