It came late for me-during my fortieth year. I had known for some time of my father's cancer, known indeed that it was incurable. So my sister's late-night call, relating the doctor's report that the end would come any time now, came as no surprise. Yet on returning to bed I was suddenly seized by blank terror; for perhaps ten minutes I trembled in abject fear. My father's sentence had somehow become my own. At that moment theoretical knowledge became dread reality: as surely as my father, I was going to die.
The moment passed, and the terror-at least in that extreme form-has not returned. But the knowledge remains. It's always there in the background, and it manifests itself in ways large and small. I have always enjoyed good health, and have never had much tendency to hypochondria. Lately, though, I dwell on any ache or bruise out of the ordinary, and my imagination occasionally takes morbid turns that catch me by surprise. I am aware of diminishing time, of the sum of my life, of many things left undone.
And I have become a compulsive reader of the obituary page. I read it first of all as an actuary. My day is set up, one way or the other, by the median age of those who have died. A day that features those in their eighties or nineties is most satisfactory. This morning, for example-a slow death day-the three whose notices appeared in the New York Times were ninety-three, eighty-one, and ninety-six. Full, rich lives (their contents, to tell the truth, quite aside). The seventies are all right, though a little premature. Those in their sixties seem cut off in their prime, and those at or below (to pick a not quite random number) age fifty-eight have been deprived of their youth. Anything below that is the slaughter of the innocents.
There is also, of course, the substance of those lives. Most of those who make the Times have led lives of some note. Not all household names, by any means, but people of accomplishment. They have built, managed, created, discovered, written, preached, healed, invented, composed, advocated, sold, performed, taught.
There are, though, oddities of various kinds-an actress known best, indeed mainly, for asking "Where's the beef?", a football player who ran eighty yards the wrong way, a politician who lost to Harold Stassen. Then there are those defined by negatives or failure-someone implicated, for example, in the Watergate scandal. Or lives defined by victim status, as in one of those blacklisted during the 1950s.
It all seems, in the end, a sort of lottery, remembrance by random selection. And even those who inarguably achieved: What finally is left? Their lives lived long or short, they are as dead-and most of them as forgotten-as all the rest. Vanity of vanities, says the preacher, surveying a few column inches in the back of the Times.
To all of which, people of faith must respond, yes and no. The cover date for this issue is November, at the beginning of which the church celebrates All Saints Day. It is for me, next to Christmas and Easter, the most important date on the church's calendar. It insists on our anonymity in that it reminds us how insignificant has been our part in the great drama of the church through the ages. It rescues us from our anonymity in that it tells us that we nonetheless participate-enrolled as we are in that great cloud of witnesses-in the story that, for Christians, constitutes the meaning of human history.
Most days, and certainly most moments of most days, that all seems too grandiose. The quotidian lacks grandeur-which is precisely the point of Christian worship. It reconnects us, in quotidian observance, with the great meta-story that remains true even when everything conspires to make us believe it too good-at any rate, too bizarre-to be true. The liturgy makes sense of what is otherwise, quite literally, one damned thing after another. And it reminds us that redeemed lives ought to look that way.
I am drawn to All Saints Day in part, I suspect, for the same reason that I am drawn to funerals. They both keep Christian proclamation honest; they both make it hard to fudge the meaning of the faith. We've all heard Easter sermons that expatiate vaguely on the possibilities of new life, however imagined or construed-thereby reducing the faith to an empty metaphor. Christmas, for its part, is all too easily dissolved in sentimental recollections of childhood yearnings: yes, Virginia, there is a Christ-child.
But on All Saints Day, as at funerals, we confront death. And even agnostic clerics find it difficult to make of death a very persuasive metaphorical opportunity. It recalls us, if we are honest, either to orthodoxy or to an empty silence. One can understand those whose rationalist dogma requires them, in the face of death, to refuse faith's consolations. One can only pity those whose only available option is desperately to try to change the subject.
And for those who count themselves, however waveringly, as believers, All Saints Day reaffirms that they will be remembered, in a record far more durable than that provided by the Times, not for who but for Whose they are.