We die with the dying; / See, they depart, and we go with them. / We are born with the dead: See, they return, and bring us with them.
The first part of the verse is striking but not surprising. I immediately thought of the famous lines of John Donne:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
As a pastor I have been honored to minister to the dying on multiple occasions, though only once was I privileged to be present at the sacred moment of passing. (Sadly, I was not present with either of my parents when they died. Each time I was in route.) One cannot be with the dying and not be confronted with one’s own inevitable death. We are mysteriously included in every human being’s demise. This is not just psychological projection. It is something real, which is no doubt why those who care for the dying build strong interior defenses to protect themselves from the horror and dread. How many times can one enter the darkness? Thank God the Church provides solemn prayers to be recited. Our own made-up words reveal themselves as inadequate and banal. Through the words and ritual, God surrounds and comforts us with his loving presence.
The second part of Eliot’s statement does surprise, however. “We are born with the dead.” Is this why genealogy fascinates? We find ourselves in our ancestors. A couple years ago I learned that one of my ancestors was Capt. Ralph Stewart. He was a Virginian Indian fighter who also fought in the Revolutionary War. Records indicate that he served at the Siege of Yorktown and was part of the detachment that guarded General Cornwallis after the surrender of the British. Some have speculated that the character of Benjamin Martin in the movie The Patriot, played by Mel Gibson, was partially based upon the fiery Stewart. Why do I find this possibility captivating, satisfying? Why should it matter? As minor and unimportant as Stewart’s role may have been, yet somehow his achievements (and sins?) are mine.
But what does the poet mean when he speaks of the return of the departed, bringing us with them? My Christian mind thinks of the General Resurrection, when the quick and the dead will be raised by God unto final judgment: “I testifie therfore before god and before the lorde Iesu Christ which shall iudge quicke and deed at his aperynge in his kyngdom” (2 Tim 4:1; Tyndale trans.). Our eternal fate is tied up with the fate of humanity. In our modern individualism we think of ourselves as isolated from the rest of mankind. It’s just me and God. Yet as Alexei Khomiakov reminds us: “If anyone falls, he falls alone. But no one is saved alone.” Yet perhaps the Adamic solidarity may be stated even more strongly. St Augustine spoke of the fall of the total Adam, totum genus humanum, in whom all of humanity participates. A Puritan primer teaches: “In Adam’s sin we sinned all.” We Orthodox are quick to dismiss this solidaric insight, yet we find it also expressed by Orthodox ascetics, such as St Silouan the Athonite and the Elder Sophrony. Reflecting on Silouan’s profound hymn Adam’s Lament, Estonian composer Arvo Pärt comments: “Adam is all of us who bear his legacy. This ‘Total Adam’ has been suffering and lamenting for thousands of years on Earth. Adam himself, our primal father, foresaw the human tragedy and experienced it as his personal guilt. He has suffered all human cataclysms, unto the depths of despair.” Dame Julian of Norwich, whose presence infuses Little Gidding, even more boldly identifies Adam, Christ, and humanity in her parable of the Lord and the Servant:
In the servant is comprehended the seconde person of the trinite, and in the servant is comprehended Adam: that is to sey, all men. And therefore whan I sey “the sonne,” it meneth the godhed, which is even with the fader; and when I sey “the servant,” it meneth Christes manhode, which is rightful Adam. By the nerehed of the servant is understand the sonne, and by the stonding on the left side is understond Adam. The lorde is God the father; the servant is the sonne Jesu Crist; the holy gost is the even love which is in them both. When Adam felle, Godes sonne fell. For the rightful oning which was made in heven, Goddes sonne might not be seperath from Adam, for by Adam I understond alle man. Adam fell fro life to deth: into the slade of this wretched worlde, and after that into hell. Goddes son fell with Adam into the slade of the maidens wombe, which was the fairest doughter of Adam—and that for to excuse Adam from blame in heven and in erth—and mightely he feched him out of hell. (Showings 51)
Hence the thrilling news of Pascha, when the Lord Christ descends into hades and takes Adam with him to Paradise. In the deliverance of Adam, all of humanity is delivered. Amen. Amen.