Yesterday I attended the funeral of a lovely lady who has been part of my life from my early teens. She was not my friend, but the best friend of my best friend’s mother. She was also my friend’s godmother, and as such attended all the same family occasions and weekend get-togethers that I did. She was, like me, frequently at the house at other times, so over the course of 30+ years, we ran into each other a lot.
She was kind, loyal, opinionated and stubborn. I liked her a great deal, and she always had time for me. She had two boys of her own, and proudly shared stories of their childhood exploits, their love lives, and later, her grandchildren.
She was a quietly devout Catholic, and her wish was for a Catholic funeral. I sat quietly though the opening hymn, the readings and the prayers of the faithful, focusing on not crying. I’m the kind of person who tears up merely thinking about lost puppies, so funerals are always a bit of a nightmare. Besides, I was there to support my friend, and dissolving into a salty puddle wouldn’t, I thought, be at all helpful.
Then the priest rose for the homily. He began by saying how hard it is to understand why we think the way we think – and from there descended into near incomprehensibility. He hopped about like a startled rabbit, from this thing to that thing and then back to this thing again: love, family, education, society, Catholicism, Christianity, God. At least while I was concentrating on trying to follow his narrative, I wasn’t fighting the urge to weep.
And then in amongst the disjointed flow of words an actual sentence emerged. Nothing controversial if you happen to be Catholic: all goodness proceeds from God, and it is only through God’s grace that we can be good.
I was raised a Catholic. I got over it.
Outraged indignation is an odd emotion to feel at a funeral. My friend’s deceased godmother was not good only through the grace of God. God’s grace had nothing to do with it. She was a good person because she chose to be; she worked hard at it: at being fair, at forgiving, at compassion and loyalty and love. Ascribing all her goodness, all her success, to God dismisses both her effort and her agency. It belittles her struggles, and hands all the accolades to God.
I understand that for Christians, goodness is a symbol of God, but I do not accept that God is a pre-requisite for goodness. Most of the world’s people are not Christian, and they manage acts of goodness just fine. And yes, although I’m not a theological expert, and I’m not in the mood to reacquaint myself with the doctrine of God, goodness and grace, I’m sure there’s also an argument that God takes all goodness to himself, whether or not you believe in him. I don’t much like that approach either – that if you’re good, it’s God working through you, whatever your will.
It bothers me that the response to this good thing over here is that God did it, but that bad thing over there God had nothing to do with. Good and evil, however you wish to define them, are not extraneous forces acting upon the human spirit. They arise from within; out of our choices and experiences and desires. We strive; we choose; we succeed or we fail. It is, always and ultimately, down to us.
Goodbye, dear soul. You loved and were loved, and we will miss you.
[2 April 2016]