Thursday, September 18, 2014

Reflections on After Purgatory: Death in the Reformation Talk

The road curves into tree-covered area
Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a talk by the erudite historian Peter Marshall with the intriguing full title After Purgatory: Death and Remembrance in the Reformation World at the SFU Harbour Centre. I was quite impressed with the material as I find history of religion, particularly the divide between Catholics and Prostestants, most intriguing. In addition, the speaker not only showed knowledge and expertise alongside humour and humility, but most importantly, he was able to answer my questions in a clear and elaborate manner.

Since there were -- rather unfortunately -- not too many people attending and I had chosen the third row of seats being solitary in my own aisle, I must have been quite visible. Normally this would not pose a problem, but I have recently started taking notes on my iPhone. I looked around and noticed that others, perhaps more professional-looking people, had chosen the old-fashioned form of the scribbling pen on blank notebooks.

However that kind of note-taking is more cumbersome, less legible, and it does not have the auto-correct option. Although the latter can at times be annoying with its farfetched and illogical suggestions, I find it helps me save time, so I end up typing faster. The downside is the negative stigma attached to iPhones: it might seem that I was texting and not paying attention.

In this case, it was quite the opposite, and, incidentally, my phone was out of service for some odd reason, which made texting or surfing the Internet literally impossible. At one point during the talk, I felt compelled to make that matter clear to all the attendees present, but that would have made me look even weirder in their eyes.

But enough preamble about me and let us get to the meat of this brilliant and informative talk. The starting point and focus was how the Protestant movement got rid of the notion of Purgatory, which brought about a number of religious, social, and political changes regarding the outlook on death, its significance for people's lives as well as funeral practices.

With the abolition of Purgatory, it meant that there could be no change in the afterlife. So if you were damned or saved, it had already been decided by your life previously in this world; there was no in-between in the afterlife. As a result, it would become useless to pray for the departed since it was too late for any kind of changes anyway.

In such a situation, death becomes a more crucial and singular event that terminates life once and for all and for better or for worse. That also puts one's life more into focus; it becomes more important regarding salvation. In existential terms, it means that you have one shot at it, and if you miss the mark, i.e. spiritual salvation, there is absolutely no going back and no reconsideration. No pressure, but it is merely the slight difference between eternal bliss or never-ending pain and suffering.

This sudden disconnect between life and death, and ipso facto, with the living and the dead affected and changed the funeral practices as well. While previous to the Reformation, tombs would be prospective, namely looking forward toward the life that was ahead after death, the Protestant tombs were retrospective and mostly individual, looking back at the life and accomplishments of the deceased in question.

In this way, the tombstones acquire and gain a more biographical and existential tone. You are responsible for your own success or failures and this world is the playing field in which you need to show and prove yourself. No more reliance on goodwill and wishes of others or of saints carrying you towards heaven. You got to do this on your own merits.

All of this also meant that funeral practices changed. Funeral sermons now were less about the dead and the afterlife, but more about teaching a lesson to those who were still living. Funerals were indeed a good way to teach about the doctrine of death, that each of us may be called before the Almighty and that we ought to be ready at all times with a calm mind and a peaceful heart.

One of the interesting differences between the Catholic and the Protestant viewpoints was the representation of Christ; his suffering was highlighted by Catholics, but with Protestants his redeeming aspects tended to be promoted instead.

Another difference was also the simplicity and minimalism – to use an anachronistic word for the sake of it - of the funeral practices when it came to the Protestants. No music should be played and sung, and in fact, prayers for the dead were generally discouraged. Also, even Protestant leaders like Calvin were buried with no pomp or circumstance; according to his own wishes, he found himself in an unmarked grave (more on this a bit later).

Another interesting tidbit was regarding the type and manner of death. Generally speaking, people considered a “good death” as something to be aimed for but also as a way to validate one's life and salvation. For example, if you died painlessly and unawares in your sleep, it may seem that you were blessed. But if you underwent a painful, excruciating death, that meant, according to popular beliefs at the time, that you were probably not going to make it very far even in the afterlife.

Striving to have a peaceful and dignified end was also seen as a confirmation that God was with you. One's own serenity towards death was equally an important factor. So even in matters of death, it became important to control oneself and to pray that it would be quick and painless. And those famous last words may ring through eternity for and by other generations to come in this world, so you'd better make them significant and meaningful.

Marshall also mentioned the Protestant belief that death may appear like a sleep in transition towards resurrection when both soul and body would reunite. In this case, the dead were ideally given a proper burial with their feet facing the East, where Jesus would return in Jerusalem, and the face of the deceased looking upward so that the dead would simply arise without any difficulties.

This also made the punishment for suicide, heresies or any other misdeeds that led to ex-communication a more grave matter beyond this life of ours. A person who had committed suicide, for example, would be left on the crossroads, which is supposed to be confusing for the soul and where the devil usually resides. This view of death also led to horrible acts of mutilation of the deceased in a number of wars and conflicts, which were gruesome both in actual and symbolic fashion.

All of this raised interesting questions regarding the manifestation of spirits, which Protestants believed to be not incarnations of the person but rather a plaything of demons to confuse humans. Their reasoning was simple: the dead were either in heaven or hell and either way would not be able to travel back to Earth. 

This was also the main reason why Hamlet was not sure whether he was confronted with the ghost of his own father or whether it was a trick put on by a maleficent demon or goblin. However, in most cases, popular opinion sided on the fact that they were indeed real ghosts of the departed.

Then there was the question period, and I could not resist. My question was two-fold. One was about the fact that Protestant belief with the negation of Purgatory seems to be more pessimistic and fatalistic than the Catholic view. It took away hope for those who might fall in the middle ground and sent them straight either to heaven or hell.

Marshall answered the question by assuring me that Purgatory with all its perks was not necessarily cheery or hopeful as it involved burning and torture for thousands of years. Secondly, Protestants often had the (false?) assurance –- commonly referred to as predestination or divine grace -- that they were already saved and that gave them hope and confidence for the life to come.

My second question was how the soul could find the body in the particular case of Calvin who was buried in an unmarked grave. How would his soul recognize his own body if there was no name attached to it? Here Marshall claimed that Protestants also believed that the soul would already know and recognize the body wherever it might be, even if it were devoured by a cannibal who in turn had been eaten by a lion. Good to know.

So, all in all, I was fascinated by this talk and for the span of an hour and a half had become completely oblivious to my own problem of not having any service or signal during the whole afternoon. This is one of the main downsides of living in a developed world where if you do not have an Internet connection you are as good as dead. And even Purgatory won't save you then!