I wonder sometimes if I’ve had a single incarnation in which I was emotionally strong from the beginning, or if it’s always something I have to fight for until my metaphorical hands are bloody.
In the past life I remember best, what I call “before,” I was more thoughtful and intelligent than people believed me to be, but so, so easily distracted, so terrified of being bored because when I was bored, thoughts would rise up and disturb me, memories of places I’d never been, places that looked like the English gardens I had made at Versailles. I had a sense of having been other people on this planet before, that some of the people who bowed in introduction to me were ones I had known before.
I was raised Catholic, as both the Austrian and French royal families were, and I dutifully confessed (some of) my sins to a priest regularly, attended Mass (boring, but I liked the music), and I firmly believed that I was in the position (as archduchess, then dauphine, then queen) that I was supposed to be in. I was raised to think that it was God’s will I should be these three things, and a big part of me did, which was one reason the people revolting so horrified me; they were fighting God’s will itself. But I faintly remember thinking that I myself somehow chose that life. I could not speak such a thing, could barely think it.
It’s not that back then everyone was faithful in exactly the same amount and way, I don’t mean to say that. For example, my dear, warm father, the Emperor, who deferred to my mother always and enthusiastically played with us children, was the first prince in Europe to become a Freemason. Many were suspicious of this group, and my own mother hated them because she suspected them of blasphemy, and I have a faint memory of my mother ordering me not to promote dear Herr Mozart in any way because he was a Mason. (Whether this really happened or not, I have not forgiven myself for not helping him more than I did.) Of course, though she was the real ruler of the empire, my mother was a Catholic and would not go against her husband’s wishes or actions.
What I’m trying to say is that though I lived in a Catholic world, we were not mindlessly faithful. When I first read “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” and learned that my uncle and my youngest brother, sweet Max, had been grandmasters of the Priory of Sion, it touched off a faint recollection of my Uncle Charles being odd, being especially close to my youngest brother, and someone, I can’t recall who, mentioning that my uncle, my father’s brother, had some unorthodox beliefs. This was before the Enlightenment, of course, but there have always been people who questioned mixing in among the devout. But my thoughts about life and what comes after were odd enough for me to stuff them down and try to focus on the here and now…and for me, I regret to say, I fought my suffering then as I do now, by buying things.
I’m not writing this to talk about being a reckless spender, which I was and am very sorry for, and I’m still working on that. I meant to focus on one of my guilty thoughts, a belief that we all, all go to Heaven. “Before,” it was common to believe that those of your particular faith were going to be rewarded with Paradise after death, and all others consigned to the flames of hell. I heard my mother say more than once that hell was awaiting her nemesis Frederick the Great of Prussia. Our priests spoke freely about the horrors that lay in store for those who did not worship God as we did. I believed them about many things. I could not believe this, and cannot now. “What about Hitler,” many would ask at this point. “Heaven.” “Stalin, who killed even more people?” “Heaven.” “Osama bin Laden?” “Heaven. I’m sorry, Heaven.” I believe there is one place we end up, and that is where we all came from.
I know this is an awful notion in many people’s opinions, and I don’t think I can explain it, let alone convince anyone, in any way except to point to suffering. Suffering is universal. If you live a pain-free life now, good, I’m glad for you, but there are horrors in your previous lives I hope you never remember. Hitler was more than Hitler, he had other lives where he probably was, as we all probably have been, chronically ill, raped, murdered, oppressed, forced to linger in poverty, died in childbirth, abandoned at birth in a forest or an alley, falsely or rightly accused and executed, killed painfully in a battle, mauled by a wild animal. Enough time, and we experience everything. We have suffered as well as have caused suffering. Aside from my belief that we choose our major life events in order to learn from experience, life is pain. As William Goldman said, anyone who says differently is selling something.
I’m not trying to sell this idea to you, and anyone who needs to believe in hell to feel better is free to do so. I just happen to be the opposite. I can’t look out upon a world of people, no matter how much they frighten me, and believe any of them are going to one day burn eternally in flaming sepulchers, or be drowning forever in mud, or become bleeding trees if they take their own lives. I once prayed to God to forgive me because I couldn’t think about hell, and though I wished I believed in it when human monsters took my children and husband from me, I still couldn’t. I suffered then, and couldn’t see much beyond that suffering, but I see now. There are those I can’t yet forgive, but I believe they and I are going to the same place when we die, each time we die.
Why can’t I believe in hell? It’s not just because it’s comforting. It’s because I can only function in this world if I believe God is Him/They/Her/Itself forgiveness, forgiveness beyond the understanding and capacity of a human soul. I believe that God forgives all because God understands suffering. How? I don’t know. Maybe Jean Cocteau, the famous French philosophe, was right when he said that God suffers. God suffers by reason of his worlds, and he will do so without end.
If I were granted one wish, I would without hesitation say, “No more suffering, for anyone.” God or whoever offered might look at me in surprise, and say, “Then you will not learn.” “Then we will not. Let everyone be exactly as they are now on their journey, and have not a second more of pain.” There would be a silence, and perhaps a thank-you. For I would include God in this wish as well. If They suffer by means of this world, let there be an end to this world, if there must be. I’m a bad Pagan for thinking this, but I’d rather we all stay at Home, learning slowly in a perfect forever, rather than stumbling with pain across the Earth. I’m sorry, but I could in one breath wish away the only place most of us remember.