Your character in an epitaph

Do you ever think about what you might like others to say about you after you die?

I do not mean to ask whether you are concerned with being praised posthumously. The point is: Does what you want to have been true about you inspire you practically in your character and conduct now?

November 17th is the feast day of St. Elizabeth of Hungary. There is a wonderful piece by St. Edith Stein about her titled, “On God’s Mercy: The Spirit of St. Elizabeth As It Informed Her Life.”

In it, there are several sentences that speak to St. Elizabeth’s character in such a way that is eminently attractive and yet, upon any serious consideration, is grasped as being deeply countercultural.

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“The world was created for me”

“Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: Bishvili nivra ha-olam “The world was created for me.” (BT Sanhedrin 37B) But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: V’anochi afar v’efer “I am but dust and ashes.” (Gen. 18:27)

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The World Will Be Saved by Beau[tiful] Breakfasts

“The world will be saved by beauty.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky

I recently returned to the Middle East to continue my practical education in fundamentally human things.

Among the “courses” that I took was breakfast.

The photo above is of my breakfast plate from the Amani Cafe in Nazareth. A dear friend of mine who has been living there for the past two years told me that this cafe was among her favourites.

I was so impressed by this breakfast platter that I wrote the following comment beneath my social media post about it:

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Interview: “I’m attaching a good memory to a sad day.”

Four years ago, on November 13, 2017, the mother of one of my closest friends passed away.

This morning, the first thing that my friend Ashley Muse wanted to do was to share – with me and with you – how she planned to live this fourth anniversary of her mother’s death.

Here is our interview:

How did you decide to get a puppy on the anniversary of your mother’s passing, and what makes this meaningful for you?

Ashley Muse: I think, as for most people, my mother’s passions formed such a critical part of who I am and of my identity today. And so, even the reason why I chose to get a Dachshund specifically is because she loved Dachshunds. She had one before I was born and then another after, so that we always had Dachshunds growing up and she always loved them. It was also important for me to choose a name that would honour her, that would be a kind of a nod to her. And so, I picked the name Sanibel, which is an island off the coast of Florida to which we used to vacation as a family every summer. My best childhood memories are from there, from the times we would go to visit aunts and uncles there on the Fourth of July. My sister helped me come up with the name, and the reason that I am picking up Sanibel today is because I wanted to attach a good memory to this date.

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Unique in all the world

“To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…” – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

There is a reason why Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote The Little Prince for grown ups who are apt to forget the things that they knew so intuitively when they were children.

The excerpt above, for example, strikes us as beautiful and true. We grasp the total uniqueness and utter unrepeatability of those we love.

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Soldiers and Death as Sacrifice

Before anyone close to me had died, my early reflection on death took place most routinely sitting on gymnasium floors during Remembrance Day assemblies on November 11th each year.

I even remembering colouring pages with poppies on them in Grade 1.

These early experiences stirred my imagination in gradual and subtle ways.

As I got older, the school assemblies became more intense. Parents of soldiers who had graduated from my high school came and spoke to us about the wars in which they had died.

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What do you want to do [today]?

To be a young person and, especially, to be a student is to be continually asked by others about what you hope and plan to do in the future.

Many years ago, I read this excerpt in Henri Nouwen’s book Aging: the Fulfillment of Life that has remained with me:

Not too long ago a thirty-two-year-old, good-looking, intelligent man, full of desire to live a creative life, was asked: “Jim, what are your plans for the future?” And when he answered: “I want to work with he elderly and I am reading and studying to make myself ready for the task,” they looked at him with amazement and puzzlement. Someone said, “But Jim, don’t you have anything else to do?” Another suggested, “Why don’t you work with the young? You’ll really be great with them.” Another excused him more or less, saying: “Well, I guess you have a problem which prevents you from pursuing your own career.” Reflecting on these responses, Jim said: “Some people make me feel like I have become interested in a lost cause, but I wonder if my interest and concern do not touch off in others a fear they are not ready to confront, the fear of becoming an old stranger themselves.”

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Holding Life and Death Together

On November 9th, I noticed that it was the anniversary of two dramatically different events.

