We must all go, I suppose, into that good night, some gentle, some kicking and screaming, as the poet suggested, and some, it now appears, scribbling. Death throes were once thought painful and appalling. No longer, apparently; they are expected to be, at least by their authors and publishers, interesting. That is the impression left by the appearance of the Moriturus or I’m in the Throes of Dying Memoir. The gold standard of the Moriturus is, by any measure, the late Tony Judt, an acclaimed professional historian who specialized in hair-raising medical detail, but there are those of a more delicate sensibility who prefer the more recently deceased Dr. Oliver Sacks, a best-selling story-teller who turned his own battle with illness into, what else?, one last story.
I must confess I could not get through Judt’s ongoing, grimly graphic account on what it was like to die from a truly terrible disease, which is, I suppose, why I don’t have a subscription to the New York Review of Books. Dr. Sacks, however, I could accompany much further down his via dolorosa, particularly if 1) I kept sealed in oblivion the knowledge that he was once portrayed on screen by Robin Williams, and 2) Oliver Sacks the story-teller hewed close to the story and stayed an acceptable distance away from its Inevitable End.
Dr. Sacks’ last memoir was a sad and sentimental piece in the New York Times, and it was in fact both interesting and moving. In reading it, I had, however, the oddest feeling that he wanted to take me and the rest of his readers along with him on this last saddest of journeys. Engaging the reader is a perfectly commonplace literary strategy, but under the circumstances, well, perhaps here somewhat ill-advised. Here we go, I thought, as I read on, borne heavenward, like a Murillo assumpta, on clouds of Jewish nostalgia, gay pride, physician hommage and altogether too much information about his disease… Sorry, the Murillo thing is my own doing, a piece of stage machinery from a theater very different from the one Sacks used to attend. I’m pretty sure that neither Oliver Sacks nor Tony Judt thought they were going to be heading heavenward or anywhere else but into a grave.
This new literary genre has set me thinking about preparing –no hurry of course– my own farewell memoir. I will follow the Sacks model, but given the insignificance of the author and the altogether remarkable painlessness of the disease I’ve planned for myself, my Moriturus will be an altogether more modest thing. The fatal disease I’ve lined up for myself is a yet unnamed affliction that is barely noticeable in its asymptomatic presence and will carry me off quite peacefully in my sleep. Still needs some tinkering there. My doctors are on board, however, though my hommage to the medical profession will have –fair warning– a good deal to say about their waiting rooms and will include examples of my replies to the audaciously mendacious “Doctor will be with you shortly.” My nostalgia takes, like Sacks’ own, will be fairly standard for my time and place: in my case, dedicated parochial school nuns who bestowed on me the arcane ability to diagram sentences and smooth Jesuits who taught me how to parse the bejeebers out of a Latin text. Good stuff. Good boyhood stuff like Sacks’ Litvak shabbos riffs on lighting candles, saying kaddish and eating gefilte fish.
I’ve nothing against gefilte fish, well, yes, actually I do, but I think that Jewish boyhoods of that era lacked an important ingredient; no, not sports, but that too. I mean the fear, the terror, the awe inspired by that cosmic circus called “The Last Days,” an explanation, actually a dramatic portrayal, of what lay beyond the grave. Sacks didn’t miss it by much since this operatic extravaganza, which I always thought of as a kind of Wagnerian Das Eschaton, started out as vivid oral performances by Israel’s visionary prophets who peered into the future and saw The End. John the Baptist and Jesus were still performing “The Last Days” a few centuries later, but by then the original “voice crying in the wilderness” had been converted into a very popular literary genre called Apocalypsis or “The Unveiling” where a great many more characters, themes and effects were introduced. Finally, and this is where Dr. Sacks’ ancestors started bailing on the whole idea of the Afterlife, “The Last Days” became a full scale dramatic production scheduled for actual performance at some unknown date in the future.
It was this last version that I was exposed to in my adolescence. I imagined it unfolding in a large arena, maybe the Hollywood Bowl, with Heaven, brightly lit and smelling like cupcakes, stage right, and Hell, all hot and vomity –I didn’t know what brimstone was but it didn’t sound good— stage left, with kids like me trooping off in either direction. The lights, action and drama of it all were staples of a Catholic education from early on, but, once past puberty, the Jesuits upped the ante by loading in live sexual ammo and aiming the damned thing straight at their adolescent charges. They even had a special shooting gallery where they could take us into the Staten Island outback and rake us guys with moral shrapnel for an entire weekend. It was called an Annual Retreat. No candles, kaddish or kreplach there; just fire and brimstone and the scariest sexual instructions since Augustine took up his poisoned Manichaean pen.
