Hamlet’s Ghost Inside Chris O’Leary


Shakespeare’s Hamlet begins like this: A terrible crime lies hidden. Brother has secretly killed brother, and the killer has gotten away with it. Life in Denmark continues, as if nothing evil has happened. The murderer has inherited the crown, and insists that things proceed happily as before. Everyone conforms; even the widow queen agrees to marry the secret murderer.

Everyone conforms, that is, except young Hamlet. He languishes in grief. And the murdered man’s ghost doesn’t conform, either. He haunts the cold Danish nights.

In other words, some interior force of nature rebels at the patina of normalcy. It won’t allow such a terrible injustice to remain hidden. A crime like this cannot pass un-reckoned into forgetfulness and oblivion. So the ghost’s weary footsteps shake the earth, drawing young Hamlet into the hidden mystery of what actually happened.

Sacrificed Chris O'LearyHamlet perceives the ghost of his murdered father and hears his demand for justice.

But is it real? Can the young man trust his midnight vision? How can he prove to himself that the ghost speaks true? This force from beyond the shaky peace of day-to-day life has confirmed something that the prince vaguely suspected. But how to make sense of it? What really happened?

The drama of the play then unfolds, and the royal family convulses through a confused agony of reckoning.

At 35 years of age, Chris O’Leary had fond childhood memories of Father Leroy Valentine. Two-and-a-half decades earlier, Father Valentine had made the young Chris feel special, paid attention to him, gave him fun things to do–when Chris’ father was distracted making partner at his law firm.

But something was rotten in the Denmark of Chris’ grown-up soul. He had anxiety about living in his hometown of St. Louis, but he couldn’t move away for good, either. He had zig-zagged through his twenties, never quite settling down and developing his career.

In March of 2002, after the Boston Globe uncovered the decades’-long sex-abuse cover-up in the Archdiocese of Boston, the New York Times ran an article on the subject. The article mentioned Father Leroy Valentine of St. Louis. Father groomed his victims by paying special attention to them when their dads were absent. He started with wrestling and proceeded to sodomy. (The article also mentioned that Valentine denied having done anything wrong.)

Boston Globe 2002Chris saw the article, reprinted in a St. Louis paper. He wondered, ‘Might Father V have abused me, and I can’t clearly remember? But he’s one of my favorite people on earth! How could he have done that?’

Chris called the Archdiocese of St. Louis. The new auxiliary bishop, Timothy Dolan, called him back. Chris’ old friend. Father Dolan had lived in the parish rectory with Father Valentine, when Chris was finishing elementary school.

“Bishop Dolan, maybe Father V molested me? I have memories of wrestling moves that touched my privates, and of being on Father V’s couch…”

“No way, Chris! I know Father Valentine–have known him since seminary. He could never do anything like what they say he did.”

So Chris thought: Ok, that’s that. Cross that one off the list of possible reasons why I can’t think straight, or remain calm with my wife and kids, or get along with my older boss. My memories, thank God, do not mean that I was molested by my favorite priest. Phew. Maybe I have Asperger’s or adult ADHD.

Case closed? No. The Hamlet’s ghost within Chris would not–could not–tolerate a heinous crime passing into forgetfulness and oblivion.

Chris had a panic attack at his daughter’s first confession. Then at his son’s first confession a couple years later. Then he saw an altar boy in a cassock and surplice–like he himself had worn, serving for Father V years earlier–and Chris had a psychological meltdown worthy of Prince Hamlet himself.

Twelve years had passed since Chris’ conversation with Bishop Dolan. By relentless investigation, Chris discovered that the bishop had received two other phone calls from victims of Leroy Valentine that same month, March, 2002.

The Archdiocese knew that Valentine was guilty. They just didn’t tell Chris. A force of nature inside Chris told Chris, over the course of a decade of agony.

Foul deeds will rise, though all the earth o’erwhelm them, to men’s eyes. (Hamlet, Act I, scene 2.)

Hamlet and the 77 Pardons

Shawn Lauvao Redskins 77

Lord, how often must I forgive my brother? Answer: No less than 77 times.

