Saturday, May 12, 2012

A Bad Night in a Bad Inn

St Theresa of Ávila described life as a bad night in a bad inn. If you expect eternal paradise afterwards, I imagine worldly existence can seem rather inadequate, but to most of us it is all there is. Which doesn’t stop us making ourselves far more miserable than is strictly necessary.

I happen to derive pleasure from knowing and understanding things. Reflecting calmly on my deathbed, if I have that extravagance, I might well look back and wish I had bothered less about the higher arithmetic and Sanskrit poetry, and spent my time having children or saving the whale or just gossiping about nothing with people I had spent my life close to. It is perfectly possible, although I cannot know it now. I will know when I am there.

I don’t expect to agree with the Saint of Ávila, who seemed to suggest that we should be glad to die and get out of this ghastly place. I rather like it here. Perhaps I shall go somewhere which is much better than this, but in any case I want to believe that I haven’t wasted my life. How can I know what is waste and what is not waste?

Memento mori. If I remember my Latin correctly this is an injunction to remember our own mortality, with the implication that if we do so we will have a greater sense of proportion about ourselves and our lives. That is, we will value ourselves less and our time on Earth more.

I am constantly aware of my own mortality, and of the fact that, however much time I have left, it is less than I had yesterday. An astonishing number of people seem completely unaware of the fact that one day there will be no more days, and they spend their time in ways that are not only unproductive and apparently pointless, but are quite clearly unfulfilling, even by whatever standards they might have themselves.

I know people who can spend an entire day in some combination of heroic sleep, inane entertainment from the television, and inane and ignorant conversation about nothing. Such people are not at all unusual, I understand. In fact, it appears to be those of us who do things we do not have to do, things that are more difficult and require more effort than is strictly necessary, who are considered strange. Do they feel, at the end of the day, that they have lived it to any purpose? Presumably they would not even understand the question, because if you can seriously ask it, the answer must be no.

Remembering that one day you will have done all you can ever do, regardless of what you have and have not done, is a good way of making the most of the day, and of feeling some form of satisfaction at the end of it. But does the same thing apply to life? Can we know what we will care about at the end? Probably not. But I am almost certain that, unlike the Saint of Ávila, I shall not be glad to see it go.


Brett Hetherington said...

Well of course the so-called "Saint of Ávila" could console him/herself with the "fact" of a better life after death but I'm with you on this one: I cannot imagine looking at death as an attractive idea, unless I was in the greatest pain. [I do remember sincerely thinking that I would be happy to die when I was appallingly sea-sick off the Tanzanian coast once, though.]

We have an in-built reflex to preserve our own life and that of others, even if they are complete strangers. Our immediate instinct would be to try to stop someone jumping off the roof of a tall building, whether we knew them at all or not.

CIngram said...

Hello again, Brett

To preserve it, yes, but apparently not to enjoy it, or make something of it. I know a lot of people who seem to prefer moaning an dgenerally being miserable, even when they have much to be grateful for, to making something of their life, and being genuinely happy.

I don't remember what got me thinking about the words of St Theresa, which is why this post looks a bit bald and lacking framework, but I would point out to her that it's worth making the most of it in any case, and trying to lead a full and happy life.

If you ask the sort of believer whose life and works revolve around the love of God and one's neighbour, how their life would change if they were presented with clear and definitive proof of the non-existence of God, the usually answer is that nothing would change. They would keep living in the same way, doing what made them happy and fulfilled, but now they woukod do it in the name of love of man, rather than love of God. They probably wouldn't even bother to make an intellecual distinction between then and now.

St Theresa can't have been much fun at parties.

Vincent said...

Aren't you extrapolating rather a lot from a single sentence of St Theresa? I assume she was writing for the edification of other Catholic contemplatives, who already subscribed to the same principles, and had their own idea how to have fun on earth. Mystical experience may come naturally for some; others who desire it read St John of the Cross etc, and let their souls be uplifted, with what success in attaining their goal, I can't say, not having followed that path.

If one is to put up a straw man with which to justify your own approach to life, she would be a rather esoteric choice.

The people you know might be a better bet. How about those who spend the day in sleep, TV and inane conversation? I'm not sure that one could criticise them for not having lived life to any purpose. I'm sure that in doing those things they do have a purpose, because human beings make choices. Every choice is in accordance with a purpose, otherwise it is not a choice at all. Looking at my own life, I see that my choices are aimed at improving on what happened before. I can't see why it would be any different with those who you describe.

I may or may not understand this sentence: "Remembering that one day you will have done all you can ever do, regardless of what you have and have not done, is a good way of making the most of the day, and of feeling some form of satisfaction at the end of it." Taken literally it seems to mean that if, today, I remember that I am mortal, with all that that implies, I'll end the day feeling it was a satisfactory day, and that I made the most of it.

I too am daily aware of death, especially as I have entered my seventies, and feel that my body is starting to wear out in certain points - the pain doesn't let me forget it. But never mind that, I've never felt better able to enjoy this life. I cannot say that it's remembering that death will come that makes life sweeter.

But I think it's worth saying that when you are truly tasting life's joy, you know despite ordinary logic that it's not limited by time. The moment is infinite and you are in that moment. The place it takes you is not dependent on mortal things. From the viewpoint of the infinite moment there is no death, so the expression "life after death" has no meaning.

So without knowing if I have had the same experience as St Theresa, without indeed having read the full text from which your quotation was lifted, I'm happy to side with her, and possibly also with your heroic sleeping/TV watching/inane-talking friends. Sorry.

Vincent said...

I just looked up "heroic sleep". It's a very noble thing!

One site lists "folktales ... and migratory legends about heroes who, instead of dying, lie asleep waiting a time of special need when they will rise up and defeat their nations' enemies."

Perhaps this is the case with your friends - waiting till they are needed. I'm doing that too.

Bless us all!

CIngram said...


As I mentioned in my answer to Brett, I don’t remember what got me thinking about St Theresa, but there was originally some context to my thoughts which I haven’t been able to transmit.

The people who seem to me to have no purpose might well have a purpose of their own, but I wonder whether they will still consider that it was a worthwhile purpose when they realize they have no time or no physical capacity left to make different choices. Which is what made me wonder how I would look back on the choices I now make with such confidence.

The sentence you quote is perhaps missing something. I meant that if you bear your mortality in mind, it might inspire you to use your time better. It might just make you depressed, of course.

And I agree that there are moments of experience which are eternal. Heroic sleep is probably timeless as well, but I was, of course, thinking of something a little more mundane than the possible return of King Arthur.