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April 01, 2005

A Lesson Before Dying

In all seriousness and sincerity on this April first, we have begun the final period of dealing with the death of Pope John Paul II.

I heard the news not long ago, perhaps it was Wednesday, that he had recieved the Sacrament of the Sick. I can recall when this was called Extreme Unction. As kids in Catholic School, we always counted up the Sacraments that we would recieve, Extreme Unction always being the last. I had always liked the idea of Extreme Unction, as an opportunity to review your life and have a special blessing on your way out of the world. I think that it was my appreciation of this that has shaped the way I think about death in the days before I actually had to deal with it personally.

In my crusading days as a black cultural nationalist, I wondered, and to a certain extent still do, about the loss through assimilation of native African rituals. Around 1990 all of us had to consider, with some depth the premises of Afrocentricity. Having been a fan of Ishmael Reed and decidedly polytheist, it made sense to me to bring African loas and spirits into the pantheon. But even more fundamentally, what were the rites of passage in African American and American life and how seriously were we taking them? I have concluded that we do not take our traditions quite seriously enough, that on the whole we are secular in a unreflectively libertine way. It is part and parcel of our liberty and to be expected, but it is in matters of death (and recently marriage) that we tend to realize this and snap back.

I sense that in these post-multiculuralist days, Americans are trying to find out where traditional culture went, and how to recover it. There is some irony in reactionary responses in search of tradition, but this is what we are seeing in phrases like 'The Culture of Life'. It's meaningless on its face, but it is and expression of a genuine desire. I believe that the desire is to make sense of, and reconcile authentic American traditions with our ever-changing global awareness. Specifically, we need to find ways to simplify and give meaning to our own lives without sacrificing the advantages that come from where technology, global markets and geopolitics are taking us.

I think the solution lies in making more concrete investments in rites. This is indeed a religious argument as contrasted with a spiritual one. The interesting point is that there are a great number of spiritual delights within our grasp in this wealthy nation. We have a dazzling array of spiritual choices that are valid, meaningful and worthy of respect. And that's part of the problem. Many of these spiritual delights are fungible - you can buy them, you can start and stop them. Psychoanalysis. Backpacking. Scouting. Charity Work. All of these things are good for the soul, but none of them require a lifetime commitment.

So what I'm saying is that part of the mess we've gotten in over Schiavo has to do with the fact that too many Americans are expecting moral support from Government - which is a symptom of a deeper lack of commitment to their own ethnic or religious traditions.

The death and dying of a Pope or a Catholic can provide us a guide. There are well established rites which when carried out represent the essence of a sacrament, an outward sign of an inward commitment. These are what America needs, not political activism.

Posted by mbowen at April 1, 2005 02:51 PM

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