The first is the feast day of the rededication of the St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome. This is the closest papal basilica to where I now live. The church was established in 324 and the feast is to celebrate its rededication in 1724. The basilica is the seat of the bishop of Rome and is called the “mother of all churches.”

The second event is known as Kristallnacht when, in 1938, Nazis destroyed thousands of Jewish businesses and property and desecrated synagogues throughout Germany and Austria.

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Healing food

In a 1994 speech at a conference on “Spirituality and Healing”, Wendell Berry spoke about the importance of good food to a person’s healing, saying:

You would think also that a place dedicated to healing and health would make much of food. But here is where the disconnections of the industrial system and the displacement of industrial humanity are most radical. Sir Albert Howard saw accurately that the issue of human health is inseparable from the health of the soil, and he saw too that we humans much responsibly occupy our place in the cycle of birth, growth, maturity, death, and decay, which is the health of the world. Aside from our own mortal involvement, food is our fundamental connection to that cycle. But probably most of the complaints you hear about hospitals have to do with the food, which, according to the testimony I have heard, tends to range from unappetizing to sickening. Food is treated as another unpleasant substance to inject. And this is a shame. For in addition to the obvious nutritional link between food and health, food can be a pleasure. People who are sick are often troubled or depressed, and mealtimes offer three opportunities a day when patients could easily be offered something to look forward to. Nothing is more pleasing or heartening than a plate of nourishing, tasty, beautiful food artfully and lovingly prepared.

Anything less is unhealthy, as well as a desecration. Why should rest and food and ecological health not be the basic principles of our art and science of healing? Is it because the basic principles already are technology and drugs? Are we confronting some fundamental incompatibility between mechanical effciency and organic health? I don’t know. I only know that sleeping in a hospital is like sleeping in a factory and that the medical industry makes only the most tenuous connection between health and food and no connection between health and the soil. Industrial medicine is as little interested in ecological health as is industrial agriculture.

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Accounting for existence

I recently came across this intriguing excerpt from David Velleman’s paper, “Against the Right to Die.”

He writes:

Once a person is given the choice between life and death, he will rightly be perceived as the agent of his own survival. Whereas his existence is ordinarily viewed as a given for him – as a fixed condition with which he must cope – formally offering him the option of euthanasia will cause his existence thereafter to be viewed as his doing.

The problem with this perception is that if others regard you as choosing a state of affairs, they will hold you responsible for it; and if they hold you responsible for a state of affairs, they can ask you to justify it. Hence if people ever come to regard you as existing by choice, they may expect you to justify your continued existence. If your daily arrival in the office is interpreted as meaning that you have once again declined to kill yourself, you may feel obliged to arrive with an answer to the question ‘Why not?’.

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Bernadette’s Testament of Gratitude

Recently I was having dinner with a friend who spoke to me about Tadeusz Dajczer’s book The Gift of Faith.

My friend had found this among the most startling and edifying spiritual books he’d read. In particular, he had been struck by the inclusion of St. Bernadette’s “Testament of Gratitude.”

Written shortly before her death from illness at a young age, my friend initially thought this “testament” was rather sarcastic and facetious.

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Pursue Peace Anyway

Usually, on the anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, I like to re-read what ended up being his final speech.

He began:

Permit me to say that I am deeply moved. I wish to thank each and every one of you, who have come here today to take a stand against violence and for peace. This government, which I am privileged to head, together with my friend Shimon Peres, decided to give peace a chance–a peace that will solve most of Israel’s problems.

I was a military man for 27 years. I fought so long as there was no chance for peace. I believe that there is now a chance for peace, a great chance. We must take advantage of it for the sake of those standing here, and for those who are not here–and they are many.

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At the Gates of Hell

The monument at the entrance to the former Nazi concentration camp Majdanek was designed to be reminiscent of Dante’s Gates of Hell.

Into that secret place he led me on.
Here sighs, with lamentations and loud moans,
Resounded through the air pierced by no star,
That e’en I wept at entering.

– Dante

When I first visited this former camp in 2010, I never expected that I would ever return there. At the time, I did not even know where we were on the map. It seemed that we had been brought to the brink of an abyss, and that even our own existence became more tenuous as we stood there.

I will always remember pressing my hand against that massive, imposing monument and praying: “Lord, etch this experience on my memory and engrave this upon my conscience because I don’t want to ever forget the testimony of the survivors that I’ve heard in this place.”

