Avē atque valē.
-- Catullus, “Multas per gentes”
Hail and farewell. The poet came home, across many nations and seas, to the funeral of his brother, speaking in vain to silent ashes.
I never met Forrest Church. I didn’t go to hear him preach. I read only one of his books. But he cast a long shadow.
Hello and good-bye. I can’t claim a personal grief for him. But he leaves a blank space.
* * * * *
A graceful traveler of our difficult but exemplary Third Way, he described more clearly than anyone else the spiritual journey of those who gag on words of theology. He said, “Religion is our human response to being alive and having to die.” He got it about right. We all know, though we keep forgetting it, that we have to die. It’s how we respond to the knowledge that makes the difference.
Yes, even Christians know they have to die. The Christian miracle is not that Jesus survived somehow, but that he actually died and then triumphed over death. To deny this is, as the church fathers say, a heresy. Docetism, the doctrine that Jesus only seemed to die, is forbidden to the faithful; for if Jesus did not die then he was never truly mortal, never was one of us, and the Word was not Made Flesh.
The image of Resurrection brings transcendence to the imminent, eternity to the temporal. It says, I will die but return in triumph, I shall go out with tears but come in again with shouts of joy. My destiny is greater than the destiny of this carcass, and I must behave accordingly. It is one, but only one, of the forms by which one may consecrate, or sacre, the world.
And there are those who say we shall live, have lived, many lives already. They say, My conduct in this life determines my next placement. So I must live as though I would suffer the pain I inflict, would enjoy the pleasure I give – for indeed they will come back to me. The image of Reincarnation also makes us accountable to a standard of eternity.
But most Unitarian Universalists (and many Christians under their breath) can’t follow the maps of theologians, and cannot see into eternity. They look straight at the vanishing world and find transcendence in the vanishing. This is not a rehearsal it’s the show, and others are watching, maybe in the back row God. You never saw the script, you don’t know who’s about to enter or where the trap doors are, but you’d better make it mean something, because, well – because that’s all, folks. To stand in the spotlight and know your act isn’t worth the price of admission: that’s dying, ask any comedian. So you have to carry on under the eyes of God, as if it were immortal, which is to say in faith; and the Seeming that is never contradicted is all the Being and the Life there is.
Thoreau said he went to the woods “because I wished to live deliberately,” so that he would “not, when it came to die, discover that I had not lived.” If you have lived, he thought, then death cannot cheat you. You die for what you have lived for and, as Forrest said, “the purpose of life is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for.”
He also said, “If you’re reconciled to your life, you can reconcile with your death,” and he had done so. I’ve seen how people die and most of the time it’s not like in the movies. I know that he was fortunate. He was not disfigured or disabled. He did not lose his voice or his thoughts. During a reprieve of several years he gave several last sermons.
He was fortunate but made the most of his good fortune. He seemed to be saying, and not just for a moment, I can die now. He showed us a way to live, knowing that he had to die. O grave, where is thy victory?
Brother Forrest, I never knew you but I feel the loss. I hear you now, though you are silent. In perpetuum, frāter, avē atque valē. Hello and good-bye. You made me proud.