Read On God: An Uncommon Conversation Online

Authors: Norman Mailer,Michael Lennon

Tags: #General, #Religion, #Christian Theology

On God: An Uncommon Conversation (9 page)

BOOK: On God: An Uncommon Conversation
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V

Saints

MICHAEL LENNON:
I would like to take up again the question of saints. I think you need to say more. In most religions, saints do play a tremendous role. They intercede for lesser humans. They give witness to God's greatness. They are models for humanity by their ability to withstand suffering. Indeed, some of their suffering is self-imposed. Do you see saints in the same way as in the traditional religions?

         

NORMAN MAILER:
You reach me on a weak point. I don't know that I have a good deal to say. It does make sense to me that there are certain people whom God would feel close to. I suppose the subtext to such a remark is that God may not feel equally near to each one of us. In truth, I would doubt that He does. After all, the Devil is always doing His best to obfuscate the divine venture. So it's not easy to reach us. Very few of us ever get a message directly from God or the Devil. (Of course, hysterics receive several a day.) Most of us are obliged to live with a subtle smudge upon our senses. Spiritually speaking, we inhabit a complex and contradictory environment. Theologically speaking, spiritually speaking, we may not be as near to ultimates as perhaps we were centuries ago.

Now there are people who succeed, one way or another, of divesting themselves of most of the Devil. It's hard for me to believe, however, that a saint can exist with nothing of the Satanic still residing in him or her. I can assume that saints are
relatively
pure, but the notion that they are absolutely so—well, given my temperament, it begs too many questions. It makes everything too easy. Because if saints are perfect, why the Hell do they fail so often? Does the Devil overtake them? Or—let me advance an essentially medieval argument—is the saint so good that the Devil has to use extraordinary and exhausting efforts to create a defeat, and so the saint serves God's purpose by wearing the Devil out?

         

But not all saints are defeated.

Give me an example of some triumphant saints.

         

St. Peter.

St. Peter! He deserted Christ three times.

         

But then he redeemed himself and started Christianity.

Yes, and Christianity may still be laboring under the fact that it was Peter who commenced it. You've got a three-time treacherous associate there—

         

There are other saints….

I won't say that people can't repent, that they can't restore their spirits back to something finer, but nonetheless renegades do have to remain under suspicion.

         

That, in a way, brings me to my next question. Your God and your Devil are limited, and I assume—

Not limited but finite. Certainly not infinite.

         

I assume that human perfection is truly impossible for you, as you just said. If there were a human being who was All-Good, she or he would be better than God. And if we found an absolutely perfect human being, your theology would be hard-pressed to account for that person.

I don't think I'm in any danger of having my theology, such as it is, overthrown by that premise. Of course, there will never be a perfect human being. It's not in the range of our thinking. After all, I am going so far as to say there's no such thing as a perfect divinity. The nature of the universe is provisional, existential, not finally determined. That is at the core of everything I present here. God's future is as open as our own.

         

Let me return to saints. I can admit that St. Peter was not perfect. But think of St. Francis of Assisi….

Yes, he's perfect in a beautiful way that took care of a great many animals, and thereby brought us a little more into sympathy with creatures who often feel more life than ourselves, but I don't know that he improved human nature particularly, not even by his fine example. I'm asking, rather, about the kind of saints who are trying to change human nature and almost always end up as martyrs. Indeed, the way they become saints is that they were martyrs first.

         

One way that we know a saint is a saint, at least in Christianity, is that he or she was martyred. St. Stephen was martyred. St. Perpetua was martyred.

But you mentioned animals. To shift for a moment: How far down does the chain of Being—or, if you will, the war between God and the Devil—manifest itself?

I have no idea.

         

You said that dogs have souls.

Yes.

         

Then I assume both sides have enlisted them. What about the other animals? Are you ready to say that some are on God's side? Are the eagles and the doves? The vultures and the snakes?

To enter these matters is equal to philosophical free-fall. I would rather rely on the sort of instinctive verdicts that humans come up with after centuries of dealing with certain problems. For instance, my belief in God and the Devil comes, to a good extent, from the fact that the majority of people, through all of recorded time, have believed in both evil spirits and good ones and, finally, in a god and a devil accompanied by angels and demons. If the majority have such beliefs, one does well to keep some respect for such notions. Error is our human signature, but not a constant incapacity to perceive anything beyond ourselves.

         

Do you relate any of your ideas to modern concepts of disease?

Well, I hardly subscribe to the modern notion that all disease is evil and is to be eradicated at all cost, so that we can all live for centuries and populate the globe with ten trillion people. Life and death, I will repeat, do have an intimate relation to each other. Just as we cannot conceive of an existence where there is only daylight and never night, so I don't care to think of life void of death and rebirth. Since I believe that some of us do come back again, I will say that I haven't the remotest clue whom we may become in our next existences. It's possible, it's perfectly possible, that some or all of us have to descend to the bacteriological level and return from there. My guess, however, is that it is not so elaborate a chain of reincarnation. That would propose a most complex universe in the afterlife. I would rather assume there's a purpose to everything, including the biological agents that infect us and often kill us. It may be there are agents of death with which God experiments as fully as God experiments with the development of human and animal life.