Now, the Lord didn’t use the number 77 because Washington Redskins starting guard Shawn Lauvao wears jersey #77. Christ used 77 as shorthand for: always forgive the penitent brother.

Anyone ever seen Hamlet? That play would seem to have the opposite moral. Instead of “always forgive,” Hamlet focuses on revenge.

The evil uncle killed the good father, secretly, in cold blood, to steal the throne and the queen. The dead king’s ghost visits young Prince Hamlet, demanding revenge. Young Hamlet devises a stratagem by which to test the ghost’s story. Turns out the ghost speaks truth. So here comes revenge. At the end of the play, everyone winds up dead. No forgiveness; just brutal revenge.

Except: Young Hamlet and his nemesis Laertes forgive each other before they die. And the evil uncle Claudius tries to beg God for mercy. And the queen admits to Hamlet that she has done wrong in marrying her dead husband’s brother. And Ophelia begs mercy from God for everyone…

ASC HamletChrist told the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant to illustrate his 77-pardons theme. In the parable, the king intended to settle accounts. When he did so, no one quibbled with the accuracy of his records. His accounts showed his servant in debt to him. The servant did not deny it. To the contrary, the servant, presented with the truth, humbled himself before its very accuracy.

‘Yes, yes! I owe you big time! Just give me another chance.’

And the king took a haircut, as they say in the banking world—he faced the fact that he wasn’t getting the money the servant owed him. Then the king gave the servant a fresh start.

Thus do we see mercy and righteousness kiss: Everyone faces the full, ugly truth. Then everyone starts fresh. Mercy does not mean: no reckoning. It doesn’t mean running away from the truth; skip the facts; just pretend everything’s fine and nice!

No. Forgiving happens when the parties agree on the painful, evil, unpleasant facts. And then start over.

Prince Hamlet did not exactly proceed down the path of Christian mercy. He did a fair amount of stabbing with his rapier. On the other hand, there was something rotten in the state of Denmark. It would hardly have been merciful for the prince to pretend otherwise.

In fact, the greater the evil, the more merciless the truth feels to the conscience that, deep down, knows it’s guilty. Mercy does not come in the form of a goose feather pillow. It comes as a bracing, cold bath. But nothing can refresh the soul more. Facing the truth. And getting a fresh start. With all the dials set back to zero.

Wheel of Fortune


The fifteenth chapter of St. Luke’s gospel recounts three enchanting parables.  We read them at Mass two Sundays ago…  Lost sheep.  Lost coin.  Prodigal son.  Vivid images of Divine Mercy. Comforting, and not difficult to understand.  Luke 15.

But Luke 16, on the other hand…  First, the parable of the Dishonest Steward, which we heard at Mass last Sunday.  Then the chapter continues with a few lines about entering the Kingdom of God by violence.  Then the painful tale of Lazarus and the Rich Man.

Dogs licking the poor man’s sores.  The rich man dying of thirst in the afterlife.  A chasm that no one can cross.  And father Abraham saying that no one else can go to warn the rich man’s brothers.

Now, most people know that life in this world isn’t fair.  Bad luck can hit good people, and the wicked often prosper.  The ancient pagans expressed this by inventing a special goddess, the goddess of Fortune.  She spins the wheel of arbitrary and unfair fate.

Like what happened to the king of ancient Troy.  The Greeks snuck into the city, hidden in a big wooden…  horse.  Then a young Greek warrior mercilessly slew the old Trojan king.

Any fans of Shakespeare’s Hamlet?  One scene in Hamlet narrates the fall of Troy and the murder of the king.  Old and feeble, the king couldn’t even lift his sword.  The scene of his death is so sad, so wrong, so utterly unfair, that Shakespeare curses the goddess:

Out, out, thou strumpet, Fortune! All you gods,

In general synod, take away her power;

Break all the spokes and fellies from her wheel,

And bowl the round nave down the hill of heaven,

As low as to the fiends!

The “Prosperity Gospel:”  If God loves you, and you’re good, then you will have a comfortable house, a shiny car, a well-padded bank account, and good teeth.  On the other hand, if you’re a loser, and can’t pay your bills, it’s your own fault, and God doesn’t love you.