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“Tradition Says”

Once, when I was a student in Poland, I was living in a dormitory taken care of by Ursuline sisters.

It was a Wednesday morning on November 2nd when I came downstairs to do my laundry.

The kind ginger sister, a young Catholic from Russia, Sister Maria, took pity on me but the elderly Sister Elisabeth at her side at reception was clearly dismayed at the need to make an exception. I approached the reception window at the entrance lobby of my dormitory with a plastic bag, full of dirty laundry, my bottle of detergent, my ID card to exchange for the laundry room key and five złoty in change to receive a special coin to activate the washing machine. 

They both looked at me with a look that said, “Shouldn’t you know better?” But, in truth, I didn’t know better. 

“Today is a holiday,” Sister Maria stated, alluding to All Souls’ Day. 

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Living in the Cemetery – All Saints’ Day in Poland

Some reflections from the Poland years (2015-2017):

“There was a cross in every direction. And there weren’t just four directions, like now.”
– Wiesław Myśliwski, Stone Upon Stone

In the lead up to All Saints’ Day, there were dozens of people selling candles and flowers at each of the entrances leading into the Lipowa cemetery. It was easy to notice this happening, because this cemetery is right next to the main mall in the city. This reminded me of how Plutarch had praised the Spartan Lycurgus for doing away with superstitions by allowing citizens to bury their dead within the city which, he said, had the effect of making the youth familiar with such sights so that they were neither confounded by death nor fearful of it. 

In these days, I observed all of the flowers and candles being placed on the graves in anticipation of the feast days – seeing sisters in their habits scrubbing the graves of the members of their communities who had gone before them, and men raking the leaves between the tombs, and students and graduates decorating with flowers and candles and rosaries the graves of the university’s founder and first rector, Rev. Idzi Radziszewski as well as that of Mieczysław Albert Maria Krąpiec OP, the founder of the Lublin Philosophical School – who struck me as among the cemeterary’s leading protagonists. 

On All Saints’ Day, my friends and I went again to this cemetery. As we walked, we passed many others who were visiting, walking slowly and reverently. Has anyone ever run through a cemetery, anyway? The setting seems to slow you down, as if to teach that rushing through life will only bring you more quickly to your grave. 

I saw a young man holding his grandmother’s arm to assist her. I saw a father carrying his young daughter on his shoulders. I saw an elderly couple sitting across from one another on benches before the graves – the husband taking a photo of his wife on a smartphone. I saw a boy in a wheelchair, staring at a grave with his family surrounding him. And I saw small children playing and smiling, hoping to get a candle or bouquet to place upon a grave or to contribute as part of a larger memorial. This is the most life I have ever witnessed in a cemetery, I marvelled to myself. It is also the most human cemetery I have seen. I glanced at the Latin inscription – Non omnis moriar – not all of me will die, or, I shall not wholly die. And I also thought to myself – not all is death. Among the dead, the living walk, play, talk, laugh, and visit.

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Curious about Costumes

Once, when I was 7-years-old and my brother Evan was 4, my mom brought us to the cemetery on Halloween.

We had been driving by anyway, and so she considered it a good occasion to introduce us to the upcoming feasts of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days even as our attention was fixated on costume-wearing and trick-or-treating later that evening.

My mom began, “This is the place where people are buried.”

“What?” my little brother asked incredulously. “You bury the person in the ground?”

My mom clarified, “The body is buried in the cemetery because you don’t need your body when you die because your soul goes to heaven to be with God. The body is like a costume.”

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The Valley of the Dry Bones: Genocide and Resurrection

This is a throwback post to my Reflections on Rwanda Genocide Study Trip in May 2012

In May 2012, I travelled on the Reflections on Rwanda program, a two-week trip for Canadian students to visit the Republic of Rwanda and study the genocide that occurred there in 1994. The purpose for studying genocide is to gain insight into human nature through studying the extremes in human action. Listening to the stories of rescuers and survivors prompts me to study the virtues required to affirm the sanctity of human persons.