         

You've talked a lot about the moment of death and the state of mind one is in at the moment of death—this follows, I think, from what you just said. Peace of mind, I think, is important to many religions—peace of mind at death—none more so than Catholicism. The Church actually has a sacrament called Extreme Unction, now called “Anointing of the Sick.” It was created by the Church to give hope to people who were near death.

How would you say that the Church arrived at such confidence in its power?

         

Well, over millennia, the Church created seven sacraments. And the last one is Extreme Unction. I can't tell you which Father of the Church came up with the theology of it, but there is a sense of the Church reaching out to the individual at the moment of death and applying all of its powers to giving that person peace of mind as they pass over.

Or, at least, giving them a belief in peace of mind….

         

From the Church's point of view, Extreme Unction works. I've seen people receive it—and you know, it does give them tremendous peace of mind.

I can believe it's effective. Certainly for devout Catholics, it would be. Let me tell you a small story about a dear friend of mine, Eddie Bonetti, who was dying of cancer. I spoke to him a day before he went. He was a marvelous fellow, and you'll see from the conversation what his positive qualities were.

We were talking on the phone, and he knew death was close. At a given moment, I said to him, “Eddie, are you scared?”

He said, “Yeah, Norman, I am.”

I said, “Eddie, it seems to me you have less reason to be afraid than anyone I know. Because you're the loyalest guy I've ever met. You never turned your back on a friend, no matter how much it cost you. I really can't believe that something bad is waiting for you.”

He said, “You really believe that, Norman?”

I said, “I think so, I really do.”

And the woman he was living with at the time told me he did die later that day with a smile, which gave me heart because I loved the guy and so am tempted, naturally, to hope that my words had a little to do with his peace.

So, yes, I can believe that Extreme Unction can be wonderful for some. I will say I expect it's a human creation rather than a divine fact. There were no miracles announcing it, no revelation from God. This was a human attempt, if you will, to understand how God's mind works. So all right, yes, I can believe Extreme Unction is there for a devout Catholic. It might not work for someone like myself. If someone came in and said, “You are going to die in peace,” I'd probably say, “Let me go. If you don't mind, I'll fine-tune my own end—you don't need to do it for me.”

Certain theologians would say, “Well, this is vanity. This is precisely why you're not going to have a good end.” And my feeling is, “Hey, pal, it's open. None of us knows. It doesn't matter how much tradition is behind it. Tradition
suggests
there may well be something powerful behind it, but can it fit every human case?”

         

Why is the state of mind at death so very important to you?

Because I think it's our point of departure, our angle of flight, if you will.

         

So what? Everybody has a bad day. You could happen to have a bad day on the day you die.

No, no—whenever you have a bad day, there's a lot of reason for the downer. I can give you twenty causes for such an hour. Some are serious, some are passing. But, no, I won't let you hide behind the notion that a bad day is no more than a slot on the roulette wheel.

         

But there are also days when we have false euphoria. We can feel good for no accountable reason and then the next day say, “Why did I feel so good? I still have all these problems!”

Whenever we have an emotion we can't account for, good or bad, I expect that the root is karmic. That may be the only visitation we receive from previous lives. By the laws of the game, which may well be basic and necessary, we can't know who we were and where we were in previous lives. Nonetheless, intense and unaccountable emotions can come from one's karmic past.

But I'm not answering your question. I think at the moment we die, we are the sum of all the good and bad we've done, all the courage and cowardice we've exercised. And so, for example, if we die with a desire to be reborn, I think it means a great deal to God. If you will, it's like reaching into a litter to select a pup, and there's one who catches our eye because he wants us. He is the one we choose to take home. Using that crude analogy, I would say that it's important to be ready. After all, that is the one situation we can't simulate, can't preempt. We can pretend to a huge number of emotions in our lives; we may well spend three quarters of our lives being what we are not. I would go so far as to say that one of the reasons people get married is so that they can stop acting for a period every day, an hour when they don't have to present a face to the world. People who live alone are always obliged to put on that other face when they leave their room.

So I would say that when one is close to death, at least if one knows one's going to die, there can be a desire for another life or a yearning toward peace or—and this is the worst condition—a wish to pass away altogether. The largest urge of the soul becomes “I don't want to feel pain, so I will accept nothingness.”

And really, suppose you're on high, wondering which humans you'll refashion. Suppose there's a man that God is most interested in, but at the last moment that agent is pleading for stupor. God says, “Do I really want to go through this again? Have this person become one more large disappointment?”

To repeat: I do believe our final judgment in this life is given by the form of our rebirth. The only divine judgment we receive is our placement in the next life. If you have no desire to live again, God's decision may be, “No. No need to be reborn.” True death. End of existence.

         

I want to explore this more. A nurse told me this recently, a hospice nurse who cared for the dying—three times a week she went through this, and she had great experience. She told me that at the end, often, because people were taking drugs, they'd be on morphine to cut the pain, and their personality, as she put it, “dissolves.” They were alive, they were functioning, but their souls were already gone. And so, for them, the death was before they died—the body was still breathing, the automatic systems were working, but…but indeed, the people I have seen die, they revert to powerful impulses, powerful atavistic impulses: the desire to keep oneself clean—they get on the toilet when they're dying. The desire to remember one's mother or grandmother. Or when someone touches you, the desire to reach out or, to the reverse, the fear you're going to be violated when you're lying on your bed. And I've seen that, the few deaths I've witnessed.

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