End Notes: Man on a Unicycle

Even the old can feel a surge of sap in spring, if not the fever of the young. The season of beginnings comes round again, and it is as if we are all back at Start in the game of life. The cycle of the seasons is part of the vaster clockwork of our galaxy but more proximately of our relation to the sun. Once it was a matter of serious dispute whether the sun moves around the earth or vice versa, and of course the geocentric account gave way to the heliocentric one, but all this has been swallowed up in an expanding universe that makes the old quarrel seem quaint. After all, to accept Copernicus did not entail throwing out one’s clocks.

The four seasons provide a pattern for human life, but unlike human life, they repeat themselves over and over. They form a cycle, a wheel, and what goes around comes around, in the phrase. The ages of man are modeled on those seasons, and on the sun that is their cause. But the melancholy difference soon dawns on us, and no one expressed it with more pith and pathos than Catullus.

Soles occidere et redire possunt:
nobis, cum semel occidit brevis lux,
nox est perpetua dormienda.
[Suns can die and rise again,
but when our brief light dies once,
we enter into perpetual sleep.]

It is that thought of something after death, of the possibility of breaking free of the time that is the measure of the wheeling planets that accompanies the sadness of Catullus. A perpetual sleep requires a sleeper. What pagans might guess at and vaguely hope for has been realized in Christ, and the liturgical cycle commemorates His victory over death. Pre-Socratic philosophers and at least one mad philosopher in the 19th century spoke of an eternal return, as if quite literally this moment of time, and we and all else in it, would be back, perform the same actions, do everything again. Groundhog Day. That would be eternity of the sort Aristotle granted the world. No individual of a species lasted long, but reproduction guaranteed the continuation of the species. To be or not to be was no option for this drone, but the species would continue in his progeny. Bees would always buzz, if not the same ones. The thought of death promotes memory to the role of the great repository of the past, which confers the only victory over time and death we can expect—if our faith is in vain.

 

The Resurrection altered once and for all the way we look at the cycle of the seasons and the stages of our life. We are on a unicycle, no doubt, but our destination is eternity, and all year long the liturgy makes that point.

So what happens when faith seeps out of a culture? What happens when the common morality, which Christianity presupposed and built upon, seems no longer to obtain? Many dark things, but funny things as well. The migration of the old to sunny climes becomes for many an attempt to negate the fact of age. In Sarasota and elsewhere one sees ancient women who keep themselves in some semblance of the condition of their youth. 0 Brave New World. Sex divorced from its purpose becomes an obsession leading to despair. One thousand and three conquests in Spain alone, Leporello sings of Don Giovanni. The very number is absurd. But brittle couples seek an endless honeymoon at Viagra Falls. We could not believe the aged, trembling Katherine Hepburn was real, as if film had stopped time for her, as in a superficial sense it does, even in home movies. If the body is all we are, then the search for spare parts to keep it running becomes an industry.

Age is when wisdom is a possibility, but by and large it is a time of special folly. For every one who would not willingly be a day younger than he is, there are millions frantically athirst for the fountain of youth. But even post- Christians can see this is madness. Simone de Beauvoir wrote a novel whose hero could not die but would have died of boredom if he could. If the City of Man were all there is, despair would be all but unavoidable. But we have here no lasting city. Spring without Easter would seem sinister, and April the cruelest month. But Christ is risen and spring is here. Alleluia.

Ralph McInerny

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Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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