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Life, Death and The Thing

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A good friend has asked me to look again at my atheism. He offered three pieces for me to consider.

The first:

“In the most secret recess of the spirit of the man who believes that death will put an end to his personal consciousness and even to his memory forever, in that inner recess, even without his knowing it perhaps, a shadow hovers, a vague shadow lurks, a shadow of a shadow of uncertainty, and while he tells himself: "There is nothing for it but to live this passing life, for there is no other!" at the same time he hears, in this most secret recess, his own doubt murmur: "Who knows? . . ." He is not sure he hears aright, but he hears.  

Likewise, in some recess of the soul of the true believer who has faith in the future life, a muffled voice, the voice of uncertainty, murmurs in his spirit's ear: "Who knows? . . . ." Perhaps these voices are no louder than the buzzing of mosquitoes when the wind roars through the trees in the woods; we scarcely make out the humming, and yet, mingled with the roar of the storm, it can be heard. How, without this uncertainty, could we ever live?”

Extract from “The Tragic Sense of Life” by Miguel de Unamuno

I couldn't agree more.  Of course there's a niggle in the back of my mind. That same niggle was there all the time I was serving on the altar, going to confession and communion, attending Mass (note that I still give the word its capital 'm') and living my life. And that niggle is there now, asking me if I am sure about denying God. Of course, I'm not sure. How can I be sure? There's no proof He (note the capital letter again) exists and neither is there proof that He doesn't exist. It's up to the individual. If someone needs a god he can have a god. I don't mind.

Miguel asks "How, without this uncertainty, could we ever live?" I'd live a lot more complete life if there was no uncertainty. How easy it would be.  If there is a God, obey His commands and live for ever. As the first question of the Catholic Catechism asks: "Who made you?" Answer: "God made me." Question two: "Why did God make you?" Answer: "God made to love Him and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him in the next." So I have no other purpose in life other than to love and serve God. Is that right? No obligation to my fellow man and fellow woman? No obligation to society? No obligation to my family? No other obligation other than to love and serve God? What a waste of a life.

Yes, I admit the niggle is there. I'm fighting it off, tooth and nail, though.

My friend's second observation:

This is a piece of text from Harry Patch's autobiography. Harry was one of the very last survivors of the trench warfare of WWI. He recalls an incident at Passchendaele:
“We came across a lad from A Company. He was ripped open from his shoulder to his waist by shrapnel, and lying in a pool of blood. When we got to him, he looked at us and, ‘Shoot me.’ He was beyond all human help, and before we could draw a revolver he was dead. And the final word he uttered was, ‘Mother!’ I was with him in the last seconds of his life. It wasn’t a cry of despair, it was a cry of surprise and joy. I think – although I wasn’t allowed to see her, I am sure – his mother was in the next world to welcome him and he knew it. I was just allowed to see that much, and no more. Yet I’m positive that when he left this world, wherever he went, his mother was there, and from that day I’ve always remembered that day and that death is not the end.”
Extract from “The Last Fighting Tommy”, Harry Patch

Quite a moving piece. My friend sent me that because he knows of my interest in World War One, and the appalling loss of life. My view on what Harry saw is this: The young soldier was dying. He obviously had lost a lot of blood. As the brain is deprived of blood, perhaps the brain hallucinates. The soldier's memory chose a picture of his mother and that's what the soldier saw. Hallucinations are very powerful. The worms on the bed that my daughter-in-law saw were real enough to her: she was hallucinating. But there were no worms.

So, yes, the soldier saw his mother. And his last word was 'Mother!' That vision was so real that, to him, he saw his mother. And she was there. But only to him. I can argue that she wasn't really there. It was all in his imagination. The interpretation, though, was very comforting to someone like Harry, who was facing a miserable death every day he was in the trenches. Perhaps he hoped his mother would greet him at his death. It is said that many dying soldiers say "Mother" as the hooded figure with the scythe approaches. And why not? A person's mother is his/her first link with life. Why should it not be the last?

My friend's third piece:

My comment is simply "The Upper Room, Talbot House"!

For those who don't know, Talbot House is in Poperinge, Belgium. It was the birthplace of Toc H under the leadership of Tubby Clayton. The Upper Room is in fact a chapel, where Tubby conducted endless services, offering comfort to troops on their way to death, or having returned from the front having looked at and seen death.

The Upper Room is very pleasant. It is decorated beautifully and it has the ambience of a cathedral. Therefore the feelings in the room are good.

However, because it has this look it has that feeling. Consider this: Had Talbot House not been taken over by Toc H after WWI and it had returned to its original ownership, it could have ended up being just a house. Or it may have become a shop, or a business. Imagine, then, that 43 Gasthuisstraat in Poperinge was now a small grocery store. The downstairs area is a shop, with counters of cheese, yoghurts, bread, jams and spreads and the rest. The floor above that is the office area, where the manager makes the day-to-day decisions about the grocery trade. The top floor is not used by the business. There is merely a ladder to reach the top room and it is difficult for the grocer's plump wife to negotiate them. The grocer keeps that top room as his 'den.' He has his computer up there, and his model railway layout. His books are lined along one wall and in the corner, under the window looking down the street, his settee is marked with the numerous burns where his cigarette has been left as he, too, contemplates life and death.

Does this picture suggest anything? That room certainly won't have the ambience of the current Upper Room. Why? Because its use has changed. It is no longer what it was, it is what it is.

So my friend's three observations are very valid. But for me there is a logical reason for each of those observations. They do not confirm the existence of an Almighty.

I usually end pieces like these with: And I hope God forgives me for thinking like this.

Read about Talbot House here

Addition: 21st January 2008:

From the Oxford Concise English Dictionary:
Belief: An acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof.
Faith: Complete trust or confidence; strong belief in a religion based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.

Go now to Life and Death More 2


Mike Wilson