I survived, but two principles lingered on from my Staten Island idyll. First, everything connected with sex was a sin, and not just a trifling sin –Were there really trifling sins? It seemed not— but a mortal sin. Mortal, mortalis, fatal, get it? Got it. The kind that sent you directly stage left to Hell. The principle was immediately confirmed for us by multiple examples: garish tales of a guy putting his hand on his girlfriend’s breast and the next minute stepping in front of a train or over a cliff or into quicksand, perishing in one instant and burning in Hell the next. I didn’t have a girlfriend and female breasts were still well beyond my grasp, but I seized the point. Holy Cow, Father!
That was bad enough, but the second notion I carried away from those woods was even more troubling, namely, that God was watching, just like my mother, only better. He could see every act and even, again like my mother, read every thought that coursed through my hormone-raddled imagination. He saw and he remembered and there was a record, a kind of ecclesiastical rap sheet. Yes, of course! He had access to my confessions. And the truly terrible part was that when that final Day of Reckoning arrived, all the nasty bits would be laid out in public for all in the Hollywood Bowl to see, even the nuns, even Joan Cavanaugh, whose breast it was that I intended to handle before I stepped in front of that train.
Like Oliver Sacks I grew up. I got over Joan Cavanaugh (almost) and I got past that retreat. But The Last Days or, more accurately, the mechanics of The Last Days were still clinging like Spanish moss to my brain and even, once or twice, seeped into my long disused moral conscience and gave it a kick. It was no longer The Last Days as such that interested me, however; it was those Jesuit Fathers who were proposing it for my consideration, and behind them, the Church that took an old Jewish tableau vivant, which was really a Jewish victory lap and had to do with the vindication of Israel, and charged it with all that very pointed moral electricity that ran through my body that Spring weekend on Staten Island.
The Jewish visionary prophets painted broad swirling pictures on large canvases; I had somehow become enmeshed in a moral microsystem sitting on a mountain of moral metadata. Something had changed: a very different system of moral accountability had been coded into the original Jewish software. Who would keep such accounts? Jesus’ Jewish Father in Heaven kept one eye upon the sparrow and the hairs on Israelite heads and the other on “the Nations,” the wicked goyyim who threatened to remove the Israelites’ heads, hair and all; the God of the Jesuits seemed to worry only about sex.
The Jesuits were sometimes thought not to be Catholics, or perhaps not even Christians, since they seemed to be running their own little scheme. But if they weren’t Catholic, their God possibly was, and his Church in Rome certainly was. It was the Catholic Church, in any event, that produced the long-running version of The Last Days I experienced from the cheap seats. The evidence is unmistakable.
Only the Catholic Church has –or perhaps it is now better to say, in all matters Catholic, used to have– a system of moral bookkeeping that makes The Last Days such a shattering piece of theater. The Church, we were led to believe, maintained, updated and vetted an enormous moral archive that contains the records of every sin –names, dates and places attached– ever committed, both actual and, in a bold forced entry into the back rooms of the will, merely intended. Little wonder here. The Jews were once again way ahead of the Catholics on this since they held their fellow Israelites responsible even for unwitting or unintended transgressions, like sitting on a park bench that had recently been vacated –“Yes, but how recently?”— by a menstruating woman. Who knew! The Torah’s list of missteps has long been the envy of Catholic moral theologians, along with the rabbis’ ability to split the meanest misdemeanor into an infinity of particulate faults.
But a list is just a list –shush, you anthropologists!— and it was the genius of Catholic moralists to convert the rabbinic catalogue of possibilities into a record of actualities, to turn obsessive list-making into moral bookkeeping, and to assess, far beyond any rabbi’s dreams, the specific gravity of each transgression and to assess the punishment appropriate to each, and here the Irish moral accounting firm of Cummean & Columbanus (d. ca. 650 A.D.) must be given credit. It was an awful accomplishment, but more awful still was the Church’s claim that it kept actual track of every individual member’s account, profit and debit, stretching all the way back to that unfortunate business with the apple.
The reason there are accounting firms instead of the Slipshod or Human Method of organizing one’s finances –“What receipt? They give receipts for massages?”—is that Something or Someone Dark and Big cares about my accounts, wants the additions correct, demands the sums be justified and requires that the checkbook balance. For the big customers of the Big Eight and small ones of H. & R.Block that will be the Internal Revenue Service; for the customers of the Catholic Church it is, well, a long story.