Confronting profound evil is a difficult experience that challenges my faith. We toured dozens of memorial sites throughout the country. Many of these sites were former churches where people had fled seeking refuge and peace. At each site, we saw hundreds of skulls and bones of victims. Looking at those skulls and bones, I thought about my own skull and my own bones. I thought about how these bones and skulls fall short of truly representing the victims. What the skulls and bones do emphasize is equality, but what they deemphasize is individuality. When I observed a display with rosaries and identity cards among the skulls, it made me think about the dynamism of the life that once animated those bodies that were so violently destroyed.

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Why “Visiting Hours” is Perfect Right Now

Today a friend of mine sent me a text with Ed Sheeran’s new-ish song “Visiting Hours” because, as she noted in her caption accompanying the video, it’s “On Mortality.”

I’ve listened to the song several times today, including watching the video of its premiere on the occasion of the state memorial for Michael Gudinski in whose memory Sheeran wrote the song in tribute.

In addition to being incredibly talented, there are other reasons why this song at this time is topping charts and resonating worldwide with the global population that has endured the pandemic – paradoxically, collectively and in isolation.

The first line begins, “I wish that Heaven had visiting hours…”

If there was any doubt that people could connect with such a paradisiacal lyric before the pandemic, the doubt has been resolved. The past two years, we have realized that we wish for our world to have visiting hours, too.

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Strategic Dying

While we’re alive, we have a lot of workshops, education, and professional development on how to do things more strategically.

But, when is the last time you considered a strategy for how to die better?

The other day, I came across this great podcast episode by Dr. Yosefa (Fogel) Wruble on precisely this.

In it, she reflects on how Moses is an exemplar of dying well.

Here are three intriguing reasons she gives, which continue to be instructive and resonant today:

1) Appoint your successor

“One of the biggest gifts that a leader can give to his or her followers, to his or her community, is the clear – very clear – appointment of a successor. We know so many Hasidic sects and groups and different political parties and there’s so much history surrounding the lack of appointment of a successor and whenever I read the number of passages in which Joshua is appointed, it always makes my heart so happy because it’s one of the most basic lessons of leadership: When you’re a leader, learn how to delegate and when you’re done leading, when your time has come to a close, make sure that you find someone who can take your place and who can bring the institution or this group of people into their next era.”

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“We Will Outlive Them!”

Three years ago, on October 27, 2018, a white supremacist committed the deadliest attack on Jews in the United States, killing eleven worshippers at a Shabbat morning service in Pittsburgh.

That weekend, I was attending a Shabbaton [program of Jewish learning over the Sabbath] in Thornhill. Since I was staying with an Orthodox family, I did not use my phone during Shabbat. And so, like many in the Jewish community, I found out about the shooting once Shabbat ended.

My heart sank. I read a few articles before heading upstairs and I wasn’t going to mention the news to my hosts until they had seen it for themselves.

That weekend, I had experienced what it is to be guarded by the oasis of time that Shabbat had been for all of us. I recalled Heschel’s words: “The Sabbath is no time for personal anxiety or care, for any activity that might dampen the spirit of joy. The Sabbath is no time to remember sins, to confess, to repent or even to pray for relief or anything we might need. It is a day for praise, not for petitions.” How could we have avoided anxiety and petitions on that day had we not been observing Shabbat?

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Attentiveness to the person

The other day, I learned about this interesting section in the Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Gifts to the Poor 7:3) concerning charity which says:

One is commanded to give to a poor person according to what he lacks. If he has no clothes, they clothe him. If he has no utensils for a house, they buy [them] for him. If he does not have a wife, they arrange a marriage for him. If [the poor person] is a woman, they arrange a husband for marriage for her. Even if it was the custom of [a person who was rich but is now] a poor person to ride on a horse with a servant running in front of him, and this is a person who fell from his station, they buy him a horse to ride upon and a servant to run in front of him, as it is said, (Deut. 15:8) Sufficient for whatever he needs. You are commanded to fill whatever he lacks, but you are not commanded to make him wealthy.

My professor, in remarking upon this passage, noted the two-fold dimensions to charity being discussed here.

First, there is the idea that giving charity involves restoring the person in need to their proper dignity.

Secondly, and perhaps more beautifully, there is the implicit virtue that this demands of showing real attentiveness to the person.

In order to perceive that a person is lacking in some respect, it is necessary to be familiar with their ordinary standard of living.