That’s the Prosperity Gospel.  A doctrine which lets comfortable, self-centered people like the rich man in the parable sit at their tables, while a poor man starves, and think:  “Well, it’s his fault that he’s so poor and such a loser.”

Lazarus Dives dogs feastBut the arbitrary spinning of Fortune’s wheel does not deal out justice on earth.  To live in the truth, we must utterly reject the Prosperity Gospel for the nonsense that it is.  Material prosperity does not accurately measure interior virtue, and it doesn’t make you one of the Chosen.

Lord Jesus addressed last Sunday’s parable of the Dishonest Steward, the first part of Luke 16, to His own disciples.  But the Pharisees overheard Him. So then the Lord told the story of Lazarus and the rich man for their benefit, the Pharisees’ benefit.

It’s no accident that, in the story, the bosom on which Lazarus comes to rest belongs to Abraham. One way for us to understand all of Jesus’ dealings with the Pharisees is to grasp the fundamental question in dispute, namely:  What does it mean to be a child of Abraham?  God Almighty chose the children of Abraham as His own, His people.  But what precisely makes you a child of Abraham, one of the Chosen?

Jesus spent His earthly ministry trying to help people understand:  Fulfilling the Law of Moses will not bring anyone to Abraham’s bosom.  Not because the Law of Moses is wrong.  But because no one in this fallen world has enough righteousness to keep the divine law.  God does not choose us because we’re good.  Rather:  God chooses to save sinners.

Abraham himself lived before the written law came down on Mount Sinai; he never had the Ten Commandments inscribed in stone.  But what he had was true humility, true faith in the Providence of God.  The opposite of the Prosperity Gospel, the opposite of pharisaism.

God has given us sinners a means by which to purify our selfish hearts.  Provided we are humble enough to see that when someone suffers in poverty, it’s not because it’s his fault.  It’s because it’s our fault, the human race’s fault.  We can enter the Kingdom of God, as Luke 16 says, by doing a particular kind of violence.  Doing violence to the concept of “mine.”

“Mine, mine, mine!” we must utterly destroy.  We destroy our selfishness by giving things away.  In this fallen world, the children of Abraham, the children of God, learn to forget the word “mine” by giving alms.



The Lord is My Divine Mercy

divine-mercy“Do not be afraid,” says the Lord, “once I was dead, but now I am alive.” (Revelation 1)

Here’s a question.  If we had to name the single most famous and beloved little part of the Bible, worldwide, what would it be?  Everybody’s favorite?  Right, Psalm 23.  Everybody loves the 23rd Psalm.

The Lord God Almighty rules the cosmos not as a capricious tyrant, nor as an absentee landlord, but as an attentive shepherd.  He knows what we need, and He provides.  Our spirits droop; He revives us.  We get lost; He leads us back to the path of life.  We walk through a dark valley, but we fear no evil.  Because we feel His crook and His staff on our little flanks, keeping us moving forward, even through the darkness.

He knows where He leads.  To a table with an overflowing cup, and the oil of gladness.  To the house of the Lord.  To unending goodness and kindness.

Ok, now:  Everyone familiar with the image of Divine Mercy?  The picture of Himself which the Lord revealed to St. Faustina, during the 20th century?   A famous painting, with the Lord Jesus in white, with rays of light flowing from His Sacred Heart.  The pale rays signify the water of Holy Baptism.  The red rays signify Christ’s Precious Blood, shed for our salvation.

Anyway, is it going too far to say this:  That the Divine Mercy image really gives us the perfect visual depiction of the 23rd Psalm?  If we could translate the words of Psalm 23, not into Spanish or Swahili, but into an image—wouldn’t it be the Divine Mercy image revealed to St. Faustina?  Give me an Amen?

Do not be afraid.  Once I was dead.  But now I am alive.

Fear can do us good.  I live in mortal fear of getting up in the pulpit to talk, without anything properly prepared to say.  Parents fear that certain videogame devices will swallow-up whole their children’s heads and hands and necks.  And we all rightly fear that we would offend God, that we would displease our Creator and Father.

caravaggio_incredulity_st_thomas1But one thing has always distinguished Christians from everyone else.  We do not fear death.

