On a recent trip, I was waiting in a subway station. It wasn’t clear whether the last train had already come and gone, so we strangers started talking with each other to try to figure out what was going on. I met a woman from China who was travelling alone, having taken a very brief side-trip once the business part of her travels was done.
How is it that with some people you just instantly get along? It’s as plain as day, and it’s there in the body language – an instant sympathy in the eyes, the smile. There’s ease and empathy. One time WiseOne was talking about being able to feel what another person is thinking without even looking, and she described the sensation as feeling like waves, which struck me as an interesting choice of words. So I don’t know exactly what it is, whether it’s something visual or if it’s something we sense with ‘a sixth sense,’ (i.e. our souls?) but the point is that on first meeting some people, you sense that here’s someone you’d have a blast getting to know better. I don’t think that first impressions are everything, but I agree with Chesterton when he says that we rely on such instincts in human relationships as our primary way of assessing each other, more than, for example, paperwork or other ways of knowing. I’ve always maintained, for example, that a job interview is basically usually about whether the employer likes you or not.
In any case, the subway woman and I both knew that any conversation would be the last we’d ever see of each other. And sure enough, within ten minutes, the train had arrived, we boarded and then it was my stop and I was leaving. We pleasantly said “goodbye,” a word which had to signify any and all of the sentiments that we might have had at that moment (English seems so impoverished in the parting wishes department, at least nowadays), and I stepped off the subway. At the last second, I turned back to see her and she was watching me too.
It’s enough to make a person want to weep.
Tell me, what kind of life is this that we always have to say goodbye to people without properly getting to know them?
I know, I know: “We should accept things as they are. Life is good and beautiful just as it is, including its burden of suffering.” (Jacques Philippe, Interior Freedom).
But still! Our interactions on earth are so fleeting and incomplete!
Even when we’re not on a vacation an ocean away from home, the circumstances aren’t always favorable to really talking. When we see each other at large gatherings, for example, these are often unsatisfying, because everything almost always stays on a superficial level, and you leave feeling that you’ve spoken to so many people but haven’t had a proper conversation with anyone:
What dullness there is in our life arises mostly from its rapidity: people pass us too quickly to show us their interesting side. By the end of the week we have talked to a hundred bores; whereas, if we had stuck to one of them, we might have found ourselves talking to a new friend, or a humourist, or a murderer, or a man who had seen a ghost.
– G.K. Chesterton, “The Inside of Life”
I suppose some people love such an environment, where things never go beyond small talk, and where you never get to know what the other really thinks. But for the rest of us, it’s just an appetizer, not a proper meal. I treasure this description:
Again, the surprised expression crossed his face. He had not imagined that a woman would dare to speak so to a man. For me, I felt at home in this sort of discourse. I could never rest in communication with strong, discreet, and refined minds, whether male or female, till I had passed the outworks of conventional reserve, and crossed the threshold of confidence, and won a place by their heart’s very hearthstone.
Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre, Chapter 22
And then there are so many people whom you can see only occasionally, for various reasons. You have, as usual, a wonderful time with them, and you hope that next time the visit will be after a shorter interval, and yet – and yet, life goes by so quickly; it’s so full (Chesterton says in the same article, “Life is too large for us as it is: we have all too many things to attend to”). Couldn’t we just hit the ‘pause’ button and finish all those conversations? Instead, the time inevitably comes when we must smile outwardly while we say goodbye again.
Or what about the project that’s ended? When some projects end, the participants scatter for good, never to be in the same room all together again. It would be pleasant to build some tents, as St. Peter suggested, or have some tea, as Chesterton’s poet-friend Edmund Clerihew Bentley wrote (“We could have had a pleasant afternoon”) but instead, it’s another farewell because life must march on.
And even in the best case scenario, where you have frequent and more leisurely chances to catch up with the people you want to talk to, isn’t it the case that there’s not even enough time to be with one person properly? There’s always so much to talk about; so much has happened – so many emotions, so many thoughts. And of course, the more you see of someone, the more attuned you become to the drama of their lives – now you want to hear how such-and-such turned out, and what they thought of it. But even while the conversation takes place, the clock is ticking and other obligations are becoming more pressing. It’s time to move along, again.
I can’t believe there’s no eternity, for many reasons, and one reason has to do with the way people themselves are so eternal. They are so big and complicated, with whole landscapes inside them. Are we to meet so many wonderful, captivating people and yet have this little time to be with them? And what about all those kindred spirits that we don’t meet? No, it couldn’t be – we have eternity written into the very fibre of our being: there must be more.
