I have been thinking about death lately. I suppose it began with our visit to the catacombs. All the graves are empty now. The bones have been moved to prevent looters from stealing them as they sometimes did while helping themselves to marble and other artifacts. Once the catacombs held row upon row, passage after passage of bodies lying silent like seeds in the ground or cocoons in metamorphosis. Now the tombs are empty slots carved into rock - a foretaste of the Resurrection.
In death, children seem no different from adults. Their slots are smaller, but they are buried like the rest. Small seeds will sprout as surely as larger ones. I imagine Clara lying in one of those little tombs, and surprisingly, I am comforted.
Though the great majority of Christians buried in the catacombs died of natural causes, there were many martyrs among their ranks. Being in Rome, I found the humility of their sacrifice all the more moving. The signs and symbols of imperial Rome are still in evidence. Pagan statues line walks and adorn public building - young bodies, eternally strong and beautiful, sensual and powerful. The wisdom of God in forbidding graven images becomes more apparent to me. Art expresses the heart, and the Roman heart lusted for immortality.
Who were these fathers and mothers so willing to give up their lives? And did they know that their silent witness would win the day?
I think of death for other reasons. My parents are aging. Even friends begin to pass. I love life, but it is hard and full of sorrow. These words of St. Ambrose resonate with my own musings.
Death was not part of nature; it became part of nature. God did not decree death from the beginning; he prescribed it as a remedy. Human life was condemned because of sin to unremitting labour and unbearable sorrow and so began to experience the burden of wretchedness. There had to be a limit to its evils; death had to restore what life had forfeited. Without the assistance of grace, immortality is more of a burden than a blessing.
The martyrs knew this, and they were full of hope. For now at least, their hope strengthens me. I found a prayer on this trip which I have been praying for myself, for my parents, for those who come to heart. I imagine the thoughts of our fathers and mothers in the catacombs moved along similar paths, forming their prayers in Latin, Greek, Aramaic.
When the signs of age begin to mark my body
(and still more when they touch my mind)
when the ill that is to diminish me or carry me off
strikes from without or is born within me;
when the painful moment comes
in which I suddenly awaken
to the fact that I am growing old
and above all at that last moment
when I feel I am losing hold of myself
and am absolutely passive within the hands
of the great unknown forces which formed me;
in all those dark moments, O God,
grant that I may understand that it is You
(provided only that my faith is strong enough)
who are painfully parting the fibres of my being
in order to penetrate to the very marrow
of my substance and bear me away within Yourself.
- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