At least we don’t fear death when we focus and meditate.  Human beings naturally recoil from dying, by a kind of kneejerk instinct for survival.  That can’t be avoided, and it’s a good thing.  But a Christian meditates, prays, puts everything in the hands of the divine Shepherd.  The Christian entrusts his natural life to the loving Lord Whose Heart lies open, with blood and water flowing out for our salvation.  The Christian meditates on all this, and finds peace, even in the face of imminent, unavoidable death.  The martyrs of Christ have sung their way into the lions’ den, or to the stake, or to the gibbet.

Do not be afraid, says the Lord.  I Myself was dead.  But now I am alive.

Divine Mercy Sunday during the Jubilee Year of Mercy!  We won’t see another such day in our lifetimes!

That the Lord emancipates us from fear, relieving us of the deepest anxiety:  that is indeed a great work of mercy.  We can live in the truth.  We can face reality as it is.  Not running away.  Not deadening our minds and perceptions with false comforts and fantasies.  Because, truly, we have nothing to fear.

Jesus, I trust in You.  I know that You will forgive every sin I confess.  I know that you will go to any length, to keep this little lamb on the safe path.  Thomas doubted.  So You came back to the Upper Room a second time.

Christ lived His Paschal Mystery–the most-bitter suffering and the most-sublime triumph—He underwent His Passover–so that the 23rd Psalm could be not just a pious canticle for us, but the most fundamental reality of our entire consciousness.  Jesus Christ—the Divine Mercy, the Alpha and the Omega, Thomas’ patient friend—Jesus turns our day-to-day existence into a living, breathing Psalm 23.  Fear no evil, because goodness and kindness will follow you.  A table will be spread before you.  You will dwell in the house of the Lord.

What else do we read in Sacred Scripture?  Perfect love casts out fear.  His perfect love for us casts out our fears.  We need not fear the unknown.  We need not fear whatever lies beyond, the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns.

What can we not accomplish, for the glory of the Father, when Christ purges fear from our souls?  What feats of tender, patient love can we not undertake, with joy, when we possess Christian fearlessness?  We will conquer the earth with love!  Let’s start right here.  Let’s conquer the Roanoke Valley with love.  Seriously.

He will see us through.  His mercy endures forever.  Though we dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, we will not want for anything.



Psalm 23 for Summer Vacation

Corona beach

At Sunday Mass: Twenty-third Psalm, everyone’s favorite. The Lord spreads a table for us, giving us repose near restful waters, refreshing our souls. Sounds like just what we want for summertime. A real vacation from all our worries and cares.

In the first reading, the prophet condemns the evil pseudo-shepherds. They had failed to lead the sheep to the peaceful pastures. Instead, the sheep trembled with aimless fear, because no one guided them. They grew exhausted and listless, neither resting nor fully alive. Like workaholics, or people who watch too much tv, or spend too much time playing videogames.

Perhaps we can attest to this: without a divine Shepherd guiding us, we human sheep do not find true rest. We cannot find refreshment. We wind up frazzled and spent, or we slip into self-destructive idleness.

Now, speaking of tired but restless: some of us over-exert ourselves physically. But the physical side is actually the least of our worries. Nervous mental exhaustion poses the greater problem.

We are, after all, primarily spiritual creatures. Intelligence distinguishes us from all the other hairy mammals running around the earth. We have ample minds, hungry for stimulation. But, left to our own devices, we don’t seem to know how to bring these minds of ours in for a truly refreshing rest.

sheepFor intelligent, reflective creatures, ‘rest’ fundamentally means: A quiet conscience. A soul prepared to meet the ultimate Judge. When nothing inside me accuses me of evil, then I can find peace and quiet. But if my conscience troubles me, then even two weeks on the white-sand beach of a Corona ad will not really refresh me.

The divine Shepherd leads us to interior repose, by guiding us down the path of harmony with truth. That’s the thing about a human conscience: truth is our only real rest. There’s only so much lying to itself that a conscience can do. No matter how many lies a conscience may tell itself, it always pays itself back–with strange, self-inflicted punishment.

