You can take it with you

Almost everyone has at some point heard the phrase, “You can’t take it with you.”

This idiom is, of course, intended to remind us that we cannot take any material possessions with us when we die.

It seems to me worthwhile to flip the phrase around to ask ourselves what we can “take” with us when we die.

If you think that you have an everlasting soul, then there are presumably both temporal and everlasting realities.

What difference would it make in our lives if we spent time regularly contemplating what we can/do “take with us” when we die?

What would it look like to add more eternal realities to our day-to-day?

“You can’t take it with you” is intended to give perspective and cultivate detachment.

Yet, it is only the first step. The next step is to sort out what it is that we can, in a sense, “take with us” and then to cultivate that in our lives.

The Breath of the Spirit of Life

I have very much been enjoying Charles C. Camosy’s new book, Losing Our Dignity: How Secularized Medicine is Undermining Fundamental Human Equality.

Camosy begins with sketching the anthropological views undergirding our contemporary secular bioethics and then proceeds to explore recent cases, particularly at the beginning and end of life, where human equality has been questioned or undermined.

In a fascinating chapter on brain death, I was interested to learn about how Jews have succeeded in challenging the notion that brain death constitutes the death of the person.

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Five years after Fr. Jacques was martyred…

For the past five years, I have carried this prayer card of Fr. Jacques Hamel in my passport holder. The elderly French priest’s martyrdom at the hands of Islamists while he was celebrating mass was very absorbing for me, particularly that summer of 2016.

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I Asked My Grandfather What He Hoped I Would Do in Life

Throughout Pope Francis’ pontificate, he has been emphasizing the value of encounter between the young and the old. One of my favourite quotations ever of his is this: “We, the elderly, can remind young ambitious people that a life without love is arid. We can say to young people who are afraid that anxiety about the future can be beaten. We can teach young people too in love with themselves that there is more joy in giving than in receiving. The words of grandparents have something special for young people. And they know it.”

I think the reason I appreciate this quotation so much is because these are indeed the very things my grandfather taught me and, equally, the very things I most needed to learn from him.

My grandfather was deaf in his 80s and 90s, but his mind remained sharp until his death. I wrote to him A LOT and was the scribe at family dinners, usually transcribing the flow of the entire conversation for him.

One day, several years ago, I decided to ask my grandfather what he hoped I would do in my future, what he thought I would be.

The answer he gave me in this 1-minute clip is one of my most precious memories.

Indeed those words were special, and I knew so right away.

Jordan Peterson challenges us to have strength at funerals

This evening I finished reading Jordan Peterson’s latest book, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life.

In the last chapter, Rule XII: Be grateful in spite of your suffering, Peterson mentions that he has repeatedly suggested to his various audiences “that strength at the funeral of someone dear and close is a worthy goal” and he notes that “people have indicated to me that they took heart in desperate times as a consequence.”

After a worldwide book tour and many other public appearances, Peterson has had the opportunity to test and play with his ideas with many audiences. And it is interesting to read his thoughtful reflections based on his careful observation of the reactions of persons in the audience.

Earlier in the book, he mentions, as he has said elsewhere, that he sees people’s faces light up whenever he speaks about responsibility. Peterson is keenly aware that people have been raised with a greater emphasis on rights and the corresponding sense of entitlement that ensues with this focus. Yet, a sense of responsibility is what ennobles and fills persons with a sense of their proper dignity and capacity.

Accordingly, this challenge to have strength at funerals is an extension of his usual exhortation to responsibility.

He writes:

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#IamWithYouAlways

Pope Francis has initiated a World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly which was held this year on Sunday, July 25th with the theme, “I am with you always” (Mt 28:20).

Speaking about the day, His Eminence Cardinal Kevin Farrell said, “The World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly is a celebration. We really needed it: after such a difficult year we truly need to celebrate, grandparents and grandchildren, young and old. ‘We should celebrate and rejoice’ says the Father in the parable. A new page opens after dramatic months of difficulty. Pope Francia invites us to take a step further, he speaks to us of tenderness. Tenderness towards the elderly is needed because, as the Holy Father recalls in the message we present to you today, the Virus ‘has been much harsher with them’. For this reason, the Pope hopes that an angel will visit, and will come down to console them in their solitude, and he imagines that this angel looks like a young person who visits an elderly person.”

Dr. Vittorio Scelzo added, “In these days we will launch a social campaign and invite everyone – especially the younger people – to tell about the visits and initiatives that will develop using the hashtag #IamWithYouAlways.”

Below are some of the kinds of tweets I found when searching this hashtag. It is wonderful to see this civilizing initiative of valuing the elderly more profoundly.

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Suffering is a school in humility

A friend of mine just sent me this article of his, “Cancer is back, so I have a request …

In it, Charles Lewis discusses his ambivalence about writing and speaking publicly about his illness.

