Soliloquies from a Secular Heretic
A person’s last words – his or her exit line – may or may not be a conscious goodbye to the world he or she is about to leave. They may or may not be characteristic of the person, encapsulating a life in a few syllables. It is a romantic idea, however, to think that they are, like the dying words of an actor. Hamlet’s last words were, “the rest is silence.” Julius Caesar’s last words were, “Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar.” What could be more theatrical? On the other hand, Scarlett O’Hara’s last words in Gone With the Wind, “Tomorrow is another day,” are bright with hope and determination. Her words parallel in optimism the final words of Sidney Carton as he faced execution in Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
While a priest was reading Charlie Chaplin his last rites, he recited the words, “May the Lord have mercy on your soul.” “Why not?” was the legendary actor’s reply, “After all, it belongs to him.”
When I relayed this anecdote to a priest friend of mine, he responded with an immediate burst of enthusiasm: “How wonderful!” he exclaimed. There must be some theological depth to Mr. Chaplin’s reply, I thought, since it prompted such a strong and spontaneous affirmation.
It does not matter that the exchange between the priest and the revered actor might not have really taken place, since the same exchange occurs in the 1947 movie, “Monsieur Verdoux.” Be that as it may, it was the rich theological implications that interested me.
Our soul does, indeed, belong to the God who created it. Thus, God is most inclined to have mercy on something of his own making. We can, therefore, expect mercy from God. And yet, we are in charge of our soul. It is “ours” in the sense that it is entrusted to us. We are the stewards of our soul. And when we meet our Maker, our Maker will review what we have done with it.
Joan Crawford, who specialized in portraying characters who were often self-centered and cold-blooded, had a different exit line. When, on her death bed, she overheard her housekeeper praying aloud for her, she said, rather forcefully, “Don’t you dare ask God to help me.” Ms. Crawford may have felt that her soul belonged exclusively to herself.
What we have done with the soul that God has entrusted to us is the subject of our final examination. We can expect mercy, but we must show God how much we appreciated his gift to us. When we return the rental to the car dealer, we may have to pay for whatever damages it sustained while we were using it.
“May the Lord have mercy on your soul” is spoken, and properly so, in the subjunctive mood. God will have mercy on our souls only if we are willing to accept it, and perhaps more importantly, if we have shown mercy to others.
Yet there is another factor. We are terribly fallible creatures, prone to an endless series of crimes and follies. God is merciful to us because of his loving generosity; but God is also merciful to us because he is sympathetic to our wounded condition. “Heaven have mercy on us all,” wrote the great American novelist, Herman Melville, “for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head and sadly need mending.”
God’s mercy is available, but it is not administered unless a person wills to receive it. Water is abundantly available. But a person may choose not to use it to wash his or her face. The moment of death is one of intense realism. “So then, you will know them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven will enter” (Matthew 7:21).
One prays that God’s bounteous mercy will shine on the good fruits of a person’s life and that the combination of mercy and goodness will illuminate the pathway to a better world.
Dr. Donald DeMarco is an adjuct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell.