Beneath the Skin

Aside from the few friends whose names and faces even forty-plus years cannot entirely erase, I remember almost nothing of my high school years. Neither the classes I attended nor the poor devils assigned to teach them have left much of an impression.

If it wasn’t for the fact of a diploma collecting dust in some forgotten storage bin, or an unflattering senior photo in the yearbook I never bought, it might be difficult to prove I’d ever gone to high school at all. But one image from that time remains seared upon my memory.

It was 1962, the year Marilyn Monroe and Eleanor Roosevelt died, and there I was, a callow sixteen-year-old, sitting in an auditorium at a school assembly and listening to a rabbi recount the lives of those two celebrated women, each so utterly unlike the other that it seemed almost impossible to imagine they had occupied the same planet. Yet he managed to draw them together so poignantly that to this day I cannot separate them in my mind.

It was not their lives but death itself that formed the link between them. The precise image the rabbi used to describe this connection was that of two freshly interred corpses undergoing an identical decomposition of flesh. Imagine Poe’s “Conquering Worm” wrapping itself about the bodies of each, emitting the ooze of a final, consuming corruption. The imagery could hardly have been more repulsive. Or riveting. Neither the glitter of the Hollywood star nor the gawkiness of the Hyde Park humanitarian would make the slightest bit of difference the moment they were lowered into the ground. The uniform hideousness of death would grind their flesh equally fine.

This episode may help explain my own interest in the subject of death, a curiosity that has spilled over into books and essays and countless course syllabuses. I always see the skull beneath the skin, to use T. S. Eliot’s phrase. But then, why am I a Christian if not to escape such evils? And how can death, for all its grisliness and sting, be given the last word? After all, as the hymn says, we are Easter People and Alleluia is our song. How to reconcile these tensions?

There is a sense in which they cannot be reconciled. Rather, like any mystery, they must be endured. Death, the final cancellation, was never a problem any of us could solve. So the tension remains as a paradox, like the Cross. I think of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s superb poem “That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection”—its very title emblematic of the tension that refuses facile resolution. The destruction of all life, of which the fire promised by Heraclitus serves as an apt symbol, must be given its due. Even death has a kind of integrity. And in the unvarying collision it has with life, it appears always to win. “Man, how fast his firedint, his mark on mind, is gone! / Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark / Drowned. O pity and indignation!”

We are right to feel indignant, yes-but wrong to think our indignation might allow us to escape the encircling doom. Heraclitus knew this, of course; he lived in a world without the joy Christ conferred simply by his coming among us. And so, says Hopkins, giving Heraclitus his due, “Flesh fade, and mortal trash, / Fall to the residuary worm; world’s wildfire, leave but ash.”

But to leave out what follows—the new reality wrought by the redemption of Jesus Christ—would be an injustice to the God who vanquished death by his Son’s willingness to endure it. “See,” says the resurrected Christ, “I make all things new!” Indeed, he goes all the way to hell in his determination to atone for sin, to make all things new. As Hans Urs von Balthasar reminds us, this is a God “so intensely alive that he can afford to be dead.” And so the last lines of the poem belong not to the Heraclitean, but to the Pentecostal fire of the Holy Ghost. “In a flash, at a trumpet crash,” exclaims Hopkins, “I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and / This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond, / Is immortal diamond.”

Published in the 2008-02-15 issue: 

Regis Martin is professor of systematic theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. His most recent book is The Suffering of Love: Christ's Descent into the Hell of Human Hopelessness (Ignatius Press).

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