Alice Thomas Ellis: He Came Down from Heaven

Editor’s note: Here’s a Catholic writer worth discovering or rediscovering! Alice Thomas Ellis, who died 2002 at age 72, was the pen name of Anna Haycraft. I called her one day out of blue and asked her to write an article for Crisis Magazine and she very kindly sent the one below — it helped that I read several of her novels and knew of her concerns about the post Vatican II Church (read her explosive, Serpent On The Rock published in 1994). Born in Wales, Alice converted to Catholicism at age 19 and went into a convent as a postulant nun. After slipping a disc, she left for a time, but when she returned the convent refused to take her back. She had seven children but managed a very active career in published and in writing. Many of her novels were bestsellers and a turned into movies and a TV mini-series. Among her best known fiction is The Sin Eater (1977), The Birds Of The Air (1980), The 27th Kingdom (1982), Unexplained Laughter (1985), The Inn At The Edge Of The World (1990), Pillars Of Gold (1992), and a novel about the mysterious appearance of a newborn baby, Fairy Tale (1996). Her only collection of stories was The Evening Of Adam (1994).

Alice Thomas Ellis

He Came Down from Heaven–A Consolation

Published November 1, 1995

I have been clearing out rooms since the death of my husband and have been sometimes overcome by a sense of the charnel-house. The possessions of the dead can seem loathsome when they have lost all utility and are mere reminders of mortality, of corruption and decay, of grief and loss. Even evidence of past joys and triumphs—trophies and photographs—are a source of anguish when the one to whom they were most pertinent has gone and won’t be coming back.

The house is mixed with the occasions of pain and you find yourself reluctant to move, to stir the air lest you raise the dust of old memories. The ubiquitous counselors who now profligate will tell you that the pain passes and you are left with only the “good things,” but I have not found this to be true. My second son died nearly twenty years ago and the wound has not healed, nor ever will, until I too am dead.

They tell you to make the most of this world, to empower yourself, to revel in self-esteem and self-love, to eat (only fat and sodium free comestibles of course), to drink (in severe moderation) and be merry: the implication being that this life is all we have; we should make it as long as we possibly can and be careful not to love anyone, other than ourselves, too greatly lest we should suffer.

Even “Christians” now offer this advice, while a psychiatrist, suggesting that I should enjoy myself, was unable to understand me when I said that I found it impossible to be carefree since I had many children (five alive, two dead), and could not relax unless I was certain that they were content.

My words made no sense to him. In the old Welsh phrase I was “in the potato field” while he was “in the turnip field” and there was no chance of communication between us. My consolation is the certainty of my own death, which keeps me from despair: the knowledge that separation is not eternal.

It is the things of this life which fill me with gloom and anxiety, and of the two inescapables—death and taxes—it is only the latter which keeps me awake at night. Most of our “valuables” have been lost or stolen and, while this is momentarily annoying, I cannot really regret them. There is a curse implicit in material possessions, in the worry and responsibility that they incur, and the only true worldly freedom is in the lack of them. We need food, clothes, and shelter but most of us, in the Western world at least, have too many tiresome personal gewgaws to be comfortable. They have to be protected from moth, rust, and the burglar and are a nuisance. Even flesh is a nuisance with all the ills that it is heir to, and it feels the cold.

Once when I was afraid of death, not of my own but that of the people I loved, I would go and sit in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in the quiet of a church, redolent of incense, ancient ritual, and prayer. A church was a place where you could meet death on neutral ground, a no-man’s land between now and eternity, where matters fell into perspective and terror became irrelevant because you knew it to be transitory.

There was a silent peace with a hidden promise of unimaginable joy to which all the objects of devotion attested: the altar, the statues, the crucifix, all the appurtenances of faith belonged to no one and to everyone. Still and worthy of trust, they were there yesterday and now and would be there tomorrow. Inanimate yet living testimony to a vital certainty. It is rare now to find such a church. Stripped and barren, while the people themselves are encouraged to buy more and more to support the market economy and cram their houses with trivia, the churches are denuded in the name of progress.

It is impossible to understand without laying bare the motives of those who wrought such destruction. The result is terrible in the terms of disillusion and loss, and those who say they wished only to affirm life and community have robbed us of consolation, giving death a greater power than is his due. The here and now is what concerns us they say, forgetting that life is short and but a preparation.

The new and re-ordered churches are symbolic only of a denied but underlying despair, a loss of faith to the sad conviction that death is the end. The noisy ceremonies that now fill these churches, the guitars, the clapping, swaying, and showy raptures are a mere extension of the drug culture, a whistling in the wind, a neurotic insistence that happiness is attainable immediately and does not need to be waited for or earned. The notion that suffering can bring forth good, that deprivation can nourish the soul is unacceptable. Suggest that the saints lived their lives in the promise and not the fulfillment of joy and you will not be heard. The Protestant cult of the “born again” with its ecstatic overtones has laid hold of a Church that still claims to lay all store on baptism. We are at the mercy of doctrinal error, often imposed from above, with little recourse to authority which is often too pusillanimous to argue with the trend. The wolves are in the fold.

Now that the churches are no longer peaceful but full of people determined to convey to you their loving care, their innate virtuousness, with handshakes and smiles, the bereft are best off in solitude, listening for the still, small voice. The country graveyard is perhaps now the place nearest to God on earth, for that too is neutral ground where death has had his way, is satisfied and thus of no more significance and no threat. Freedom lies in looking on the face of death and knowing that there is no true battle here, that he does not need to be fought and defeated, for he is only God’s instrument and God lives.

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