meditation

Ars Moriendi in the City of Angels (a meditation)

by E. Lundin


[God said:] For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.

-Gen. 3:19


[Jesus said:] Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.

-Mt. 24:28


But God remembered Noah…

-Gen. 8:1a


Then the criminal said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

-Luke 23:42


I remember living in the City of Angels.

Old Los Angeles. Land of silver screen. Screenland. Hollywoodland. Mecca for dreamers.

Wide swaths of suburban housing inlaid with a webwork of sidewalks and dead asphalt. Skies disrupted by the constant rumble of jets entering and exiting hive-like LAX. The great ashen “Hollywood” sign presiding over things like the ghost of some dead avatar. Eighteen million dreamers gathered around that avatar. Eighteen million, approximately. Acting out their lives there. Dreams intersecting dreams…

When I lived there the thought of life and death happening on such a scale was unnerving.

Eighteen million. Approximately.

But it was the murders that really unsettled me.

At the time there was this killer driving around to 24-hour donut shops near Culver City, the so-called “Heart of Screenland.”

The killer would stop folks in the early morning hours with their donuts and end their dreams with a single shotgun blast. I forget how many people he killed exactly, but it was more than one.

Other murders happened in the city too. Each one made the city feel more and more forsaken to me. Like it had been abandoned by God. 

Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?

At night I’d sometimes stay up reading homicide reports online. I thought that by absorbing every hideous detail of every hideous act to occur in the city I’d suss out some greater kind of meaning in it all. As though God would be underneath all the dead bodies, laying out an elaborate groundwork that I could begin to comprehend. 

Of course, I didn’t find Him beneath the bodies. Not in any literal sense, anyway. I didn’t find anything. Only more dead. 

I couldn’t stop thinking about those reports. My dreams became tainted by their poison, so I’d end my nights walking the streets, aghast by the apparent emptiness and futility of everything.

I’d walk and walk until I came to this one hilltop neighborhood. From there I’d stare down at the City of Angels and shiver, scared by the thought of dying and being forgotten. Memento mori.

I’d circle around the empty cul-de-sac there at the top of the hill like some brooding vulture, smoking and wandering. I kept returning to the view of the city and its pulsating rhythm of lights and traffic. That “Hollywood” sign hovering in the distance…

Eighteen million local angels beneath me…

Lives wending their myriad courses through time’s vanishing landscape…

Life and death. Dreams flourishing. And expiring. 

Seeds rooted to the soil; seeds scorched among the rocks. 

On those nights I became a kind of urban mystic. Shuffling through the midnight streets of Screenland in my flannel shirts, like some hipster mendicant, listening idly to The Weeknd and waxing philosophical over a flask of expensive whiskey…

What could you do with death?

At the funeral of his young son, 19th-century pastor and theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher called those gathered at the grave to love mightily, ever mindful of the fact that those they love may soon be gone. For dust thou art, and to dust thou shall return.

Schleiermacher found conciliation in the fact that those we love are never lost. That they are preserved. Forever. In what he called “memory.” 

This thought has always struck me. A father saying this at the funeral of his child…

“Memory” is an interesting word. One often relegated to the same space as “fiction,” “fantasy,” and “dream.” “It was only a memory,” someone might say. Only a dream. Only.

But the truth is that anyone who has experienced trauma, or love, knows that memory is no fictive thing. It has a life. Memory can be physical and invasive. Moving up from the past, thrusting itself into the present.

A single memory can crumple you with the unnerving force of a concussive blast. 

What happens in memory can be visceral. Real. You feel it in the body. And the body responds. It’s possible for a person to die from the shock of memory.

God made human beings to be remembering creatures. He made them to wander about in time, remembering time as they moved through. And being made in His image, they were called to remember their God, even as He promised to remember them.

Yes. Our God is a God who remembers. And that Divine Memory has power. One that reveals God’s Truth to the world.

Christians rely on memory to process and to understand Truth. We know Jesus and the Resurrection of the dead, in part, because we remember them.

Did Jesus conquer death? Yes. We remember.

Is Jesus more than memory?

Certainly.

But He is also Memory. Memory of mind, of body, and of Spirit.

And in His death, Jesus is reshaping our memory to conform to His Divine Memory.

So that we might be transformed…

Into what?

Into a kingdom.

An Eternal Kingdom.

But isn’t death still a tragedy?

Yes. Emphatically. Yes.

If there’s one thing the Book of Job teaches us, it is that we should definitely doubt the goodness of death and of suffering. But in doubting we mustn’t lose sight of the whole picture. The greater story. That death is just a single moment in the midst of time’s elaborate unfolding. It is not time’s end. It is a piece, a single piece of Divine Memory.

Its power will not prevail.

Now as I look back on those nights in the City of Angels, I feel the presence of Jesus and His Divine Memory there. Presiding over everything. Experiencing it all. And preserving it.

He remembers everything. Every dead child. Every victim in every homicide report. Every light. Every vulture. Every jet rumbling through the Los Angeles sky.

Even amidst the city and its noises, amidst the donut shop shotgun blasts, and amidst the tragedy of it and every other heinous thing that has ever befallen this world. Every local angel. Those who live and die in this strange landscape called time. He remembers every dream whose moment has come. And gone. Eighteen million. Eighteen zillion. Name your number. He remembers them all.

Hey Schleiermacher, hey you City of Angels…

He remembers all of you.

Every single one.

Now, and Forever.
Amen.