In other words, the limits and restrictions associated with living for a certain amount of time in a certain circumstance, do not seem to fit with the infinite desires of the human heart. It’s almost as if this plane of existence doesn’t match who we are. Animals fit like a glove with the natural world, but for us, it’s not enough. We want all of everything and then we’re still looking for the missing piece. Unlike the animals, we aren’t easily contented; we’re restless, as St. Augustine says. We’re so much more perverse and complicated and extremely good and bad than the animals, because we’re more than simply natural beings – we’re supernatural.
At a recent funeral that I attended, the son spoke about his mother and said, “We’re not a religious family, but I know that I’m going to see her again; I don’t know how and I don’t know where . . .” How I agree with this sentiment, this instinct!
Is it wishful thinking? If it is wishful thinking, it’s a very particular kind of wish, which I think is interesting in itself. And if it is wishful thinking, it’s a kind of thinking which has been validated, or at least expressed, by many religions throughout the ages, including Catholicism, which is most definitely not a religion of wishful thinking, containing, as it does, many difficult teachings, including the necessity of embracing the cross.
Christianity teaches that the human instinct of an afterlife is correct and that there will be a time when we will have more time – lots of it, and the nature of this extra time is dependent on how we use our earthly batch of time. It also teaches that our connection with each other surpasses all the bounds of space and time, and that even death does not separate us from other people, provided that we are with God. One aspect of the doctrine on the communion of the saints refers to our spiritual connection with each other, including those who are already with God (or, in the case of purgatory, preparing to be with God). And another aspect refers to the ability of saints to ask God for things on our behalf. Amazingly, in his goodness God has arranged things so that we can ask the saints to intercede for us, and he arranges things so that we will often be able to notice that our prayers have been answered. It’s like supernatural Skyping.
There are so many saints, and there are so many requests. It would be neat to see a tally of which saints got the most requests. In Our Lady of Victories Basilica in Paris, one of the amazing things is that the walls are covered with marble plaques, over 37,000 of them. But they aren’t requests – they’re thank-you notes for fulfilled requests, usually to Our Lady of Victories, but some express gratitude to other saints.
Most Catholics know about praying to St. Anthony (of Padua) when you lose something. One priest, whose mind is practical and theological-philosophicalish, gently pointed out that the parking spots that I had been praying to St. Anthony to find for me weren’t technically lost, as in misplaced, which is true, but the prayers did work. And another priest mentioned that whenever he needs a parking spot, he asks St. Josemaria Escriva. He said it’s never failed, even in Toronto.
And speaking of miracles, is it the case that those who believe in them are somehow less realistic, and less aware of how things ‘really work’? On the contrary, a belief in miracles is predicated on the fact that you are grounded in reality. Even a child learns pretty fast all the patterns of life, and the predictability of certain outcomes. We all learn life’s familiar tune, day after day, of what you can expect in different situations. So when a miracle happens, the normal melody kind of skips into a different key, and you say, “Hey, wait a minute – those aren’t the notes that I was expecting!” It’s usually subtle enough that you can argue around it, but it’s there.
In any case, these little or big miracles are favours which strengthen our affection for these saints, who, after all, are real people. These miracles are a saint’s way of showing their care for us. It also serves to remind us of how real and active they still are. When you look at an image of a saint, now all frozen into a statue or a stained-glass window, it’s easy to forget that these people are now even more alive than they were while on earth.
And the big or little miracles that happen when others pray for you also strengthen our affection for each other. (And speaking of waves, I once had many people praying for me and the weird thing was that it was actually tangible, which I did not expect; it felt like a powerful wave sweeping in.) This leads me to consider the interesting fact that Christianity firmly believes in our ability to genuinely care for someone whom we’ve only briefly met, or even never met, who is still on earth or in heaven. And it’s not a matter only of admitting of its possibility, but also of encouraging it. With respect to those in heaven, the Church invites us to disregard the apparent immovable barriers of space and time and says that we can ask for the help of the saints at any time. And with respect to those on earth, we are encouraged to pray for each other (even if a subway conversation was the beginning and the end of our acquaintance).
And when it’s our turn to cross over into the next life, we’ll still be who we are now – same soul, same body (just shined up a bit), with an eternity to enjoy God and – finally – each other.