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A Moment for Anonymous Heroes

I am obsessed with the stories of noble lives and acts of heroism.

In particular, I have been very focused on stories of heroism during the Second World War, particularly in the context of the Holocaust.

I cannot imagine my sustained engagement with the history of the Holocaust if not for the stories of the Righteous Among the Nations, who risked their lives to save Jews, as well as many other stories of courage and martyrdom.

These lights illuminate the darkness, clarify it and, to some modest extent possible, dispel it.

What I have begun thinking about more recently is how many stories of heroism are unknown to us and can never be known.

The stories that we have are a sliver of the humanity that persisted in the most dehumanizing of contexts.

Yet, there are surely many more stories that were snuffed out before they could edify successive generations.

The stories that we do know can help us exercise our imagination about what might have constituted noble and courageous responses in dire circumstances.

Can we let ourselves also be fortified by the confidence that there were also many anonymous heroes?

The facts of their righteousness may be known only to God, but the confidence that they existed can be known to us in hope.

Photo: Wall of Death at Auschwitz

The Conditions for Showing Kindness

Anyone who has ever loved someone who experienced profound vulnerability and dependency knows that people have dignity not only for what they can do but simply, and fundamentally, for who they are.

“Quality of life” is not an individual assessment but a community’s responsibility.

I recently came across these words of Rabbi Dr. Yitzchok Breitowitz who says:

The concept of quality of life, per se, is not a relevant idea because any life is worthy of sustaining because there are purposes for a soul to be in the body that we don’t always perceive. Sometimes the purpose of a soul in the body is not because of what the body can do – even if it’s comatose – but the body enables other people to do mitzvos [good deeds] such as pray, give charity, and the like. So sometimes, the purpose of your life is not what you yourself are accomplishing; the purpose of your life is what you are enabling others to accomplish, and that is a great spiritual benefit that will serve this soul well when it goes into the world of truth.

Such a view requires cultivating the ability to receive help, support, treatment, affection, and acts of kindness from others.

Kindness depends on cooperation between the recipient and the giver, between the person in need and the person rendering some form of service.

A seeming “diminishing quality of life” corresponds to increasing need and opportunities to show kindness.

Painting: Visiting the Sick, Modernist Israeli Oil Painting, Avraham Ofek

Deathly urgent

Lately, I have been reflecting on how thinking about my death gives me greater urgency to say ‘yes’ to things.

It is easy to say, “Not yet,” “Not now,” “I’m not ready,” “I need more education,” “I need more authority,” “I need more time,” etc., etc.

I realize that, so many times, I am tempted to say ‘no’ to good and worthwhile endeavours simply because they demand audacity.

But then, when I consider that I will die, it gives me the courage to say yes to these things instead.

Mortality is motivational.

Here’s a video very much in this vein with a great ending about what makes human life “very good.”

The Difference between Paternalism versus Love

Recently, I heard a doctor say, “The difference between paternalism and love? It’s trust.”

This made me think of a scene in the 2017 film The Upside in which Philip Lacasse, a billionaire who has become a quadriplegic, is seeking a live-in caregiver.

Philip’s executive assistant, Yvonne Pendleton, has lined up interviews with many candidates.

“So… what would you like to tell us,” Yvonne prompts the first woman applicant who looks stiff and uptight.

“I take my relationship with my clients very personally,” she stumbles. “And seriously, I mean. And professionally. As well. Of course,” she ends awkwardly.

The next applicant, a politically-correct gentleman, says, “I don’t hear disability. I hear this ability.”

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“What do I need to know about you as a person?”

I was recently learned about Dr. Harvey Chochinov who is an inspiring Canadian doing pioneering work in palliative care.

It is truly exciting to discover these forerunners who have worked so actively and lived so generously, giving an example to new generations about the kind of humanizing care that is possible.

Dr. Chochinov is a Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Manitoba and Director of the Manitoba Palliative Care Research Unit, CancerCare Manitoba. He has been doing palliative care research since 1990 and has explored psychiatric dimensions of palliative medicine, such as depression, desire for death, will to live and dignity at the end of life. He has also pioneered “dignity therapy.”