Of course, in reading a column about it, his decision is made clear and obvious.

The first reason he gives for being public about it is because he hopes that others will pray for him.

A second reason he discerns is that he does not want to go through the burden alone or for he and his wife to shoulder it privately.

A third reason, which I found particularly interesting comes up when Lewis concludes, “Besides, why hide it? Would not that be a form of pride?”

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The little deaths of goodbyes

I am getting ready to leave Canada’s capital city of Ottawa where I have lived and worked for the past four years.

As I prepare to leave, there are many farewells with friends. More subtle, however, is the occasional realization of having attended my last mass in a certain church, of having had my last coffee at a certain cafe, and of having brunched for the last time at a certain favourite restaurant.

Yes, I could be back here one day. But for now, I am saying goodbye and it’s uncertain whether or not I will ever be back to these specific people and places again. A lot of change happens year to year and the people who adorned your life in one season may not be there in the next.

This, I think, is one of the challenges of uprooting oneself or even of being uprooted due to some necessity.

But there is also something beautiful about it because, as I prepare to leave, my heart fills with gratitude and a sense of the preciousness of all of these particular encounters.

If there were not a last time for certain experiences and visits, there would not be the same sense of their value.

Perhaps this is partly what is meant by Augustine’s meditation on the Psalms: “He begins to leave who begins to love.”

Photo: The Shipping Container Coffee Shop Little Victories on Bank Street



The loss of a whole world

In a collection of letters by Henri Nouwen, I came upon this one that he wrote following the death of his mother:

OCTOBER 25, 1978

Dear Jim,

A few days ago I returned from Holland, where I buried my mother. Only five weeks ago she was with me in New Haven. She returned four days afterwards with my Father after the internist had discovered a tumor which caused the jaundice. Two weeks later she was operated on, a week after that she died. I am still in a daze. Everything seems different to me and I am slowly rediscovering the world which she loved so much. She has been so much part of my life that I have to do some real relearning. I am spending a still week at a retreat center trying to let my mother’s death reform me and lead me to new fields. It is all very intimate and very deep, very sad and very joyful, very beautiful and very painful. I am trying to write a little bit about these last few weeks, but I am still too close to all that has happened to do it well and with the necessary peace of mind. But I keep trying. It seems at this moment my way of letting her spirit come to me. I am still somewhere between Easter and Pentecost not knowing what really has happened. Keep me in your prayers and pray for her. Nobody has ever been as close to me as she was and never did I lose anyone whom I loved so deeply. Somewhere life needs to be rediscovered. But I am sure that her death will mean many new births for me.

Best wishes,
Love,
Henri

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Exile as a Living Death

A friend of mine recently shared with me about how the Roman poet Ovid described exile as a living death.

This friend has also written a splendid essay reflecting on her own experience of ostracization due to cancel culture in the light of the broader tradition of our civilization.

In it, she writes:

Yet, while I don’t mean to downplay the pain of the experience, this may also be the greatest blessing of exile: it is a social murder, a death within life, which forces us into confrontation with our own finitude. If the goal of philosophy is to learn how to die, then there is no better way to practice it. Stripped of all illusions and pretense, the petty dust of life can sometimes give way to a lucid clarity. In exile, we are made to remember our true homes, while we still have time make ourselves worthy of returning there.

This is one of the best pieces I have read on cancel culture and is an excellent example of empirical and existential political theory.

Go check out Caylan Ford’s piece “They Can’t Cancel Your Soul” in the American Mind by clicking here.

Painting: “Dante in Exile” by Domenico Peterlini

Moving into grief instead of moving on from it

This past weekend (from Saturday night to Sunday night) was Tisha B’Av, the Jewish date for communal mourning of the destruction of the temples in the Jerusalem as well as all other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people through history.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to experience Tisha B’Av in Jerusalem and perhaps that will provide inspiration for another post.

Today, however, I wanted to share something I heard on Yocheved Davidowitz A Deeper Conversation podcast episode for Tisha B’Av.

In it, she discusses the solidarity Jews experience in mourning loss collectively and also the profound rituals Jews have for funerals and the grieving process.

Yocheved then discusses how, in her work as a therapist, she would notice the sense of dread people have about feeling sadness and mourning.

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“We serve with reverence.”

My friend just sent me this photo of the sign outside of Majestic Mortuary Service Inc., a funeral home in New Orleans.

The motto caught her attention, and I can see why.

The dead are not the only ones who deserve to be treated with reverence, of course. For the living, too, this is their due. Yet, if you went to a restaurant that advertised “We serve with reverence”, you might think that’s a bit much.

This, however, shows my point that how we die (and how we naturally conduct ourselves before the mystery of death) has the power to humanize our culture.

