Tuesday, January 15, 2008

How Could I Have Forgotten?

Yesterday I noted my affinity for deathbed conversion stories, but I was remiss in failing to cite one of my favorite passages in all of literature — which, fittingly enough for me, is from a book I've never read and, in all honesty, probably never will.

I first heard this passage from Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited read by a priest of Opus Dei at an evening of recollection (somewhat like a mini-retreat) a few years ago:

Lord Marchmain was lying as I had seen him that morning, but his eyes were now shut; his hands lay, palm-up wards, above the bed-clothes; the nurse had her fingers on the pulse of one of them.

"Come in," she said brightly, "you won't disturb him now."

"D'you mean . . . ?"

"No, no, but he's past noticing anything."

She held the oxygen apparatus to his face and the hiss of escaping gas was the only sound at the bedside.

The priest bent over Lord Marchmain and blessed him. Julia and Cara knelt at the foot of the bed. The doctor, the nurse and I stood behind them.

"Now," said the priest, "I know you are sorry for all the sins of your life, aren't you? Make a sign, if you can. You're sorry, aren't you?" But there was no sign. "Try and remember your sins; tell God you are sorry. I am going to give you absolution. While I am giving it, tell God you are sorry you have offended Him." He began to speak in Latin. I recognized the words Ego te absolvo in nomine Patris . . . and saw the priest make the sign of the cross. Then I knelt, too, and prayed: "O God, if there is a God, forgive him his sins, if there is such a thing as sin," and the man on the bed opened his eyes and gave a sigh, the sort of sigh I had imagined people made at the moment of death, but his eyes moved so that we knew there was still life in him.

I suddenly felt the longing for a sign, if only of courtesy, if only for the sake of the woman I loved, who knelt in front of me, praying, I knew, for a sign. It seemed so small a thing that was asked, the bare acknowledgment of a present, a nod in the crowd. All over the world people were on their knees before innumerable crosses, and here the drama was being played again by two men -- by one man, rather, and he nearer death than life; the universal drama in which there is only one actor.

The priest took the little silver box from his pocket and spoke again in Latin, touching the dying man with an oily wad; he finished what he had to do, put away the box and gave the final blessing. Suddenly Lord Marchmain moved his hand to his forehead; I thought he had felt the touch of the chrism and was wiping it away. "O God," I prayed, "don't let him do that." But there was no need for fear; the hand moved slowly down his breast, then to his shoulder, and Lord Marchmain made the sign of the cross. Then I knew that the sign I had asked for was not a little thing, not a passing nod of recognition, and a phrase came back to me from my childhood of the veil of the temple being rent from top to bottom.

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