I haven’t put in an honest day’s work for my employer, so my guilt-ridden soul fills itself with anxiety about something else, or gets angry over nothing, or loses its ability to enjoy simple pleasures.

Or: I lied to my spouse about something, so now I can’t concentrate at work, or pay attention to the friend I’m talking to, or the game I’m trying to watch.

As Gertrude puts it in Hamlet, reflecting on her guilt-ridden anxiety, “Each toy seems Prologue to some great amiss. So full of artless jealousy is guilt. It spills itself in fearing to be spilt.”

The Truth, therefore, is our best friend, when it comes to actually getting some rest. And Christ the divine Shepherd leads us to all truth, if only we stay within earshot of Him.

Give God His due. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Repent, and believe. Pray morning, noon, and night.

Simple enough, really—humbly obeying the Son of God. Not easy, to be sure, but not complicated, either—provided that we simply listen and obey. The peace of a tranquil Christian conscience does not require rocket science. It requires something much more rarefied, something much more sublime: Taking a vacation from my own ego, my own pride.

In our pride, we convince ourselves that… It’s all up to me! Or: My sins are so evil God could never forgive them! Or: praying and studying religion don’t matter anywhere near as much as all my other stupendous enterprises!

jacobi branagh christieDo we really want a good, relaxing summer vacation? Then let’s turn humbly to God and take a vacation from our own nonsense

Let’s give the divine Shepherd a chance to lead us to some real rest for our souls. Let’s purify ourselves with a good, thorough summer Confession. Let’s open our ears more to the Shepherd’s soothing voice, by giving more time to prayer. Let’s spend some extra time studying the faith, so that He can nourish us with the food of his truth.

[Now we get into matters of local interest in Rocky Mount/Martinsville] Speaking of vacations, pretty soon you will have a nice, permanent vacation from the tall nerd who has bored you to distraction for these past four years.

Next week I will have a few things to say by way of a goodbye. But let me say now that these past four years have been the happiest of my life. No priest could ever hope for a parish full of people more kind, more generous, more truly faithful. You have been so much kinder to me, and more patient with me, than I have deserved. In your kindness and patience, you have taught me more about the good Lord than I can really fathom.

Thank you very much for being so good to me.

Tennant Hamlet

The DVD version of the 2008 Royal-Shakespeare-Company Hamlet has found its way to the local public library, allowing me to return again to my favorite subject: Don’t cut lines from Hamlet!

I have heard David Tennant play a fun Macbeth porter and an endearing Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, not to mention a vivacious Launcelot Gobbo in Merchant of Venice and a crushingly pathetic Edgar in King Lear. (He enacted all these for Arkangel Shakespeare, way before he became Dr. Who.)

But this 2008 Hamlet, for all its earnestness, will go down in history as the version in which they trimmed lines from “To Be or Not To Be…” Party foul, people.

First, however: The unforgettable and amazing thing about RSC 2008 Hamlet: Patrick Stewart’s bad-ss Claudius.

Patrick Stewart Claudius Hamlet

Scary, as in scary frightening and scary good. Claudius’ speech in III.iii, when he tries to pray, but cannot bring himself to renounce his dishonest gains; “O my offense is rank, it smells to heaven” (at 1:21, below)–as heartbreaking a literary artifact as ink has ever left behind for us. Stewart utterly nails it. You wish he could repent. But you relish that, in fact, he cannot.

Indeed, a great deal of Hamlet‘s dramatic energy comes from the fundamentally evil sexual tension between Claudius and Gertrude. The more decisive the acting in this area, the greater the energy of the performance as a whole, since everything revolves around Claudius’ and Gertrude’s sketchy marriage.

In the best movie ever made, Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, Derek Jacobi convinces us that Claudius follows after Gertrude like a poor puppy who cannot resist Julie Christie’s ferocious allure. For Jacobi’s Claudius, wearing the crown seems only an undesirable corollary to his original scheme. He could just as soon do without being king. He would have killed his brother in cold blood solely to get the queen for a wife.