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Initial hypothesis about resurrection

After nearly 200 days of blogging about death every day, where is this leading?

I find myself becoming fascinated and absorbed by the topic of the resurrection of the dead.

As a friend remarked to me the other day, this is one of the most fundamental beliefs underlying our civilization and yet, it is a teaching about which most people are, if they are being honest about it, rather incredulous or indifferent.

My very preliminary hypothesis is that belief in resurrection is subliminally decisive to how we live and that it has wide-ranging implications in ethics, technology, and culture.

To play with these ideas, we can ask: What difference does it make whether or not we believe in a resurrection of the dead? What are the practical consequences in our lives of its possibility or impossibility?

Another question: If people believed in the resurrection of the body, what would it change in our public bioethics?

I do not yet have many answers to propose. However, my first intuition is that the precariousness of our embodiedness needs redemption.

Whether this redemption is possible and whether we stake (or mistake) our hope about it in the correct place is, I think, a more interesting and practical question than many realize.

Alyssa Boyd: What Makes A Good Death?

Most of these daily posts contain my own musings. However, my intention with this blog is always to point to whatever is most beautiful and good in the culture and today that means pointing you to a wonderful short reflection by Dr. Alyssa Boyd. She is one of the co-founders of The Living Wish Foundation about which I wrote here.

Dr. Boyd is the medical director at a hospice and she recently wrote about what makes a good death:

I find myself constantly ruminating over this question and am regularly fascinated and surprised by the variations in responses that I see.

It is easy for me to say what a “good death” looks like from the comfort of the nurse’s station. The patient is peaceful and comfortable with family and loved ones by their side. Their final wishes have been honoured. They die quick enough that their loved ones don’t have to sit vigil for more than 48 hours but slowly enough that everyone has had a chance to say their goodbyes. Perhaps the only way my ideal scenario has evolved over time is the additional clause that “there are no COVID restrictions.”

But, that is my own bias. When you are sitting on the other side of the bed, all the above may seem like irrelevant platitudes, only visible as an outsider, as the family grieves through the worst days of their life. If I have learned anything in my musings around “a good death,” it is that I must constantly be open-minded to each family’s unique expectation and not point out anyone else’s silver linings.

Despite my attempts to shelve my own beliefs around this, I will confidently profess that yesterday I was given the gift of bearing witness to a TRULY good death.

Continue reading in Georgian Life Magazine, here.

Encountering St. Camillus

Five years ago, I was attending a cool Thomistic seminar in Norcia after which there was an optional trip to Rome.

Flashback to earlier that summer when I had been in America at the Hildebrand Project learning from and conversing with Italian statesman and professor Rocco Buttiglione.

As we sat outdoors, he memorably told me the story of St. Camillus de Lellis about whom I don’t remember having ever heard before.

Professor Buttiglione and I had been discussing end-of-life care when he began to speak to me about this saint who, almost 500 years ago, founded the Servants of the Sick.

Given my interest in these topics, I was happy to encounter the story of this saint in conversation.

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Hair, makeup, and palliative care

I was interested to come across several news stories about a new documentary created by filmmaker Lorraine Price. The film tells the story of an 83-year-old woman named Kathleen Mahony who, as Price tells us, “volunteered to do hair and makeup for the terminally ill at the palliative care unit at Notre-Dame Hospital in Montreal [for the past 31 years].”

Price was inspired to make the documentary in honour of her grandmother who had been a very classy and elegant woman. In this interview, Price reflects:

Her style was loud and unapologetic. But when my grandmother passed away in hospice care, on top of having dementia, she was barely recognizable to me—her hair was short and white, her nails nude, and her lips pale. It felt as though she was gone long before she left us. I was so absorbed by my grief and the desire to mitigate her suffering that I neglected to consider the importance of that outward-facing identity that she had cultivated her whole life.

I would love to see this documentary because we desperately need good examples of how to treat those who are approaching the end of life.

There is a universal, inherent dignity that is innate, yes. But there is also the matter of dignifying – we can add to a person’s dignity by bestowing honour, appreciation, and affection.

In another interview, Price remarked, “Kathleen doesn’t do their hair because these patients are dying. She does it because they are human and they deserve to feel dignified and like themselves even when they are at their most vulnerable.”

Kathleen’s service is precisely the kind of hidden work that will benefit our culture greatly by being brought into the light.



A Premium for Conversation

The other day I was having a conversation with my nonagenarian buddy.

He regaled me with the highlight of his week which, as many Ontarians can relate, was getting a haircut.

His son, who had just gotten his haircut in BC, had told my friend that he would pay an added fee to avoid needing to talk to his hairdresser.

“You see,” my friend began, “I’m the complete opposite! I’d pay a premium for the conversation!”

