Imagining the World to Come

The superb teacher and Dante scholar, Peter Hawkins, delivered the Beecher Lectures at Yale. They have been published as Undiscovered Country: Imagining the World to Come. He weaves masterful resumes of Dante's three Cantiche with poignant, and often funny, personal reflections. Thus he writes:

Because two years had gone by since dad's death, and no one else had gotten around to organizing a proper funeral, I felt, out of a primitive sense of what the dead are owed, that I needed to make a move. I asked the parish priest at a local church if it would be possible to offer the next Saturday morning Eucharist in memory of my father. I wasn't entirely sure what I was asking for. I only knew it was time to get those ashes out of my study closet.The priest was happy to oblige, and so, with the very odd assortment of people who go to an Episcopal Eucharist on a Saturday morning, I prayed for the repose of Thomas William Hawkins, Sr. During the service my mind wandered, as it inevitably does in church. I soon found myself thinking about my father with regret over things done and left undone. Ours had not been a relationship made in heaven, for which I had come more and more to blame myself. Nor had I ever reconciled myself to the extraordinary caution that had characterized his entire life and that had inhibited mine. Anything new was fearsome, everything cost too much, and taking risks or living improvidently was what other people did, not us.Imagine my surprise, then, when at some point in the liturgy I suddenly beheld my father in what looked like a casino, gleefully wasting money with a zest I had never actually seen in him. A depressed survivor of the Great Depression, he had always been pathologically careful not to spend. Money was to be held on to, saved for a rainy day or simply saved. It was never wasted. But there he was in my mind's eye, in the fluorescent light of a gambling hall -- quarters flying, one-armed bandits pumping away -- as if there were no tomorrow. He was definitely not in repose; he was a very happily agitated man in full-smile mode. Who was this person? I wanted to know him.When I came to my senses afterward, wisely making no mention of any of this to the priest at the door, I wondered if I had seen my father in purgatory as he was learning to let go and have fun, no longer burdened by the need to save but free at last to be crazy and irresponsible. At first, playing the slot machines would have been painful, perhaps even a torment, because wasting money was against his personal religion. It was the unforgivable sin. But maybe this is what happens when you die: the arms of mercy that receive you set you loose in a place where you would not otherwise be caught dead.

Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is the author of Rekindling the Christic Imagination.

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