In 2008 RSC, though, Stewart’s dominant Claudius preys on Penny Downie’s inability to deal with all her ambivalences. This approach, though quite satisfying in many respects, has one significant problem: it does not resonate with inconvenient lines in the script. Stewart’s Claudius would make it hard for us to believe the “Hyperion-to-a-satyr” contrast between the dead king and Claudius which Hamlet draws in I.ii. (Especially since Stewart also plays the Ghost in this production.) Problem solved, though: they cut that line.

The two-hour Hamlet I saw in Staunton in April simply did not make sense as a whole, so much of the script had gone unsaid. By the time this three-hour RSC production ends, it looks a lot like Hamlet. (Though they cut the last exchange! We never see young Fortinbras!)

The problem is, in this Hamlet many of the most-important speeches don’t make sense. Editing has eviscerated them of crucial sentences. How can we have “To be or not to be..” without a “bare bodkin?” Please.

Another problem: Forgive me for generalizing, but there are two kinds of Hamlets. Skinny adolescent ones and manly ones. Shakespeare wrote a manly Hamlet. Never crossed Shakespeare’s mind to doubt that ghosts can and do appear to people. Hamlet, as written by Shakespeare, has no Oedipus Complex. He simply has to deal with what a ghost has told him. Things like that can happen, after people get murdered.

The 20th century gave us skinny adolescent Hamlets with complexes. David Tennant gives us a 20th-century Hamlet.

I thought we had moved on.

Summary: If you take the trouble to watch this RSC 2008 Hamlet on DVD, you will wish, every 1-2 minutes (except when Claudius is speaking), that you were watching Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet instead.

Hamlet (Deleted Scenes)

ASC HamletRecently saw a semi-competent performance of Hamlet, shortened to approximately 2.25 hours running time by extensive cutting of lines. And something dawned on me…

With each passing year, I relish all the more the two unabridged Hamlets that I possess: The Arkangel Shakespeare audio, on three CDs. And my most-prized worldly possession, my DVD of Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, 1996.

I listen/watch to both at least once a year, religiously. It takes a number of sessions to get through these unabridged renditions, to be sure. Four or five late evenings to watch, six to ten drives hither and yon to listen.

Now, I do of course recognize that actually performing Hamlet on stage poses the enormous challenge: So many friggin lines. And people don’t like to sit for four hours.

But I would like to go on record officially; I would like to proclaim to the world: If you are going to mount a Hamlet; if you are going to perform Hamlet, but Marcellus (after the crowing of the cock, and the fleeing of the ghost, in Act I, scene i) –if, in your Hamlet, Marcellus is not going to say:

Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

…If these lines are going to be skipped, in the interest of time, then I would prefer to go for a walk. Thank you very much; all the best; good luck with your production. But I had rather go for a walk than sit for a Hamlet with a lot of missing lines.

jacobi branagh christieHamlet contains two marvelous ‘mysteries,’ in the religious sense of the term.

1. None of the truly important events of the drama actually occur on-stage. And the most important plot element (the history of the genuine love between Hamlet and Ophelia) never even gets mentioned explicitly. To understand just how much they truly loved each other, one must read between the lines of their respective ravings.

2. The plot of Hamlet does not particularly matter. The plot does not satisfy, in and of itself. The plot serves as the trunk of the tree, on which hang the fruits of people saying incredibly interesting things.

At the Hamlet I recently saw, all the appropriate people lay dead on the stage at the end of the play. And we, as the audience, more or less understood why. But it was as if we had just eaten a BLT with no mayonaise. A McMuffin with no egg.

I present here a brief laundry list of lines culled in the production I saw. Tragedy of tragedies, to leave such lines unsaid!

Continue reading Hamlet (Deleted Scenes)”

Yorick and Praying for the Dead

Can we get a grip on death? Can we calmly face it?

Our invisible souls animate our visible bodies. Then they don’t.

The bodies that seemed so full of life, so vigorous, so truly beautiful—these bodies become lumpen deadweights.

My father had a large frame. During the last ten years of his life, he had a hard time moving that frame around.

Helping my dad the stroke victim get into or out of a car was a workout. But he was still alive then.