He proceeded to tell me all the details he could remember about his 24-year-old Arab barber.

Then he told me about some of the business tips that he’d given to the young man.

“And would you believe it? The young man was so grateful for the advice that he refused to accept payment altogether!”

What an endearing story, I thought.

How incalculable is the value of genuine human relations.

A patron saint of persistence

Today I spent some time contemplating St. Benedict since his feast day is usually celebrated on July 11th and he is a patron saint of the dying.

What came to mind, in thinking about Benedict however, is the legendary story of his last visit with his twin sister Scholastica.

Here is the splendid story as recounted by Saint Gregory the Great:

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Jordan Peterson: “Part of you must therefore die.”

Rule Four of Jordan Peterson’s new book Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life is: “Notice that opportunity lurks where responsibility has been abdicated.”

In this chapter, Peterson discusses how choosing to take responsibility is fundamental to being useful and leading a meaningful life. As usual, he weaves a range of sources together from the Hebrew Bible, to Egyptian myths, to Pinocchio and Peter Pan.

The section of this chapter that especially interested me is about conscience. Since conscience is a word that does not have a great deal of resonance in our contemporary culture, Peterson patiently expounds upon what conscience is and how it works.

Here is the relevant excerpt:

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The Martyr Saints of China

July 9th is the feast day of the Chinese Martyrs.

It was October 2000 when Saint Pope John Paul II canonized 120 martyrs in China. As Alejandro Bermudez noted in his recent piece, “87 were Chinese laypeople and 33 were missionaries.”

Bermudez says, “The feast is an occasion for the Chinese Catholic diaspora, and for the Universal Catholic church as a whole, to pray for Christians currently persecuted in Communist China, especially those Catholics who despite being a minority in Hong Kong, constitute the backbone of the freedom movement and are currently being jailed such as Catholic convert Jimmy Lai, owner of the pro-democracy paper Apple News; or those forced to exile, like pro-democracy Catholic leader Joseph Cheng.”

In his homily, John Paul II said the, “martyrs are an example of courage and consistency to us all, and that they honour the noble Chinese people.”

The stories of these modern martyrs are captivating and it is important for them to become accessible and familiar so to bolster the faith and tenacity of Christians and people of good will worldwide.

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A Perspective on Danger

Here’s an anecdote:

It was the summer of 2018 when I crashed an Aramaic summer camp for Maronite children living in northern Israel. I got to have a blast singing songs and playing games with the children who are growing up navigating a complex identity with an extremely fraught history in a pretty volatile region.

One day during that camp, I decided to ask an 11-year-old girl named Marie who lives just a few kilometres away from the border with Lebanon, “Who do you think is in greatest need of our prayers?”

The preteen immediately answered, “The kids of Florida.”

“Florida?” I repeated curiously.

“Yes,” she told me. “Because of the school shootings there.”

I was quite struck by this answer to the extent that I still remember it.

It is interesting to consider this perspective on danger.

After all, I am sure that, were I interviewing 11-year-olds in Florida about who most needs our prayers that someone there would have told me, “The kids of the Middle East.”

The Day I Almost Died in the West Bank

Since today is the three-year anniversary of a near-death experience of mine, I thought I’d blog about the day my friends and I were attacked in the West Bank.

It was a Friday night in Bethlehem when, unlike Jesus, my American friend Ashley and I had managed to find overnight accommodations at an AirBnB there.

The following morning, on July 7, 2018, our Palestinian Christian friend Khalil came to pick us up, greeting us with the cappuccinos he’d brought for us.

Next we picked up my Canadian friend Amy and set off on our West Bank adventure. I remember we said a quick prayer for our trip.

The first place we visited was the Shrine of Our Lady of the Garden at Artas. “Tour groups almost never come here and it isn’t really a tourist site,” Khalil told us. “But this is my favourite place in Bethlehem and the most beautiful.”

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Deaths worth remembering

Today’s the anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Thomas More who was executed for refusing to swear the Oath of Supremacy.

I find it interesting to note that this 1535 oath began with the words, “I [name] do utterly testifie and declare in my Conscience, that the Kings Highnesse is the onely Supreame Governour of this Realme, and all other his Highnesse Dominions and Countries, as well in all Spirituall or Ecclesiasticall things or causes, as Temporall […].”

In a collection of More’s correspondence written before his death, Father Alvaro De Silva writes in the introduction that More used the word conscience more than 100 times throughout these letters.

More would not say with the solemnity of assertion that he “declares in his conscience” something he believed to be false.

Now conscience is not a word that has widespread resonance and people are not usually asked about what they “declare in their Conscience.”

Yet, there is a reason why the deaths of martyrs are worth remembering long beyond the memory of the powerful people who martyred them.

