Trading in a sober view of our final ends for raw power has almost certainly been the Faustian transaction of our time. Then again, it truly is baked into the human experience, terminating with that infamous serpent who hoodwinked our first parents with his somatic wager to recast us as gods. The payout was anything but—paving the way for sickness, death, and divorce from the Almighty. In this sense, we live in a time that has done little but simply doubled down on the sins that withdrew us from paradise.
As fate would have it, however, a pandemic breaks and we are forced to face the implications of this campy myth of raw power. We, the self-styled masters of nature, tremble at the tyrannical arbitrariness of a microscopic virus.
In the usual post-modern story, you find it is technology that has taken on the role of serpent—offering its gentle whispers of imminent personal deification. As it is transmitted, we are ever on the precipice of a revolutionary fountain of youth, maybe a futuristic mainframe with which to upload our consciousness, or perhaps some other voodoo ritual of transfusing blood from the young. However, the illusion manifests, death is always presented as some kind of future-ancient problem.
There is a brief anecdote in The Power of Silence, a book co-authored by Cardinal Robert Sarah and Nicolas Diat, about the burial practices of the Carthusian monastery in LaGrasse, France. It is a sobering image of how one of the great monastic traditions grapples with the reality of their mortality: “The graves bore no names, dates, or mementos. On the one side, there were stone crosses, for the generals of the Order, and on the other—wooden crosses for the Fathers and the lay Brothers. The Carthusians are buried in the ground without a coffin, without a tombstone; no distinctive mark recalls their individual lives.”
In stark contrast to this practice, modern man hides anxiously from his mortality until it casts its shadow upon him and demands its due. As Nicolas Diat aptly describes, in his book A Time to Die, “Modern man has an obsessive fear. He does not want to admit that life has an end. He searches by every means to forget the Grim Reaper. Death is disguised with makeup, like a hated and nightmarish reality.” Playing the role of the maniacal arsonist, the Covid-19 outbreak has thrown accelerant on our psychosis. We are ill-equipped to think well about death, and the God of Surprises—as He is wont to do—offers a Lenten journey for all of mankind.
In a very real sense, the burial practices of the Carthusian order have rooted themselves in a way that I think underlies the lesson of death. We have but a generation to be remembered, to be loved, to be prayed for, and then the dust storm of history comes rolling in. This is personified in the beautiful poetry of Lent, where we gather for Mass and mark ourselves with ashes to be as the wise virgins—waiting for their bridegroom—who “brought flasks of oil with their lamps” (Matt 25:4), and it is dramatically acted out by the Carthusians. We are but dust, and to the dust we will return, eventually forgotten by all except the Creator who providentially stamped His image upon us. Death is real and it is ever lurking in the shadows.
Then what does a society shorn of its religious traditions do when it is thrown, unprepared, into the valley of the shadow of death? I suppose, lacking the proper gift of awe and fear of the Lord, it seeks to exercise power—as impotent as it may be. Weakness masquerading as power finds it’s near-perfect expression in the panic-stricken ransacking of grocery stores, those viral images of barren shelves with which we have become well acquainted, and videos of frantic people brawling for toilet paper. It is a highly fitting image of a bewildered public suddenly realizing its fragility in the face of a pandemic. In a Christian society, acts of atonement or reparation of another sort might be the expected reaction to facing large-scale death. In our consumerist one, oriented around comfort and the illusion of progress, irrationally spending cash and hoarding goods properly fits.
The Carthusians approach their mortality well, not for lack of fear, nor for the discomfiting loneliness that creeps in when contemplating death. What they do, that modern man has traded for the brittle illusion of power, is a habitual practice of humility. Life in these monastic traditions is undertaken with a sense of finality, and a focus on what is to come. For the rest of us, we’ve confused the tree of knowledge for the tree of life, and the serpent for our savior. We have made an idol of our cleverness. We have pilfered our inheritance as children of God to cast ourselves into a sea of little private Prometheans, exalting pride as our highest good. The illusion largely works for the fact that we really are clever, and masters of noise, among manifold other inoculations of distraction. Death is a stubborn mistress, nonetheless, and she has demanded our attention.
In The Power of Silence, the meditation on this peculiar burial practice ends with the observation, “Since 1084, Carthusians have not wanted to leave any trace. God alone matters. Stat Crux dum volvitur orbis—the world turns and the Cross remains.” Indeed, as we are joined unexpectedly by countless others this year on our Lenten journey, to recall the great lesson that this life will one day end, let us also remember the waywardness of it all, and who Our Savior really is. As the Corona virus has amply demonstrated, our cleverness has its limitations and cannot save us from death—only Christ can do that.
So may we all collectively draw a deep breath, wash our hands, remember our death, and, for the love of all that’s holy, please share the toilet paper.
Image: The White Monk by Richard Wilson