The late Roger Scruton has just published an essay, an effort to understand how mourning is a work we need to undertake. (A footnote clarifies that he wrote the essay before he died. An element of mourning is our coming to terms with the inability of the deceased to write anymore.) Scruton writes with an easy elegance that carries along a cosmopolitan intelligence. The essay covers a lot of ground in a few thousand words. I want to pick out just one little piece of it.
It is a critique of a civilization that has lost religion. “The loss of religion makes real loss difficult to bear; hence people begin to flee from loss. . . . Modern people use drugs, instant excitements, and commodified sex in order to forestall both love and mourning, to arrive at the condition where renunciation is pointless since there is nothing to renounce. Renunciation of love is possible only when you have learned to love. This is why, in a society without religion, we see emerging a kind of contagious hardness of heart, an assumption on every side that there is no tragedy, no grief, no mourning, for there is nothing to mourn. There is neither love nor happiness—only fun. The loss of religion, one might suggest, is the loss of loss.”
Britain is further gone down the road of religion’s loss that the U.S., and here the coastlands are further gone than the South. But I think it is increasingly true for many people throughout our society: “There is neither love nor happiness—only fun.”
Loss is something you can experience only if you have experienced love; to love, for humans, is to get wounded. People die, and when they do, it is important for us to mourn. However well intentioned, a “celebration of the life” of someone who has died is not the same as “the burial of the dead,” which is the name of the service in the Book of Common Prayer. We hate to see someone in pain, hate to see a person cry, and yet weeping is part of the work that needs to be done. When Thorin dies, having just repented to Bilbo of his recent words and deeds, Bilbo sees the whole meaning of that great dwarf’s life, and he weeps profusely.
Western civilization responds to loss, Scruton says, by bearing it precisely as a loss. This is concretized in an elegy, “a way of accepting the loss of some precious thing. It rejoices in the fact that the precious thing was given. If it is sad, it is with an accepting sadness. An elegy says: This we were given, and it is gone, but we should be grateful for it, and try to live up to its memory.”
Out & About. Sunday, October 9, at 5 p.m., I am to give the fall theology lecture: “Theology of Walking,” in the Ascension Chapel of Church of the Incarnation in Dallas. Yours truly has finally made his acquaintance with PowerPoint in preparation for this event, which means, alas, it will soon no longer be true that “VA doesn’t do AV.” But I hope the slides of the Camino will make it worth the loss!
Sunday, October 16, 5 p.m.: I will lead a seminar on Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor.
On the Web. “The Work of Mourning” is published here.