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A Final Birthday Card

Around New Year’s 2015, my grandfather had been hospitalized and was in quite severe pain. I visited him in the hospital during the holidays but had left the city by the time his birthday came around a couple weeks later on January 17th. I just came across the following letter that I wrote to him, which ended up being my last birthday card to him. When I had visited him at the beginning of the month, he told me that the pain was so bad that he wished he could die. This was obviously difficult to hear and so, in writing to him, I felt greatly responsible to give him some encouragement.

Here is what I wrote:

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Networking in a cemetery

Almost everyone has been to cocktail receptions and networking events.

Given my interest in visiting cemeteries, it just occurred to me to contemplate networking with the dead. There is no exchange of business cards, but there can be an exchange nonetheless. A thoughtful walk through a cemetery has sometimes been as helpful as any career advice.

Networking with the dead, it would seem, demands getting out of your comfort zone, going over to the tombs with the most personality, but also seeking out the ones that are neglected or discreet. It involves being curious and interested. It involves not being intimidated to talk to people who are older than you, wiser than you.

Sometimes, on special occasions, I have visited cemeteries on guided tours which means that I have had someone else making introductions for me to the dead.

This has been most helpful for breaking the ice, especially when I do not know whether or not we have very much in common.

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Start wondering now

This evening a dear friend and I reunited in Toronto and spontaneously decided to attend Vespers at St. Moses & St. Katherine Coptic Orthodox Church.

The evening prayer and raising of incense was set to begin at 7:00 p.m.

Aside from the priest, two young men chanting liturgical responses, and one woman from the community, my friend and I were the only ones there.

Before beginning vespers, Fr. John Boutros came over to give us a brief explanation of the prayer.

“The purpose of vespers is start wondering now: where has my life gone? It’s a journey toward reconciliation in preparation for the liturgy the following day. Accordingly, people will usually go to confession after Vespers and during the Midnight Praises on the vigil of the Divine Liturgy. As the sun sets, you are invited to ponder: What am I doing? Where did the light go? Where did my life go?”

Fr. John also gave the analogy of working on a paper or a project into the late hours of the night saying, “When you’re working late at night, you can lose sense of the time. The purpose of these evening liturgies is partly to enter into the timelessness of eternity.”

This is the structure of Vespers in the Coptic Orthodox Church:

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“Our lives no longer belong to us alone.”

It was on this date five years ago that Elie Wiesel died.

The Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate felt a tremendous responsibility to bear witness to all that he and others suffered.

“If I survived, it must be for some reason: I must do something with my life. It is too serious to play games with anymore because in my place someone else could have been saved. And so I speak for that person. On the other hand, I know I cannot,” he told a New York Times interviewer in 1981.

This evening I re-read Wiesel’s brief Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech from a few years later in 1986.

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Things worse than death

Last night I finally had the opportunity to watch Martin Scorsese’s 2016 film Silence about Jesuit missionaries to Japan during the intense persecution of Christians in the 17th century.

Here’s the trailer for it:

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A Pilgrimage to the Martyrs’ Shrine

It was several years ago when I first read Fr. Myles Gaffney’s book Witness to Faith: An Introduction to the Life of Joseph Chiwatenhwa. This book tells the story of an Indigenous Catholic convert who was considered by the Jesuit missionaries to be “the Christian par excellence” and “the pearl of our Christians.” About Joseph, the Jesuits said, “It was in this Christian that we had our hope after God.”

More recently, I took another look at this book about this Huron saint and found this photo accompanied by my prayerful marginalia about hoping to visit the Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland, Ontario one day.

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Why keep suffering?

The other day I asked a wise older mentor of mine how he might express why suffering is worthwhile to someone who does not consider there to be anything redemptive about it.

This mentor then discussed how, apart from the perspectives of any religious tradition, it is possible to see the example that those who suffer give to the young, the healthy, the strong.

How does the sufferer respond to his suffering? By whom is he accompanied? What message does he, by how he suffers, send about how to handle the disappointments and drama of life?

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The Legacy of Terry Fox

Today is the anniversary of the death of Terry Fox on June 28th, 1981.

One of the most memorable aspects of my early education was learning the story of Terry Fox and participating in the Annual Terry Fox Run in order to raise money and awareness for cancer research.

We would sit on the gym floor in an elementary school-wide assembly and watch either a short film or a longer documentary about the young man who had cancer and attempted to run across Canada from coast to coast on his prosthetic leg.

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Priorities versus momentum

When I was a teenager, I remember walking down the street after an event with a provincial politician who had summited Mount Everest.

Getting to speak casually for a few moments, I decided to ask him about what it had been like to reach the summit.

He spoke of the initial thrill but then admitted that it had been terrible to lose this goal in life by having accomplished it. He didn’t really know what to do with himself next.

“So then what did you do?” I asked him.

