There is no life without death. The two are twinned. We know that death always follows life, though in the most abstract, easily ignored way. It is still a challenge to picture our own selves, drawn down into that darkness. Our imaginations may be weak here, but, like every other animal, we are born with an instinct to live, to flee death.
There is no life without death. The two are twinned in yet another sense. Some would say that only those who have faced death know what it means to live. The menacing shadow of death focuses life. Before that, the meaning of life lies dormant beneath its many demands and duties.
There is yet another link between life and death, another way that death raises life’s purpose: not in the face of death, but in the desire for death, when the dreams of life utterly disappoint. Yet when the soul-weary sane seek to leave life, with grace, they can master it, find life’s purpose for themselves, forge a new, deeper identity.
Eimar McBride’s award winning, debut novel A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing (2014) was rejected by many publishers. It’s a challenging work to read, because it is an inchoate stream of consciousness, much like what actually flows through our minds. It’s the story of a young girl, born to a weary mother and an absent father. Her older brother suffers from a brain tumor. Although she abuses alcohol, drugs and sex, one can’t say that Catholicism does not take with the young woman. She rejects it as a way of life, though it’s clearly a part of her consciousness. Its words and cadences flow in the stream that never settles into a stable personhood.
A victim of sexual abuse, the young woman literally washes away her own self when she chooses to drown. Of course it’s not clear that she ever fully chooses anything, that she forms enough personhood to be a moral agent, one responsible for her actions. Hence, the title of the novel, A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing and the absence of names for its characters. Sin, her own and others, never allows her life to settle, to coalesce. Yet in seeking death, a self still struggles to form, to find its center, its purpose.
I step in the water on my cold feet. Touch the white flesh. Damp the. Walking where the mud slips into my shoes. Rushes pricking winding ankles trip the. Not a new girl here.
Go out. Go out further where the water is fine.
On my bare legs. On my thighs. Knowing what I am. Come the. Still. My. Slipping over hips and stomach. On my mind. Through fingers combing there. Soak in my white shirt colder. Up the spine. Duck it duck now or I’ll never go in. The browning foam.
Is it too much to suggest that the girl is seeking baptism? At least, seeking the very meaning of baptism, which most of us, not having chosen it for ourselves, struggle our entire lives to find? We baptize infants—rightly so—but baptism was meant to be a very adult way of drowning, a washing away of a life that has grown weary. Perhaps only those who choose baptism as a form of death, death in life, ever really know its power.
Even in choosing death, the young girl is seeking her dead brother, wanting to call him by name, struggling to grasp the relationship that would have allowed her life to form.
Come on you say. Come with. Come down. Come down where the water turns to hot and rivers flowing rocks go by. Dive the. Dive with me. You say. You tell. You tell me your name and tell me the truth this time. Sssh. We’ll live there for a thousand Lir years. There now. There now. Take my hand.
Let the water take the thing away. Take body. Tired as I am as you are. Full and watered down and sure that oceans underground will take us.
Jesus enters the waters of death, and emerges from them with an identity. It has always been his identity, but in baptism he chooses it, embraces it, makes it his own. In the waters of baptism he grasps the relationship that forms him. He is the Beloved Son of the Father, the Christ who enters death to find his way, to find our way.
Suicide is no baptism. One does not emerge from it with a new sense of life. All potential is lost, all possibilities closed. The sane do not choose suicide. But baptism is a substitute for suicide. It is the renunciation of a former life. It is the search for a new life beyond the one that will not coalesce. It is a ritual designed to solder the singular struggle of a soul.
For most of us, the ritual came first. The struggle to make sense of it, to make it make sense of life, follows.
Isaiah 42: 1-4, 6-7 Titus 2: 11-14, 3: 4-7 Luke 3: 15-16, 21-22