On a recent flying trip to France, having accomplished the academic tasks for which I came, I had several days for reading, writing, and revisiting favorite places.
I holed up in Auxerre for a long weekend, settled down at my laptop, and the first day wrote from the crack of dawn until midnight, with a break of an hour and a half to attend Mass at the cathedral. When I finally stopped working for the day, it being the next day, I turned on the television.
Briefly, surely for no longer than a minute, the screen was filled with the most perverse hard-core pornography imaginable. Disbelief turned to disgust and when I found the remote and turned the set off it was like driving devils from the room. To this day, weeks later, my imagination is suddenly assailed by those images and I have to be on the qui vive to drive them away.
France, of course, is the country not only of the racy postcard but of the Marquis de Sade. Nonetheless, I think the eponymous sadist himself would have been taken aback by those filmed antics. It was as if scenes from his twisted imagination had suddenly been enacted in the town square, before men and women, girls and boys, children. A comparatively sedate phrase from Yeats—”nymphs and satyrs copulating in the foam”—suggests the picture.
From Auxerre I went on to Nevers and stopped for Mass at the convent where St. Bernadette, the visionary of Lourdes, had spent her short life as a nun. There was a group of German tourists in the chapel, the Mass being said by a priest accompanying them. To the right of the main altar, in an alcove, in a glass casket, is the uncorrupted body of Bernadette.
She lies there in her religious habit, her head turned slightly away, a rosary entwined in her joined hands. Her face is beautiful. Her body was interred and exhumed several times before it was placed there in the church in the glass casket for pilgrims to kneel before and wonder about. I found myself wondering about the relation between those naked bodies disporting shamelessly on the television screen and this body of a saintly girl dead for nearly 120 years.
Dead bodies undergo dramatic changes as a rule; they crumble and decay, return to dust, until little recognizably human remains in the remains. So bodies like that of Bernadette are an exception. Not like that of Lenin, which was kept carefully preserved for decades while millions came to look at it, perhaps to make sure he really was dead. Bernadette’s intact body cannot he accounted for in terms of embalming, temperature control, or any human determination to keep corruption at bay. The body was first exhumed in 1909, found to be incorrupt, buried and then dug up again in 1919, after which it was put on display for the veneration of the faithful.
Why does God startle us in this way?
We live in a time when hard-core pornography is likely to hit you any way you look. In a contraceptive culture, where pleasure has been divorced first from the procreative and then from the unitive meaning of what is meant to be a marital act, it seems soon to prove almost fraudulent in its inadequacy. So the ante is raised, more and more frantic pursuits are engaged in, there is descent into deeper debasement, and eventually violence, and finally murder. Michelangelo’s famous painting of the last judgment in the Sistine Chapel depicts the ultimate result.
Maybe the message of Bernadette’s uncorrupted body is that while death is the shuffling off of this mortal coil, we can’t be fully human without it, so that the state of the soul after death is puzzling in its own way. The puzzle is solved by the resurrection. It may seem strange that saints who were not ruled by their bodies, who conquered them, in the phrase, should leave bodies that refuse to corrupt. But their eventual destiny is to be once more body and soul, human persons. And that is also the destiny of those poor devils whose perverse activities achieved a kind of immortality on film.
The culture of death is founded on carnal pleasure. The libertine finally wants to kill. Sensuality seems to have a mad logic that tends toward murder and necrophilia. The culture of life is a celebration of the body in a different way, as an integral part of our person. Belief in our ultimate calling in a life beyond this one was once dismissed as “pie in the sky,” a goal that distracts us from the real and earnest business of life on earth.
The truth is that the recognition that we have here no lasting city—our faith in the resurrection of the dead—confers an infinite importance on this life. How we live it will determine our eternal condition, whether of bliss or its opposite.