“I did it again,” he told me prosaically. “I became the first Canadian to double summit Everest.”

My admiration for him was tempered by my sensitivity to this restlessness he expressed, and I never forgot this story.

This evening a friend of mine spoke about how, for many, the pandemic became an opportunity to discern priorities rather than simply living in the momentum. I found this a quite astute way of putting it.

Momentum is concerned with motion and priorities are concerned with what is prior, primary, or fundamental.

Upon reflection, we might ask ourselves: Why is the momentum of my life a priority? Or, in our own particular variation on the theme: why am I trying to double summit Mount Everest, after all?

This matters because when we die, we lose the momentum of our lives but, if we are wise, not the priorities toward which our momentum was driven.

Intimations of the resurrection of the dead

Have you stopped at any point during the pandemic to take note – and perhaps even photos – of the deserted streets? Maybe you noticed that you were the only person on the entire bus during rush hour. Or maybe you noticed the gradually shuttered businesses. Maybe you noticed the empty schoolyards and office buildings.

The extent to which you took notice of the dramatic emptiness is likely to correspond to the extent to which you are likely to revel in the return to life. After all, there was never a “new normal”, but only something very abnormal.

I have thought for some time that reuniting with friends (and heck, even with strangers) after the pandemic will feel a bit like a foretaste of the resurrection of the dead. After all, if anything can help our imagination of the phenomenon, it seems to me to be this experience of acute absence, separation, and isolation that will next be countered with intense presence, reunion, and togetherness.

Today I was in my hometown revelling in the return to life of people, businesses, worship, and optimism. As I walked through Prince’s Island Park, down Stephen’s Avenue, and along 17th Avenue, I marvelled at people – real human beings with flesh and bones associating with only the occassionally mediating plexiglass divider along the patios.

Today, in my hometown, I also visited the cathedral and, unexpectedly, saw three people who were great a surprise to see. Seeing these people who were so pivotal in my early life all in one place and after all these years also felt like a foretaste of the resurrection of the dead. There was something timeless about it.

The resurrection of the dead, an essential belief in Judaism and Christianity, is full of mystery. Still, I like to think we can enjoy intimations of it in everyday life, and perhaps particularly in the return to life from lockdowns and travel restrictions.

Recipes for remembrance

In families, people become known for certain recipes that they perfect and make their own by a certain flair.

This creates a connection between the particular food and the love of the cook for their family and friends.

When the dishes reappear annually on holidays and special occasions, the indispensability of those foods is a symbol for the indispensability of the person.

Without certain dishes, the table would seem as incomplete as it would if family members were delayed or absent.

My mother showed me this cookbook (pictured) that belonged to my paternal grandmother. About it she said, “It’s a real connection to your grandmother’s love for our family. She embellished it with many recipes she received from her own friends over the years and handwrote inside, making it a one-of-kind book that could not simply be re-purchased or replaced.”

In fact, after my grandmother died, my mother used the flourishes in this cookbook to inform the dishes she prepared for my grandfather. Of course, being served the same foods his wife had lovingly prepared during their sixty-eight years of marriage was a great blessing and consolation for him.

Recipes passed through generations can season life with the flavours of those who came before us.

“May the wolf die!”

Today I learned an Italian idiom for wishing someone good luck that struck me as rather intriguing.

The phrase In bocca al lupo literally means “into the wolf’s mouth.”

The common reply on being wished good luck in this way is crepi il lupo – may the wolf die, or simply Crepi! meaning “May it die!”

The superstition embedded in such idiomatic phrases is that it is bad luck to wish someone good luck directly.

It is amusing to consider the ways in which presuming the worst can be a way of actually hoping for the best.

The Italian who taught me this idiom said that this mentality is quite deeply embedded in the culture. For example, before going rock climbing with some of his Mexican friends recently, he suggested to them that they would all be in the news after the trip having fallen off of the cliffs to their deaths.

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Longevity of Renown

This evening I am reflecting on two famous Italians who died on this date – one is Niccolò Machiavelli who died in 1527 and the other is Aloysius de Gonzaga, S.J. who died in 1591. The latter lived fewer than half as many years than the former. And, while Machiavelli is certainly on more course syllabi today, Aloysius de Gonzaga is a canonized saint whose example and spirit continues to be invoked from generation to generation.

Aloysius de Gonzaga came from an affluent and influential family. He decided, however, to renounce his aristocratic lifestyle and joined the Jesuits while he was still a teenager. When there was a plague in Rome in 1591, Aloysius insisted on volunteering at a hospital and it was in this context that he contracted the disease and died when he was just 23.

What does a 23-year-old who died in the sixteenth century have to teach young people today living in the 21st century?

