Saturday, December 20, 2014

Word for the Day: Onceness

Writing about death, judgment, and hell in his book on the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, Karl Rahner S.J. says, “Our death is a culmination of the unrepeatable onceness of our personal human existence.”

That single, singular word onceness (in Greek hapax) brought me up short this morning. It snapped many things into focus. One word seemed all at once to distinguish Christianity from other so-called paths and to explain for me the meaning of pilgrimage, as well, as my pilgrimage on foot to Montreal grows near.

Onceness, as a distinctly Christian way of seeing the world, stands squarely, resolutely between the nothingness of the atheist and the everythingness of the Buddhist or Hinduthat Eastern sense blithely embraced by  so many of us Westerners that tells us “God is everywhere,” we are “spirit,” and our lives will somehow “repeat” themselves (get better probably) in this “spiritual” universe, as we turn in a cycle of reincarnation or eternal return or something or other.

This cyclic vision of life is buttressed by Joseph Campbell’s great, flawed work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which we’re all wannabe heroes on a sacred journey that will only bring us home again.

Christians don’t go home again. After death, we go to heaven or we go to hell.

Christianity says no to the vague, mushy spiritualist notion of “something or other.” Our spirits will not “live on.”

Instead, we will die. Once. An unrepeatable act. Then we will be judged. Then we will be sent thisaway or thataway.

Seeing our lives this way changes everything. We are moving in one direction toward a death that, as Rahner writes, “cannot be practiced ahead of time.”

Seeing Christianity as a one-way street has helped me resolve the difference between pilgrimage and Campbell’s “heroic journey.” Now I understand why I found Ed Sellner’s book on Pilgrimage so unsatisfying. (Ahem, actually I wrote that it pissed me off.) In Sellner’s desire, or his publisher’s, to appeal to the widest possible readership, his book muddies this difference. In Sellner’s telling, everything is a pilgrimage. A trip to the convenience store can be a pilgrimage. With Sellner we’re back to that mushy Eastern everythingness. 

Pilgrimage is a ritual preparation for death. How about that as a definition, Ed? Can you dig it?

Like Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress, who is headed along the King’s Highway toward The Celestial City, we are on a one-way road. But there’s no guarantee—no it’s-all-good hopefulness—that what awaits us on the other side of the final door is celestial. Ask Dante, Ed. All dogs don’t go to heaven.

Death, says Rahner, “cannot be practiced ahead of time.” Except, I would say, on pilgrimage. And except maybe today.

“In a very true sense,” Rahner writes, “death is actually anticipated in every moral act in which the higher and more distant goal is preferred to the lower, nearer, and more pleasant one.”

Today, once only, can I choose “the higher and more distant goal” over the “lower, nearer, and more pleasant one”? Today, once only, can I die a little death? Just for practice?

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