Some time ago I attended a funeral of a relative, an old lady who I knew vaguely from my childhood, a woman who was in my memory bank as a kindly lady, white-haired and handsome in a way that showed she had been a beauty in her heyday. I was at the funeral both to show my respect to family, and to support my mother. The funeral ran on in the familiar way, relatives and friends coming together to perform the rite of saying goodbye, and to support the remaining members of her close family. The service was as would be expected, the minister a youngish woman who had clearly taken time to visit with Elsie during her decline and had tried to assist her passage from the living to the inevitable state of death. What made me prick up my ears was her remembrance of Elsie feeling very tested toward her end, her repeated anxious query being ‘ But was I a good enough Christian?’. At that time, a decade or so ago, this troubled me. Elsie died asking herself an impossible query, she wasn’t tried by thoughts of being a good enough mother, or a good enough wife, or a good enough friend. She wanted to know whether she had been a good enough Christian. Was she going to her death anxious that she would not enter a heaven thereafter? Did she have visions of a painful and terrifying ordeal of purgatory? I don’t know that. I only know how terribly sad I felt for her that she carried that burden at the end.
Now , a decade or so on , I see this question a bit differently. I don’t hold a Christian belief in an omnipotent God, I share no vision of a hereafter. But I do see the immense value in living a life where we continuously question ourselves against our deepest held beliefs, and this is what Elsie was doing. Her mother had been a Christian Scientist, so my mother explained. Elsie had grown up in a different time, and each day she had been given the task of picking out with tweezers the biblical text of the day. Her childhood informed her she was not clean enough to handle the teachings of the bible directly. That was a different upbringing to my own, whose mother chose to give me a version of her understanding, which was to question everything. Look behind things to know more. Knowledge was power. Now in my fifties I myself continue to look towards the philosophers of the past to help me in the passage of my life. I read Montaigne and Marcus Aurelius to remind me to look into things, to live life as closely to my own truths as is possible, to find out what those truths are.
My upbringing brought some different challenges to me than Elsie had. What I understand now, that I did not understand then, was that challenge is the power to improve our lives. Then I was put out that her belief system had burdened her to the end. Now I know that is inevitable, whatever belief system we hold. What matters more is that the human we are wants to hold themselves accountable against something they value. It is that attempt to measure ourselves against a system of values that helps us to live healthily. Whether that system is meaningful to others should not tax us outside of our own understanding that it is harmless to others. Which brings me back to another funeral. My grandmother had two relatives with value systems that I had no truck with as they had told her decades before her death , on the death of her only son aged 44, that she should not be anxious about his death as she would be dying soon to join him. Born again evangelists, they lived their lives in a continuous expectation and exhortation of the apocalypse. Aged eleven ,at her funeral, I saw them only as witches, spreading unhappiness and sorrow. Now I think of these two ages spinster ladies, living out their lives in the hope of the second Coming being in their lifetime, assured of everlasting life in their minds. I compare their experience of being women with my own, and only feel sadness for them. That may be patronising of me, they may have the right on their side, but my understanding of living only sees two sad, lonely, unfulfilled women, spreading untruths and unkindness in an already troubled world. My system of values cannot accord with theirs, it doesn’t mean mine is any more meaningful to me as theirs were to them.
So I am back at the beginning, ending with no more certainty than when I began writing. That matters not. I have consoled myself with writing, Writing is my friend, as it was with Montaigne after his great friendship with Boetie was brought to an untimely end by the death of his young soul mate. What would I be in a world without the shape of words, as it must once have been? Perhaps I would have consoled myself better by walking amongst the woods, feeling the breath of the wind, and hearing the call of the birds. I think I shall go for a walk.
Good Sunday, live well, live kindly.