Here is a summary of Pope Francis’ remarks on this point to high schoolers:

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Not Wholly Gone

This Father’s Day, I have noticed many people acknowledging the ongoing influence of fathers, grandfathers, and other father figures in their lives – even after these men have died.

It is interesting to consider the ways in which, through memory and legacy, a person can continue to be a part of a family even after death.

This evening, my mother shared an anecdote with me to this effect about my paternal grandfather.

My paternal grandfather was Polish and he died in 2015.

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“Why hasn’t God taken me home yet?”

This evening my friend who is a doctor shared with me an anecdote from the past week.

She had a 90-year-old patient named Laurence who was admitted for recurrent falls and who may not be able to return to independent living in her own home because she lives alone.

Laurence never married and does not have any children, but her nieces and nephews help her out with cooking, shopping, and managing her finances and appointments.

During the hospitalization, my friend had a few conversations with Laurence and, many times, she would ask, “Why hasn’t God taken me home yet? I’m 90-years-old now. I’m sure I will go to heaven, and I don’t know what else to do here.”

My friend noted that Laurence had mentioned on a few occasions that one of her defects is impatience.

“All I do every day is pray the rosary again and again,” Laurence said.

My friend thought quickly about how to help Laurence to see the value in her continued days.

“Maybe God is not taking you home just yet, because there’s something in which you’re meant to still grow – your patience.”

She gave a smile of compliant recognition and replied, “Yeah, maybe.”

Later that afternoon, as Laurence was leaving the unit to be transferred to another hospital, she said goodbye to my friend and said, “I know what my mission is now – to work on my patience!”

What a beautiful encounter of helping another to discover a new mission, even in her old age.

Hope is death’s counterweight

This evening I was reading some of the poetry of Karol Wojtyła and came across a poem called “Hope Reaching Beyond the Limit.”

Take a look at these excerpted lines:

Hope rises in time
from all places subject to death—
hope is its counterweight.
The dying world unveils its life again
in hope.

[…]

But death is the experience of the limit,
it has something of annihilation,
I use hope to detach my own self,
I must tear myself away
to stand above annihilation.
And then from all sides they call and will call out:
“You are mad, Paul, you are mad.” [Acts 26:24]
I wrestle with myself,
with so many others I wrestle for my hope.

We need to exercise our disposition to hope.

Looking forward to the future.
Seeing the possibility of new generations.
Delighting in the glorious unpredictability of human affairs.

Otherwise, the limits of this life can “annihilate” our spirit.

What do you do to stand beyond the limits?

What do you do to wrestle for your hope?

“Without the day of the Lord, we cannot live.”

In his splendid essay “On the Meaning of Sunday,” Joseph Ratzinger wrote about how the early Christians would say, “Without the day of the Lord, we cannot live.”

Take a look at how he describes this existential priority and what it means in the lives of those who hold to it:

“Without the day of the Lord, we cannot live.” This is not a labored obedience to an ecclesiastical prescription considered as some external precept, but is instead the expression of an interior duty and, at the same time, of a personal decision. It refers to that which has become the supporting nucleus of one’s existence, of one’s entire being, and it documents what has become so important as to need to be fulfilled even in the case of danger of death, imparting as it does a real assurance and internal freedom. To those who so expressed themselves, it would have seemed manifestly absurd to guarantee survival and external tranquility for themselves at the price of the renunciation of this vital ground. […] For them it was not a question of a choice between one precept and another, but rather of a choice between all that gave meaning and consistency to life and a life devoid of meaning.

I often think about this passage when reflecting on contemporary Christians who risk their lives to go to church in countries where there is severe persecution and repression.

There is indeed something luminous in the witness of those who would risk their lives to affirm the values that make life altogether precious in the first place.

It is a profound and potentially orienting question to contemplate: What is it in our lives without which our survival has no value?

Photo: Maronite Church in Kfar Baram in northern Israel in summer 2017

A Graduation Speech About Deathbed Reflections

This is a really short post to direct you to this excellent commencement address delivered by Ryan T. Anderson.

He titled it, “‘He Knows What He Is About’: Living a Life That Matters”, which is derived from one of the most splendid quotations of John Henry Newman that Dr. Anderson quotes at the outset and on which my friends and I have been reflecting a lot in recent days.

Particularly of relevance to the theme of this blog, I was struck by how Dr. Anderson exhorted the high schoolers on multiple occasions throughout the address to contemplate the thoughts they might have on their deathbeds as a key to discerning how to live a life that matters.

Below are three short excerpts:

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Death as gratitude

I love Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s writing so much.

It has that confident aphoristic quality to it that elicits attention.

Such is the case with his short essay entitled, “Death as Homecoming.”

Right at the beginning, Rabbi Heschel proposes that “in a way death is the test of the meaning of life. If death is devoid of meaning, then life is absurd. Life’s ultimate meaning remains obscure unless it is reflected upon in the face of death.”

