Sixty years ago, Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 was published. It conjures up a mindless, dystopian world where mob rule and book burning are the new norm. Not surprisingly, Bradbury’s novel has some juicy quotes about the situation, especially from those old enough to have lived in wiser times:
Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.
This curiously incarnational observation suggests that by our works we will be known — or not — and that our spirits in some way will linger in the people we have touched and the things we have created.
What is scary and awesome about this idea, upon further reflection, is that it might even be true when “upscaled,” that is, when applied to God the Creator.
Can we live with the idea that God, when creating the cosmos, left God’s Spirit behind? That the Spirit of God just might be invested and infused in all creation? Even that God, in some mysterious way, died in doing it, only to live again in all creation? If so, then maybe we are on the way to understanding the deeper implications of Bradbury’s quote.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity through SBCC’s Center for Lifelong Learning to offer a seminar about “what we leave behind.” Its title was “Creating Your Personal Archive.” It was an attempt to raise issues that people usually don’t think about, like: “What matters most among the things (real and digital) that I would like to leave for future generations?” “How do I prepare such an archive?” “Where will I store it?”
The catalog description of the course was aimed at the masses: “Get your family photos and personal documents out of the shoebox you keep them in! Learn techniques used by professional librarians and archivists to preserve these precious papers.” But the vast majority of the 18 adult learners who signed up were not really novices. They were actively involved in the Santa Barbara County Genealogical Society, and so were already tuned in to many of the issues and difficulties that come with legacy-based research.
People like myself, trained in library and archival matters, are more than familiar with the messes that people too often leave behind — the “stuff of life” that those near life’s end certainly won’t be taking with them. They or their successors often “gift” (donate) the leftover books and media to libraries, which then keep what they can use and sell or discard the rest. It’s called “winnowing” in Biblical terms. Or stewardship. Somebody’s gotta do it!
We in the Beatitudes community — indeed Christians everywhere — are called during the season of Lent to reflect on “what matters most,” and (why not?) on what our own legacies will some day be.
Most Christians welcome the annual call to prune our branches that Lent represents. This is our season — our time and our call “to clean the threshing floor,” separating the wheat from the chaff (Luke 3:17, Mt 3:12). Our Jewish neighbors and friends do something similar with their deep, ritual housecleaning (removing chametz — leaven and all it symbolizes) in preparation for their Passover.
There is winnowing work to be done, my friends. If not now, when? If not by us, then by whom?
— Thomas Heck, besides being a retired librarian, is a member of and music minister for the Catholic Church of the Beatitudes, which celebrates Mass at 5:30 p.m. Saturdays at First Congregational Church of Santa Barbara, 2101 State St. Click here for more information, or call 805.252.4105. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are those of the author.