As it turns out, the Catholic Church is a mere sub-contractor. Here the Big Dark Somebody Who Cares is unmistakably God, aka Yahweh, the Father, the Demiurge or, as seems apposite here, the PM or Prime Mover. This is the same deity who supplied Moses with an earful and a half of offenses and even gave his prophet a hard copy writ in his own hand to show to the doubting Israelites waiting at the foot of the mountain. Those Ten Commandments are now regarded as pretty small potatoes, a mere twinkle in an Irish monk’s eye, but it set the tone for what was to follow: “Here’s the stuff to keep your eye on, Moses.”
There are no penalties attached to violations of the Big Ten, but there are punishments enough in the Pentateuch to fill a dozen parochial schools, most notably and most often execution and outlawry or “shunning.” The odd thing is that in the rest of the Bible, the Prophets and the Writings, which presumably record the follow up to Yahweh’s detailed moral guidelines in the Torah, there is little indication that the Israelites or, as they were later called, the Jews, actually imposed those penalties: no multiple executions for what must have been frequent violations of the Sabbath, no record of stonings for all the things the Torah said you could be stoned for. Perhaps the Israelites didn’t think Yahweh was being quite serious with his Draconian punishments or, more likely, the Torah codes had become socially unfeasible and outmoded as criminal law.
The Torah’s “transgressions” –Jews are uneasy with “sin,” probably because the Christians have over-packed that particular term— are offenses against God. They were not, however, blasphemy apart, so much against him personally as, and probably more terribly, against his absolute will, which was stated loudly and explicitly in Scripture. At the heart of his will lay the Covenant, and since this was a pact made not with an individual but with an entire people, to wit, Abraham and his descendants, crimes against his society were also offenses against God, which made, and still makes, for some very serious politics.
Even though we don’t have the evidence, we can be assured that the Israelites took care of these latter, e.g., murder, theft, contract violations, since no society could long survive by ignoring them. But Yahweh had his own personal agenda: he made it very plain, in strong language and in great detail, that ritual impurity was not merely offensive to him but perhaps even threatened his well-being (!). Some Jews at least caught the urgency, and over the centuries an extraordinary degree of time, effort and intelligence has been devoted by Judaism’s rabbinic lawyers to the description, definition, categorization and analysis of that dangerous ritual condition and to the formulation of additional rules and regulations regarding “Impurities,” their prophylaxis and their cure.
Jesus, though apparently an observant Jew, was not terribly interested in Torah law, a wedge topic in his day –his moral instruction had other emphases—but he was certainly a believer in another complex of Jewish beliefs that were to have an enormous effect on Christian morality and its accounting, namely, that there was an Afterlife and it counted. Its cosmic premiere would take place in the Last Days in Jerusalem’s Kedron Valley (Joel 3:10), where Yahweh would summon humankind and conduct the Last Judgment in their presence. In an extraordinary auto-da-fé, the last, obviously, of that spectacular genre, he would reward the righteous, who would dwell with him forever in a reconstituted Eden, the paradise or pleasure park of Adam and Eve, and he would punish the evil-doers by dispatching them to Gehenna, Jerusalem’s malodorously smoking garbage dump. These are not exactly Biblical notions, and Jesus certainly didn’t invent them, but he and his followers and a great many other Jews of that day believed they represented a reality, and perhaps even a rapidly approaching one.
This relatively new belief in a highly figured Afterlife represented the solution to a grave issue in theodicy: the just God seems to put up with a great deal of iniquity and injustice. It was a common and troubling human experience that evil-doers got away with murder: the murderer died in his bed in Sepphoris, the thief in a condo in Jericho. An older generation of Israelites solved the problem by kicking the punishment can down the road: the evil-doer might himself escape paying the price for his transgressions, but his son will die of a sudden seizure in the Roman baths in Tiberias or his grandson choke to death on a shrimp while lunching in a Greek restaurant in Caesarea-by-the-Sea. But once a strong and detailed conviction of an Afterlife took hold among the Jews of the post-Exilic era, a different and more satisfactory solution to the issue of divine justice presented itself: God would settle all scores at a general reckoning on the Last Day: He would dispatch the righteous to enjoy the pleasures of Paradise in his own company and gavel the wicked straightway to an eternity amidst the burning garbage of Gehenna. Perfect! The theologians were ever so pleased with the new scheme.
