BOOK REVIEW: The Last Bus: Reflections on Life and Death, by Richard Holloway

Richard Holloway writes in The Last Bus: Reflections on Life and Death that all of us are guaranteed citizenship in ‘the great democracy of the dead.’ A typically witty and concise way of summarising human fate.

Holloway’s book is written with his characteristic gentleness of tone, but the themes are demanding and theological. In fact, the great strength of The Last Bus is that its author is able to masterfully distill terrifying and complex philosophical ideas into accessible, enjoyable prose.

A former Episcopalian bishop, and now something of a wistful agnostic, Holloway does not offer any priestly reassurances. His manner is more that of the Scottish headmaster you never had. A friendly but admonishing voice, urging us to face and accept the unknown. This may be a negative to readers hoping for self-help-style consolation. Holloway is artful and humane, but whatever hope there is in this book is to be found in strategies of acceptance, rather than of transcendence.

Early in the book, Holloway recalls visiting Kelham Hall in England, where he trained for the Episcopal ministry when he was still a boy. He finds this former haven of Christian contemplation converted into a luxury hotel, and the domed chapel hosting a colourful, Asian wedding. The austere beauty of his beloved church is now the home of a modern, multicultural union. Holloway is melancholy about the loss of his teenage memories in such a dramatic change, but insists that it also allows him to let go of it. Change can be wrenching, but without change, we would be left clinging to memories, stuck in moments that are now abstractions.

This introduces a theme which runs through all of Holloway’s meditations in the book. It is our clinging to experience that causes us pain. Time brings death and loss, but it also brings renewal, freedom and relief. If we cannot let go of what came before, we condemn ourselves to imprisonment in the past. The sense of nostalgia brings with it the heartbreak of disappointment. We are confronted with the dreams and hopes that never came to pass. But for Holloway, stark shifts such as that of a seminary becoming a luxury hotel can force us to release those disappointments, and to move on unburdened.

Holloway identifies himself with St. Peter, the apostle who began as a blustering and boastful defender of Christ but ended up betraying Jesus three times over when he was arrested. Holloway’s discussion of this biblical story centres around Peter The Penitent by Guercico (1639), which hangs in the Scottish National Gallery. Our image of ourselves is very rarely what manifests itself when we face the moment of truth, when our values are tested and our character is stripped of its masks. Like St. Peter, we are likely to burst into tears when we confront the horrible facts of our weaknesses, and the lies we have told ourselves about ourselves.

In the moment of betrayal, Christ looked upon Peter as the bible teaches he looks upon everyone, with compassion and pity. Jesus being human as well God, knows the self-deceits of the human heart. When Peter sees Jesus look at him with warmth and understanding, the apostle is thrown into shame and depression. Only when Jesus reappears after his resurrection and offers Peter a chance to atone, is he able to release himself from suffering.

Holloway seems to see the story of St. Peter as a way of viewing his own folly. It helps him confront the self-aggrandisement of his religious years, and to forgive himself for not living up to the self-image of the wise philosopher-scholar. The story also sheds light on the nature of forgiveness itself. We cannot undo the past. Peter cannot return to the image of himself as the fierce warrior of Christ. But Jesus’s pity gives him an opening to release the shame, and to move onwards in life with a renewed, more mature spiritual mission.

Quoting St. Paul in Romans, this leads Holloway to meditate upon the concept of ‘predestination’. We are sinners. We are weak in the heart and mind. We chose the very things we don’t want. But as Paul says, God is in charge and law is good. So in some sense even our sinfulness is part of God’s plan. We are who we are, warts and all, because God wills it that way. Our lives then, are predetermined. Though the passage from Romans has no definitive interpretation, its mystery would be the very faultline that fractured the church during the Reformation. Anyone interested in the minutiae of this theological controversy, will be impressed with how Holloway handles it here. He not only explains it in swift, approachable prose, but he manages to apply it to the everyday challenges of the human condition.

In acceptance of our sinful nature, we find the compassion necessary to forgive ourselves. We see that though we are responsible for our failures, they are also the product of our environments, the pressures of circumstance and countless forces acting upon our conscience. We may never be able to undo the damage done by our shortcomings, but we can learn from them if we are prepared to face the truth about who we are, without the posturing of narcissistic masks. Once we accept that we are not perfect, our imperfections cease to haunt us.

Holloway’s discussion of predestination marries well with his reflections on free will, earlier in the book. Again, a complex and persistent philosophical puzzle is tackled with a lightness of touch. To Holloway, free will is defined as the sense that we could have chosen differently, that we were somehow in charge. And it is a foundational notion to our sense of justice and free society.

But Holloway insists that our sense of control over our lives is at least partially a convenient illusion. Instead of being the supreme auteurs of lives, the truth is we are more like craftsmen. He cites a friend’s preferred metaphor, that our lives like woven cloth. The thread is inherited, the loom is time, and the pattern is often surprisingly complex. It manifests itself as we merely sit and work the mechanical process of our lives. We play a part, but there are many other forces that we can’t control, which will affect the outcome.

More examples can be found of Holloway’s ability to hit the sweet spot when distilling difficult problems into accessible prose. ‘Being dead is beyond or past experience. But dying isn’t.’ ‘The mind is its own place and does its own thing.’ Or, with a subtle wryness: fear of death is ‘an entirely ecumenical emotion.’

Holloway describes himself as having a ‘romantic temperament’, but he’s critical of this fact. As a child he dreamed of being a cowboy, escaping the central Scotland village he grew up in and discovering his great mission. This desire for new experiences, he says, stopped him from truly relishing the beauty of the world around him. Death, says Holloway, forces us out of this kind of romantic preoccupation. And if we cling to our ideals, we can do ourselves a disservice in failing to prepare for our end.

This somewhat jars with an earlier section of the book, where Holloway seems to affirm the power of beauty, the romance of ritual and creative sacrament in religion, in helping us to face death with defiance. In this discussion, Holloway says it’s through our songs and our imagination that we can find the only conquest of death available to us. Life after death, the notion of salvation, the promise of a messiah – all of these are ways of the soul remaining heroic in the face of our common fate. Through them we create meaning and beauty in our lives. ‘Death gets us all in the end, but it can never kill our songs. And that is they only victory they give us.’

So it seems odd that Holloway is so damning about the romantic instinct in a later chapter. Using John Wayne as an example, he seems to relish the difference between the projected image of cultural heroes and the ‘quotidian’ reality of their lives. Wayne appeared to be the paragon of courage and masculine resolve on screen, but he ‘finessed’ his way out of service during the Second World War. Only when the Duke was on his deathbed did he actually become heroic in real life. Certainly we must be cautious when revering images rather than genuine human character, but none of this condemns romance and the idealistic longing intrinsic in the human soul. Surely it possible to be both romantic and idealistic, while also accepting the facts of existence? The odes of Keats would stand in testament to that possibility.

That said, there is wisdom in the idea that if we spend our lives trying to escape who we really are, we risk losing the chance to see grace and beauty in death. The very shortness of life means we cannot afford to kid ourselves. Only by making friends with ‘the stranger’ that is our true self, can we hope to meet our end with strength, acceptance and poise.

Acceptance of our fragility does not imply capitulation to death. Rather it is a chance to show virtue in the face of that which we can’t control. As Holloway deftly puts it, ‘We didn’t get to deal our hand in life. We only got to play the cards we were given. And how we play the last card can win the game.’

The Last Bus: Reflections on Life and Death is published by Canongate and can be purchased here

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