Such tasks seemed like nothing, compared to hefting the dead weight of his 260-pound corpse into the church.

Now his body has been in the ground for 6 ½ years. Hamlet’s dear old friend Yorick had lain buried just about that length of time when the prince came upon the grave-digger who happened to be moving Yorick’s remains. Hamlet took his old friend’s skull in his hand and spoke to him, like I might speak to my father’s skull now:

Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know
not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your
gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,
that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one
now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen?

Death makes us nervous, so nervous that we say and do strange, nonsensical things. What purpose does it serve to release doves at someone’s grave-side? Or, if the dead man loved Snickers bars, what good will it do him to line his casket with them?

In his encyclical on Christian hope, our Holy Father recalls the custom of the ancient people to whom St. Paul wrote Ephesians. The ancients entombed their dead with the inscription, In nihil ab nihilo quam cito recidimus. “How quickly we fall back from nothing to nothing.”

Alas, poor Kirk
In a word, our bodies are doomed. And, as for the fate of our spiritual souls, how can we know? Without definitive information, given to us by a higher power, we have no way whatsoever to know what becomes of our souls after death. Hence the human propensity to make stuff up. Like that Michael Landon might have something to do with it. Or that you could come back in the next life as a cow. If we look death squarely in the face, we have to dismiss all such silly fables.

Praised be God, we have, in fact, received definitive information from a higher power about what happens. Although God allows our bodies to die as a just punishment for our sins, in His mercy He will not leave them in the dust forever. In the same way in which He formed them in the beginning, He will raise them up anew, and we will be able to share in the perfect justice and glory of the risen Christ.

Not only that. God has given us clear and decisive information about what to do for our departed loved ones in the meantime. Pray and offer sacrifice for the expiation of their sins.

All the dead will rise again. We will see them at a grand re-union. Only God knows the day and the hour. Only God knows what kind of decorations will adorn the moment, what kind of birds will be singing in the trees, what kind of foods and drinks will be on offer. That’s His business.

Our business is to pray and offer sacrifice while we can, so that, when that great day comes, we will be able to greet the ones who died before us with the peace of knowing that we loved them and did our best for them.

Shakespeare’s Deaths and Easter

In the final scene of “Romeo & Juliet,” three corpses litter the stage. In “Othello,” four. “Hamlet?” Four. “King Lear?” Five.

Wags have been known to mock the body count at curtain-fall in Shakespearian tragedies. Does this evoke reality, they ask, or is it just ridiculous?

Does such art imitate life? Most people go to bed at the end of the day–perhaps mildly dissatisfied with things, but with the coffeepot set up for the morning nonetheless.

Let’s admit that, viewed from one perspective, the wags have a point. But Shakespeare rings true in this: He telescopes the timing, but the fact of the matter is that, in real life, everyone does wind up dead, eventually.

The stage at the end of a Shakespearian tragedy resembles a family cemetery at the end of a century: All the dramatis personae lie lifeless, the epic struggle over.

Now, before you think that I am sinking into morbidity again…I actually just want to explain an idea about the surprising emotional effect of Shakespeare’s tragedies. They do not produce feelings of nostalgia or regret. Quite the contrary, they leave one feeling purified and renewed.

How, why is this? A simple answer: Easter.

Shakespeare did not write ‘Christian’ stories. He did something more ingenious. He wrote human stories that make sense only from a Christian point-of-view. He does not ‘teach’ Christian doctrine. But his tragedies force the audience to greet the play’s action with Christian faith.

When we do–and Shakespeare simply assumed that we would–the dark endings actually glisten with light and hope. The curtain may fall on a stage full of dead bodies. But the life of the characters actually makes the lasting impression.

Hamlet’s relentlessly intelligent words resound, not his death at Laertes’ hands. Lear’s ultimate humility, sweetness, and Job-like conquest resound at curtain-fall, not his death from grief. Somehow Othello lives on as a lover even after his suicide.

The vigor of Shakespeare’s tragic characters overcomes their demise. Yes, the dramatic logic of the action forces them to die. But their deaths feel more like a beginning than an end. The cemeteries of Shakespeare’s closing scenes presage a resurrection.