I want to thank Rachel Zahnd for her Living & Growing column on “Relationships with our Beloved Dead.” Her beautiful essay reminded me of the conclusion of James Joyce’s famous short story, “The Dead,” where Joyce’s protagonist, Gabriel Conroy, suffers through a Christmas party feeling isolated from the family and friends he has known all his life. In the lyrical ending of that beautiful story, Gabriel is shattered to discover that he is isolated even from the one person he relied on for intimacy, his wife. Yet in his isolation, Gabriel comes to see “community” as more than simply the family and friends with whom we share our time on earth. Looking out the window, Gabriel watches the unifying snow “falling faintly . . . and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
I think what Joyce and Ms. Zahnd are writing about is the meaning of tradition, which the late Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan once defined as “the living faith of dead men.” As Ms. Zahnd writes so well in Sunday’s piece, “The stories of their lives become part of the stories of our lives, and in us, the dead can live again.” What makes a community isn’t just time and space, but the stories and beliefs we share, the beauty we all experience, and the truths we sometimes find it harder to acknowledge than to ignore. The vehicle by which we share all that stuff is tradition, the way we share in the lives of people we never know, people who will never know us; the people who continue to live in us and through us by the work of their lives; and the people whom we will continue to live in by the work of ours. Death, says the American poet Richard Howard, is simply “the winter half of the world.”
In the Confessions, Saint Augustine writes of the good he received from his parents: “Good it was for them that my good came from them, which came not from them but through them.” The good doesn’t begin with us; it just passes through us, and whether you imagine the mystery of its origins to lie in biology or God, we are the vehicle of whatever goodness exists in the world. We get it from others. We give it to others. And that means that we’re the tradition.