Clicking through the channels during idle minutes I came across a documentary on Ethel Kennedy (and unavoidably in large part about Bobby Kennedy) made and narrated by Bobby’s posthumous daughter Rory. Leaving aside any criticism of the film and commentary on the lifestyle of the subjects, I will note one particular revelation that made a statement, unintended I believe, about religion and literature/philosophy.
The Kennedys are almost synonymous with personal tragedy, and Ethel (although she married into the Kennedy curse) suffered many profound losses: the deaths of her parents in a plane crash while she was young; the death of her brother-in-law Jack, a loss not only of a relative and beloved president, but also a huge vicarious loss through her husband, Bobby, for whom Jack was the right and left arm (the film made clear to me the degree to which Jack paved the way for Bobby). Ethel would later lose two sons, one to drugs the other to a reckless accident. In response to all the loss, a subject to which Rory devotes a substantial amount of time, she points to the support of religion and lingers over images of Ethel (whom she must refer to through the film as “Mummy”) kneeling in private worship and lighting candles. At one point, Ethel states that she is sure that all the departed are “up there” happy together.
On the other hand, when Bobby loses Jack—his beloved brother, his livelihood, his inspiration, his confident, his political base of support and more—he takes to reading poetry. Where was his catholic faith? Rory of course could not interview him to see if he refers to anyone being happy in heaven, but she makes a large point of relating that in his grief he withdrew and read Aeschylus. I would have liked to know what else he read at that time. (I am not familiar with Aeschylus, but I generally don’t like to read poetry in translation because there is always that other writer who has a very large hand in the end product.) Even when we see Bobby comforting a crowd of African-Americans upon informing them of the death of Martin Luther King, he quotes Aeschylus.
I did not get the sense that the filmmaker was making any tacit statement about her father’s loss of faith (whom she also must refer to through the film, as does everyone else, as “Daddy”). Yet clearly, if he isn’t kneeling and lighting candles, then res ipsa loquitur—he is not seeking his consolation through religion. By the way, I have always been baffled by the purpose of lighting candles and praying for someone after death. If you believe that they are happy “up there” then what are you praying about? Either they are happy or not, and only in the latter case would they need your prayers, I guess so they can get to heaven from limbo or some such other place? As for praying for things, I have been treated to many instances where people were going to fervently pray for my brother; he died young of a heart attack after a life of horrible alcoholism. We must, I suppose, forget about the workings of cause and effect here, or else conclude that the praying was detrimental. Back to praying for the dead, if it is just an expression of thought for the deceased, I would ask, are there many moments when you are not thinking about a loved one who has just died?
Death gives religion its finest moment—without grief I would say that religion would wan or disappear. I think people can face their own nothingness after death more than they can come to terms with the irrevocable disappearance of a loved one. There might still, though, be pockets of use: some might still feel the need for that something bigger than themselves, or need a story about “how we got here” with more color than science can give, or want the social support and affirmation of gathering in groups and performing rituals. Still, as I read in a blog by a minister, the best time to make a convert is at a funeral.
My final perplexing religious notion– why is everything good attributed to god, but none of the bad? This came to light recently when I listened to a Franciscan brother who was doing good work in the slums of LA. He found the love of god in every instance of success he had in convincing a youth to turn from a life of crime, in every commercial success of the homegrown businesses he set up for the unemployable, and in every feeling of mutuality between two people. God’s love was conspicuously absent when he described that the children with whom he worked were products of neglect and abuse, that they had routinely witnessed deaths of family members, and grew up in fear and poverty. He noted that children were frequently victims of violent deaths. All good? The devil’s work? Is man now responsible? A mysterious manifestation of god’s love?
I did a good Samaritan act last week—it was easy to do; I offered a woman, who was obviously hurrying for the train station on a very hot day, a ride to the station where I was headed. She was so happy, nearly ecstatic, that I had stopped, and she exclaimed repeatedly, “Thank you Jesus, thank you Jesus.” My name is not Jesus.