December 22, 2005

St. Therese & the Bard

Death seems a natural subject of interest in sunless late December, despite the counterpull of the coming Nativity. So I read the last days of Shakespeare (what little we know) and St. Therese of Lisieux (what lot we know).

King Lear, for Shakespeare, was art serving as a palliative. The theory is that if you can name it, it seems less terrifying. Greenblatt writes:
Shakespeare seems to have begun contemplating the possibility of retirement - not so much planning for it as brooding about its perils - as wearly as 1604, when he sat down to write King Lear.
Retirement was obviously far more a focus of anxiety for that period than ours, but the principle of stories as ameliorative interests me. Greenblatt continues:
Retelling the Leir story was one way that Shakespeare and his contemporaries articulated their anxiety.
St. Therese didn't use art to relieve anxiety, she prayed and seemed to just live with the knowledge. Perhaps there is little way to prepare for the unimaginable. Two days before her death she still asked, "What should I do to prepare for death? Never will I know how to die!" Which for her also meant to "die of love" like the Savior. She admitted
I am afraid I have feared death. I am not afraid of what happens after death; that is certain! I don't regret giving up my life; but I ask myself: What is this mysterious separation of the soul from the body?
Earlier she'd said to another sister,
The words of Job: 'Even though he should kill me, yet I will trust him,' always fascinated me in my childhood days. It took me a long time, however, to reach that degree of surrender.
That a spiritual giant would say such and would require time to surrender is instructive for an age that demands immediate gratification. There is also a failure of the imagination, meaning you can't really "name it" - St. Therese was constantly surprised by how brutal her last months were, a torture that she says her fellow sisters could not imagine.
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Westward, westward till the barbarous brine
Whelms us to the tired land where tasseling corn,
Fat beans, grapes sweeter than muscadine
Rot on the vine: in that land were we born.


-from "The Mediterranean" by Allen Tate
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