Undone So Many

My host has the custom of taking his family to a cemetery on Memorial Day, so we paid a visit to the National Memorial Cemetery of Arizona, which is run by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
    Highway traffic comes to a crawl a mile or so out, and ahead one discerns a sharp row of flags lining the highway. The corner is turned, and the cemetery comes into view: a sea of individual flags, one at each grave, whipping in the strong wind. From a distance it’s a blur of pink. There is no grass but reddish gravel, and the graves are marked with uniform, bronze, rectangular stones. Only the flags rise above ground—with here and there some brave flowers, placed for the day.
    Although the stones are uniform, they have certain distinctives: many but not all with crosses, some with symbols of other faiths; some with two names, the soldier and a spouse or child; an indication of the service: navy, say, or army; Korea or World War II.
    Where we happened to stop, all the graves were of people who had died just about ten years ago, although their time of service varied.
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    My host quoted a line from T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”: “I had not thought death had undone so many.” Eliot himself was quoting Dante’s Inferno, where Dante sees the many dead, so many. There are, of course, more people on the other side of death than on this side, but that is a perspective that takes work to achieve. And an ordinary cemetery, with a variety of stones and periods, with hills and corners, with toppling old monuments and shiny new ones—such a cemetery does not convey the immensity of death as does a military one. Looking at thousands (it must have been) of identical flags, the simple geometry, the uniform spacing, the gravel, extending beyond one’s vision—and thinking, too, that all these people were united in the same purpose (the military): here was a transcendence of individuality that honored the individuals. They had their names; they had played their part; they had put precisely themselves at the service of something larger than themselves.
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    And so it is with the church. It is not “militaristic” to recognize that, in the church, we are lifted up into a cause that is greater than ourselves; that we are to give our own lives, it may be, that others may live; that we find our selves when we give up our selves. In the traditional burial office there was no place for a eulogy, but only for the name of the departed. His or her identity was taken up into Christ.
    There we place our death: there we place our life: there, where uncounted and unimaginable legions have preceded us.
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    Out & About. Coming soon: the next “Good Books & Good Talk” seminar, on The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery: Sunday, June 9, at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Anyone who reads it is welcome.
    Monday, June 10, at the Ginger Man pub in Dallas, Dr. Elisabeth Kincaid and I will talk about justice, crime, and the death penalty. Elisabeth is the new ethics professor at Nashotah House. I am looking forward to our public conversation. We begin at 7 p.m., but those who wish can arrive early and order.
    Saturday and Sunday, June 15-16, I am to preach at All Souls’ Church in Oklahoma City: Saturday at 5:30 p.m., Sunday at 8 and 10 a.m.

Numbering Our Days

A friend sent me a link to an article in Aeon on the invention of linear time (the author is Paul Kosmin of Harvard). This invention is to think of time as just “there” and able to be numbered. We take it for granted. This year has the number 2019. In ten years it will be 2029; in a hundred years, 2119. Our ability to number time allows us to imagine it stretching before us indefinitely, and independently of events. No matter who is president, no matter what kind of phones we have (or if we have something that has replaced phones), no matter our own health or even whether we ourselves are alive—in ten years it will be 2029.
    Before numbering time in this way was invented, dates were given by reference to events. We see this in the Bible. Isaiah 6:1 is famous: “In the year that King Uzziah died . . .” as is Luke 2:1-2: “there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed . . . this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.”
    To tie events to other events is deeply human. I find that when I read about something that happened a few decades ago, I try to connect that event with where I was living and what was going on in my life. I remember, for instance, Yeltsin, but when I read that he became president of Russia in 1991, I think: that was the third year of my rectorship in Hopewell Junction, and Richard Grein was bishop of New York, and George Bush was president, and it would be two more years before the discovery of Susan’s tumor. I could of course write it this way: “In the third year of the presidency of George Bush, Richard Grein being bishop of New York and Susan’s health still fully with her, Boris Yeltsin became president of Russia.” But we don’t write it that way; we write “in 1991.”
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    To number time is clearly to gain a certain power over it. With that number “1991," for instance, we very efficiently get past our local and personal events and place them—place everything—on a “timeline” that we can construct and lay out before us without any end in sight. Every event of history, and every possible future event, comes within our grasp as we put it in its place.
    That is to say, there is a theological danger in counting time. It’s the danger of pride, close cousin to the danger of idolatry.
    In that article in Aeon, Professor Kosmin wonders if the invention of linear time (which happened about 311 B.C. with the Seleucids) is behind the warnings of, for instance, the book of Daniel (which is normally dated about one or two hundred years after that). The book of Daniel deals with the pretensions of empire, but it continually says: proud empire will not stretch indefinitely into the future. It will fall apart; it will be humbled.
    We could see the same point in the book of Revelation. Time will come to an end. The scroll of history is not meaningless and infinite; to the contrary, it is a finite scroll, and the Lamb that was slain is able to open its seals and give it its meaning.
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    Psalm 90:12 (in the BCP translation) is dear to me: “So teach us to number our days * that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” Of course this means that we need to remember that the days of our life are finite, and since our lifespan is finite, we need to apply ourselves wisely, apply our hearts to God’s wisdom. But it also means there is a right way and a wrong way to number our days. “So” means, then, that we ask God to teach us to number our days in the right way: not to be tempted to think of my time as a piece of universal time stretching into the future independently of God. Time itself is in God’s hands and has its end in God.
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    Out & About. Sunday, June 9, will be the next “Good Books & Good Talk” seminar. Our text is the splendid The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. At Church of the Incarnation in Dallas, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Anyone who reads it is welcome.
    Before then is our conference on “What’s the Good of Humanity?” It would be great to see you there, if you can come: June 3-5 in Baltimore: http://www.e-ccet.org/pro-ecclesia-conference-2019-whats-the-good-of-humanity/
    What Theologians Read. Kosmin’s “A Revolution in Time” is here: https://aeon.co/essays/when-time-became-regular-and-universal-it-changed-history

 

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The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."