That was the general idea expressed in a variety of Jewish literary works –and an extraordinary Christian example, the Book of Revelation that closes the New Testament—as an “unveiling” (apocalypsis) or a visionary recital. Many questions remained for the literal-minded, however. Where’s the evidence? Who could possibly be keeping all those individual records that would make such a reckoning possible, much less just? Details, of course, all details and, as it turned out, in this instance it wasn’t the devil who was in them but rather the angels. The Afterlife of post-Exilic Judaism –the earlier books of the Bible paid little or no attention to what lay beyond the grave— was like a large and inviting canvas with great swatches of color, powerful actors and cosmic events but with many open spaces as well in which a variety of lesser figures and detailed acts could be depicted as occasion or necessity dictated. Bright angels and dark demons, some with foreign pedigrees, proliferated around God’s throne in the Jewish religious imagination.
The angels in particular, high-caste spiritual beings –no wings for them!—who originally served simply as messengers (angeloi) in the service of God, become increasingly important in the fulfillment of God’s will. The more remote and more philosophically conceived God of Early Judaism and of the Christians, who claimed him as “Father,” did not micro-manage: he had his angels to do the lifting. If a sparrow fell, it was not the Father himself who tracked the creature (Mt. 10:29) but the angel in charge of fallen birds. Ditto for numbered hairs (Mt. 10:30). In both Testaments the angels are, however, assigned far more important functions in the fulfillment of God’s will, tasks that become particularly important when Yahweh assumes the responsibility for the meting out of justice to his troublesome and troubled human creation.
Early Judaism stood on the expanding edge of literacy: it had a written revelation –what else does “Scripture” signify but a written book?— and a class of professional scribes to copy, edit and emend it. It comes as no surprise, then, to discover that the Great or General Judgment described in the visionary recitals will be based on a written record, a “Book of Life” (Rev. 20:12-13) or ”Book of Remembrance” (Malachi 3:16) in which the deeds of humans are recorded. And in this instance, the scribes, the archivists of human heroism and human folly, are recording angels, names and numbers –one for every human?– uncertain. There are, then, no Bartleby-like scriveners seated on high cardinalate stools in the Roman Curia noting down the moral news from around the world, just God’s unembodied executive assistants who neither sweat nor weary in the task of keeping tabs on you and me so that the Lord has all the facts in hand at the Grand Finale.
The Grand Finale is of course the Last Judgment, the operatic “day of rage” (dies irae; cf. Zephaniah 1:15-16) described by Jesus himself and by many other Jewish and Christian writers from then to now, reimagined by poets, depicted by countless artists, set to music by both Mozart and Verdi, and coming to rest as a pastiche of images, hints and suggestions from both the Jewish and the Christian Scriptures; in the latter, for example, they range from the modest sketches in the Gospels’ “Little Apocalypses” (Mk. 13 and parr.) to the Gala Performance staged by John of Patmos in the Book of Revelation.
The Last or General Judgment will occur at the end of the world, though “No man knows the day or the hour” (Mk. 13:32). It is then that the Lord –Jesus of course takes over for Yahweh in the Christian version— returns to Jerusalem to judge his creation. The process begins when the trumpet of the Lord echoes dreadfully through the graveyards of the world summoning both the quick and the dead to the throne of Christ Judex. What unfolds is breathtakingly grandiose and terrible in its purpose. For here and now the angelic ledgers will be opened and the sins of every human will be displayed to public view: every petty larceny and grand theft; every tax evasion, every bad balls-and-strikes call, false alarm, cheating at cards, on exams, about your age; every false oath, kited check, dishonest commercial, shoddy construction work and used car or time-share sale; every inflated bill from a plumber, a body shop, a lawyer or a dentist; every instance of child abuse, spousal abuse, self-abuse; every hit-and-run accident, ax murder, French kiss, speeding ticket and evasion of jury duty; every sleazy motel fornication, bad confession, faked resume and customs lie; every “I gave at the office,” “I was working late,” “I was at the Printers’ Mass,” “Maybe later” and “Let’s have lunch”; every last sin, mortal or venial, every peccadillo, white lie, misstep or bad guess of every last person who ever lived, yes, yours and yes, mine, will stand revealed. Though there’ll be tons of Schadenfreude at watching one’s bosses, bullies and friends taken down, it will be flat out terrifying to be personally unmasked, though by then the audience may be paying scant attention, having sat through the personal performance of every dreary act of masturbation since the invention of puberty.
