On John Updike and eternity
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John Updike died seven years ago this week. His last poem, "Fine Point," is a meditation on the 23rd Psalm:
The tongue reposes in papyrus pleas,
saying, Surely —magnificent, that "surely" —
goodness and mercy shall follow me all
the days of my life, my life, forever.
It is a poem that finds solace in the Christian promise — "surely" — that believers will "dwell in the house of the Lord forever." Updike, an intellectual and an ironist, must have known that "surely," a translation from the original Hebrew, was a slender reed to hang a faith upon.
More to the point, did Updike, a great questioner and seeker, look forward to "the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come," to cite those beautiful words from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer?
He of all people? The author of "A Month of Sundays," a novel about a defrocked minister, which one reader thought celebrated the redemptive power of adultery and golf? The man who wrote "In the Beauty of the Lilies," in which the Rev. Clarence Wilmot confesses to his wife: "My faith, my dear, seems to have fled. . . . The universe is a hundred per cent matter and poor old humankind is on its own and always has been."
Why do I care? Because faith is hard to come by. Lots of people, including me, attend church and casually recite our confidence in salvation and the afterlife. But — really? My baseline hope for the hereafter is to realize a portion of the Mormons' promise — to spend eternity with my family. But, frankly, I'm not very confident. I wish I were.
So the belief of Updike, whom it is almost impossible not to admire for his industry, creativity, and clarity of thought, has a special meaning to me. If Updike, a prodigious, visible sinner, had hope for the world to come, then there is indeed hope for us all.
I asked Updike's son David, himself a writer, how he understood his father's faith. "I certainly think he wanted to believe, have complete faith, but there remained a seed of doubt, or fear," David told me. He directed me to one of his father's clearest explanations of why he could never make the "leap of unfaith," from the memoir "Self-Consciousness."
Sitting in church, Updike wrote, "as I half-listened to the Christmas hymns and the reading . . . it appeared to me that when we try in good faith to believe in materialism . . . we are disavowing the very realm where we exist and where all things precious are kept — the realm of emotion and conscience, of memory and intention and sensation."
Updike's widow Martha vividly remembers her husband's rapid decline and death, and his commitment to the Episcopal religion, into which he was confirmed in the early 1980s. In hospice care, "he always had the Book of Common Prayer on our bed — he knew it very well."
As for John's world view, "he saw the world as it was," Martha recalls. "In everything he wrote, there was a 'Yes but. . . .' " As for eternal life, "None of us can know that for sure," she said, "nor do we have complete knowledge that there is no afterlife. John always believed that there was evidence of God's work in the world."
She directed me to one of Updike's early short stories, "Pigeon Feathers," in which the religiously conflicted adolescent David Kern shoots a brace of pigeons at his mother's instruction. The boy sees "the infinitely adjusted yet somehow effortless mechanics" of the dead birds' feathers; "designs executed, it seemed, in a controlled rapture."
Kern concludes "that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever."
I asked Martha if she thought John had died in the hope of the resurrection. "Yes, definitely," she said. What a lucky man.