Still, Heschel is keen to note that the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition do not stress “the problem of dying” so much as they stress “how to sanctify life.”

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The Art of Dying Well

Today a Facebook memory came up from three years ago when I happened upon the Church of St. Robert Bellarmine in Rome.

I recognized the patron of the church as the author of a book that I had very much enjoyed reading a few months earlier entitled The Art of Dying Well.

As I stood outside the church, I recalled St. Bellarmine’s remark, “Now every one will admit, that the ‘Art of dying Well’ is the most important of all sciences; at least every one who seriously reflects…”

The most important of all sciences!

Well, if you have not until now considered it a science, here is a excerpt from his preface to introduce you to the tenor of his argument:

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From Disbelief to Advocacy: A son responds to his father’s ALS diagnosis

Brett Wilson was just 22 years old in the summer of 2019 when his father Rick was diagnosed with ALS.

ALS stands for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and is a fatal nervous system disease.

In Canada, Rick was unable to secure a definitive diagnosis and so he travelled to the U.S.

“The verdict that he ‘might have ALS’ was not good enough for us,” Brett explained. “We needed clarity about what is essentially a death sentence of a disease since ALS involves a usual prognosis of a 2-5 year lifespan after the onset of symptoms.”

While awaiting confirmation of the disease, Brett refused to believe that his father had the terminal illness.

“I refused to believe it or talk about it,” he told me. “I kind of shunned my extended family who wanted to talk about it and, of course, for a while, it’s all they would talk about.”

Once Rick received the formal diagnosis, Brett remembers that his own life became “a cloud of stress.”

His grades took a hit in his fourth year of university and he marvels at how something about which he had previously known next to nothing became a consuming and omnipresent reality.

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Suffering in the Spotlight

I have been captivated by a recent audition on America’s Got Talent.

It is worth every second of your next seven and a half minutes to watch it, here:

Since watching Nightbirde’s audition a few times, I have also watched a couple interviews that she has given in recent days, checked out these podcasts between her and Virginia Dixon, and perused some of her blog posts.

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Investing in the Richness of Life

This morning, I was drinking some orange juice that I had picked up at Shoppers Drug Mart when I realized that it tasted nothing like the freshly squeezed organic orange juice that I have taken to buying at Farm Boy.

And every now and again, I eat some not-so-quality chocolate and realize its inferiority compared to the exquisite and delicious chocolate that I like to buy at Stubbe Chocolates here in Ottawa.

This is not about decadence or extravagance, but about quality and appreciation.

I remember reading a personal finance book when I was a teenager that discussed how foregoing $5 daily lattes (and similar “unnecessary” routine expenses) could lead to “building wealth” or “finishing rich.”

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Worth Doing Badly

Tonight I am remembering the oft-cited G.K. Chesterton quotation, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.”

It is seems to me that some of the things I find particularly worth doing and so that remain worth doing, even badly, are: studying new languages, attempting new skills, and learning more about cultural and religious traditions.

In the clip above, I was on a coffee plantation tour in Mexico when I stopped to attempt to make tortillas.

As you can see, it went rather badly.

As you can also see, I was smiling quite a lot and found it worth doing.

What is it about certain things that make them worthwhile even if we are not excellent at them?

In one of his letters, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote:

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“You need to have an accident…”

This evening I was having a phone visit with my friend Don, who recently celebrated his 90th birthday.

I always enjoy our weekly chats, and tonight he discussed something that I found particularly insightful.

“I have a 7-person health team,” Don told me. “I have a heart doctor, a GP, an ophthalmologist, a dentist, a foot/nails doctor, a personal trainer, and a Chinese massage therapist.”

He named each member of his health team with pride and appreciation.

Then Don told me, “I had some friends who were so successful, so smart, so rich and they’re all gone. I don’t think they had a health team.”

I asked Don why he thinks his affluent friends had not attended to their health like he does.

“They don’t know what they don’t know,” he suggested.

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Plague and Enlightenment

As the pandemic is being overcome, I am returning to this piece I wrote on March 16, 2020 weaving together Albert Camus’ The Plague with the contemporary events that were emerging with COVID-19.

Here’s the last paragraph of the novel with some lines emphasized:

None the less, he knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers. And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linenchests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.

“For the bane and enlightening of men…”

The word “bane” has the sense of “that which causes ruin or woe” and is related to the terms “killer, slayer, murderer, a worker of death.”

The word “enlightenment” has the connotation “‘to remove the dimness or blindness’ (usually figurative, from one’s eyes or heart).”

Has this COVID-19 pandemic in any way removed the dimness from our hearts?

“Plague” and “enlightenment”, which at first seem greatly opposed, are, in Camus’ understanding, more related that they appear.