If a General Judgment of humankind has always been a set-piece in the classic Jewish and Christian End of Days scenario drawn from Scripture, and perhaps distant enough –“Thanks, but I really don’t want to know either the day or the hour”– not to be too worrisome, what followed in the evolution of Christianity was not born of Scripture (though there are hints) or tradition; rather, it arises from the internal logic that shapes a good deal of what might be called the “logistics” of Christian theories of Divine Justice and Divine Judgment. A judgment of the living and the dead at Jesus’ final return, his Parousia or “Presence,” seemed likely and appropriate when that return was expected within the lifetime of his earliest followers (cf. Jn 21:22; 1 Thess. 4:17). But as time passed and the expectation of the Parousia faded into the ever more remote future, there gradually took hold the notion of a more immediate settling of accounts. Each human, it was believed, would be judged individually by the Lord –“Gabriel, get me the P volume of the Book of Life.”— immediately upon death. The General Judgment would follow, somewhat awkwardly, at the End of Days, whenever that was, though now it amounted to little more than a confirmation of sentences already rendered.
But life, even the Afterlife, is not all Imax opera: it is also about forms and invoices and due bills, the toting up of accounts receivable by the bean-counters, whether they are called CPAs or Recording Angels, who keep the transactional wheels turning. The latter, we are told, –the Church doesn’t overplay its hand; it doesn’t confuse, though we often do, tradition (“Here’s the true story”) with dogma (“This you’ve got to believe”)— had noted down the individual’s thoughts and deeds, assessed their gravity if sinful, their merit if righteous, and assigned, or rather suggested, an appropriate reward or punishment. These latter were arranged along a sliding scale. A 4.0 meant an express ticket to Paradise, no argument; anything below the angelic Mendoza Line of 1.0 merited a fast-track to Hell. The rewards were pretty much all of a piece: if you were going to Heaven to be with Jesus for all eternity, did it really matter if you were orchestra front or seated in the Grand Tier? And Hell was, of course, hell. But Ambiguous Crimes and Their Punishments, that wide swathe of moral ground between Honor Student and Lost Cause where most of us dwell, was articulated as thoroughly and as carefully as a Linnaean taxonomy. Heaven and Hell were life sentences, eternity without parole, and they seem hardly worth talking about since one appears unattainable and the other unthinkable. Most of us would end up, we thought and hoped and the Church suspected, doing time in some other place.
But there was no other place, not, that is, until the Church’s theologians and lawyers invented it. It is, or, sorry, used to be, a hell-like place, a holding cell Rikers Island to Hell’s lifer Sing-Sing, and it was called the “Purging Room” or, for the Latin inclined, Purgatory. Purgatory is one of the purest constructs in theology since it is not merely an idea or concept but was imagined as an actual place on that virtual Afterlife landscape that has no real places. Purgatory has no genuine Scriptural basis, as Protestants wearied themselves pointing out, and emerged into notional existence sometime in the late 12th century. Not many people, Christian or otherwise, have thought the dead simply disappeared: they lingered on somehow, somewhere, perhaps right under their gravestone. The Judeo-Christian Afterlife tradition assured the believers regarding the somehow —death was not the end— and Christian theologians of the twelfth century began to spell out the somewhere.
The point of Purgatory was to make God’s justice explicable. Was it really the act of a merciful God to toss someone into the eternal flames for a 2.5, a grade that could get someone through Princeton and into a Protestant version of Eternal Bliss? Did a confession and a clerical absolution really assuage God’s hurt? Was it enough simply to confess your sins and say a couple of penitential Our Fathers and Hail Marys to be Happy Forever? No, it was not, and a Church that by then had a powerful sovereign in Rome, a rich and influential hierarchy of bishops and a cadre of clever and imaginative clerical experts in Church law and Christian doctrine, set things aright.
Purgatory and its outriders, indulgences, grace and the Treasury of Merit, are all part of a complex of thought, belief and practice whose effect, and probably whose intent as well, was to regulate, rationalize and mitigate, clearly for the benefit of the sinner, a system of divine justice based on the stark dichotomy of Heaven or Hell, Eternal Bliss or Eternal Damnation. The effect was achieved by opening up the middle ground between them: the truly wicked like apostates, obdurate heretics and unrepentant sinners were justly damned at their death, while the “saints,” principally those in the early Church who “confessed” their faith by dying for it, went straight to their deserved reward. But what about the rest of us, the moyen-sensuels who attend both Mass and bingo, who both pray and cuss, who give alms to the poor and chisel on taxes? Will a good God toss a guy into the eternal flames for getting it on a couple of times with his fianceé or a single mom for getting off with herself?
The Church quietly thought not. Hence the believers were offered Purgatory, a moral sauna where the rest of us might sweat out the punishment due to our already confessed sins. It was no pleasure dome –Thomas Aquinas, who probably had never been to a dentist, suggested that the pain in Purgatory was worse than anything experienced in life– but then again, it wasn’t hell. Purgatory was doing hard time, but it was nonetheless time, not life. There was more and better, however: it could also be reduced time. How long any one individual spent in Purgatory depended on the sentence at death, and that in turn depended on what the angel had writ. For us the Book of Life is a closed book and individual sentences are sealed. We do not even know who is in Purgatory –feel free!– much less the length of his or her sentence.
God has not always been clear with his revelations, and so it is not unexpected that the Scriptures should be loaded with ambiguities. It’s a problem and there are two schools of thought on how it should be handled. My own thinking suggests that he dictated to his prophets at night –chiseling his thoughts on stone was time consuming and then Moses went and dropped the damn things—and perhaps he was weary –again!– from his day’s labors. Also, it must be recalled, those lengthy revelations were pronounced before the angel factotums arrived on the scene from Iran. So Scripture is what it is and I say, for God’s sake let’s get on with it. The other view comes from Leo Strauss, who had his own ambiguity problems. According to him, God was paying exceeding close attention, indeed godlike attention, to what he was doing and so everything he said, every word, every letter and even the spaces between them, was calculated and intended and so must be taken extremely seriously. The Christian exegetes have generally been in my corner; Paul’s casual “This is an allegory” in Galatians 4: 24 shows the way. The rabbis, no surprise, follow Strauss into the labyrinth.
A case in point is Jesus’ reported counsel to “store up treasure in heaven” (Mt. 6:24). What kind of treasure? And how, pray tell, or where “in heaven”? Just so, said the Church and proceeded to fit the heavenly treasury snugly into its theory of redemption. Paul had already explained how Jesus “redeemed” humanity, literally bought it back (e.g. from slavery) or ransomed it (from captivity), in this instance from the enslavement to sin brought about by Adam’s fall from grace. The “ransom” paid was Jesus’ voluntary sufferings and death on the cross, which was eventually construed as a kind of currency called “merit.” Jesus’ merits were infinite, of course, an unlimited line of credit –it was after all God who sacrificed himself– and the surplus was “banked,” it was thought, in Matthew’s “treasury in heaven.” And stored in the same place were the more niggling deposits of merit accrued from the good works of “the saints.” And here was the beauty part: both accounts were administered by –who else?– the Church. Had not Jesus himself given it the power to bind and to loose? (Mt. 18:18)
It was a brilliant if mischievous concept that gave the Church some limited control of the Afterlife as well as the ability to tap into Jesus’ infinite merits and dispense them, or even, alas, sell them, at will. Those in Heaven didn’t need them and those in Hell couldn’t use them. Who did need them, desperately, were the poor sods sweating it out in the purgatorial fires and, eventually, us poor sods who were heading inevitably toward the same sauna. So the Church –its scriveners in the Curia handled the math—started attaching fixed and specified sums of merit from its treasury to virtuous acts performed by the faithful in the here and now. They’re called Indulgences and they belong to the doers of the good deed. So your two years of self-flagellation in the desert and my novena to the Sacred Heart were worth, we’ll suppose, seven years and seven quarantines (whatever they were!) the curiales were not swift to update the terminology), an interval subtracted from our putative sentences in Purgatory. Not bad. And like all good currency, Indulgences were transferable. If I was feeling altruistic, I could apply mine to “the poor souls in Purgatory.” Indeed, I could use my Indulgences to reduce the present sentence of my mother peering piteously out from amidst the flames rather than applying them to my own future sentence. Or Frank Sinatra’s. Let’s say I’m thinking about it.
I can’t help Oliver Sacks, however. He’s resting in his untroubled grave, not in Purgatory, and I hope his journey there was soft and gentle. I’d like gentle too, but I’m more concerned with what lies beyond. If I heard right at that Jesuit retreat, the grave is just the portal into the lobby of the Great Hall. I’ll have to settle a few accounts there –Oh God, this is going to be quite terrible—and hang out with old friends for a millennium or two until the gong sounds signaling that Das Eschaton is finally about to begin. Mr. Last Nighter will stub out his cigarette –Well, of course there’s smoking in the lobby, What did you think?— proceed down the aisle to seat J102 and wait for Maestro Verdi to come into the pit and cue the Tuba. And a one, and a two…
Dies irae, dies illa
Solvet saeclum in favilla…