According to this paper of his, “Dignity Therapy, a novel, brief psychotherapy, provides patients with life threatening and life limiting illnesses an opportunity to speak about things that matter most to them. These recorded conversations form the basis of a generativity document, which patients can bequeath to individuals of their choosing. Client Centred Care is a supportive psychotherapeutic approach, in which research nurse/therapists guide patients through discussions focusing on here and now issues.”

In this brief YouTube clip, Dr. Chochinov describes what he calls “The Patient Dignity Question” and the significant impact that this open-ended, personalist question can have for patients and those who care for them:

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“Call me ‘Doctor'”

The other day I heard a story about a women in her nineties who was receiving palliative care.

This woman, it was told, “had never before insisted on ceremony.”

She was not the kind of person who would have had her academic credentials in her Twitter handle.

She did not ordinarily expect anyone to use her professional titles.

However, for the first time in her life, when she was receiving care much later in life, she asked to be called “Doctor.”

She was a not a medical doctor, but she had earned a doctorate in some other subject.

And the reason why she wanted to be called “Doctor” only now was because she intuited that it would make a difference for how she would be treated and the kind of care she would receive.

This is a common and striking phenomenon and reminds me of this story about Dr. Harvey Chochinov:

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An appeal to your inner nobility

The other day, a friend of mine shared this extraordinary quotation by one of my heroes – Fr. Alfred Delp:

A community that gets rid of someone—a community that is allowed to, and can, and wants to get rid of someone when he no longer is able to run around as the same attractive or useful member—has thoroughly misunderstood itself. Even if all of a person’s organs have given out, and he no longer can speak for himself, he nevertheless remains a human being. Moreover, to those who live around him, he remains an ongoing appeal to their inner nobility, to their inner capacity to love, and to their sacrificial strength. Take away people’s capacity to care for their sick and to heal them, and you make the human being into a predator, an egotistical predator that really only thinks of his own nice existence.

Fr. Delp was a German Jesuit and those words were his response upon viewing a 1941 Nazi propaganda film.

Who, in our lives, is appealing to our inner nobility?

Who is drawing us out of ourselves and our “own nice existence”?

To whom do we let ourselves to explode our inner capacity to love?

For whom do we let our sacrificial strength be tested?

These may not be the most natural questions to ask ourselves, which is why luminaries like Fr. Delp are so important.

Photo: My mom visiting her brother-in-law’s mother Mrs. Hall. My mom’s care for Mrs. Hall in her final years is one example among many of my mom’s inner nobility and sacrificial strength.

“How to Use Your Eyes”

The other day I heard a story from the life of Helen Keller that I had never heard before.

In it, she recalls asking a friend who had returned from a walk in the woods what this friend had seen. The friend replied, “Nothing in particular.” Helen was dumbfounded and wondered, “How is it possible to walk for an hour and see nothing worthy of note?”

This anecdote whet my appetite and I had to look for these insights of hers in context. To my delight, I found them contained within her extraordinary short essay titled, “Three Days to See.”

Here it is:

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Resurrection of the dead indicates what our bodies are for

In this excellent clip 6-minute clip, Rabbi Dr. Yitzchak Breitowitz explains why the resurrection of the body is an important belief for understanding what it means to be embodied persons.

His main argument is that it is fitting for our bodies, which are the means by which we may perfect our souls through good deeds, to partake of the ultimate reward and communion.

Resurrection, explains Breitowitz, restores the true unity of the person as an image of God who is also One.


Take a look:

My brother, forever

On October 15, which is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day, I reflect on how my parents helped me to share the experience of our family’s grief at the loss of my baby brother, Brandon Joseph Achtman, who died when he was 7 months old.

I was only two-and-a-half years old when Brandon died. But, year after year, I continued to learn more about my brother’s brief life, his death, and that he remains forever my little brother.

Even now, as an adult, I grow in my relationship with this brother of mine. The fact Brandon existed continues to affect, influence, and rouse me – in many ways as ongoingly as the fact of my other brother, Evan, with whom I grew up all along and who is still alive today.

Below are some pages from the Special Care Baby Book in which my mom and I wrote and drew throughout my childhood to remember and cherish baby Brandon.

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“The Road is Our Home”

The other day I came upon the ceramic pictured above and a Jesuit informed me that it’s derivative of a saying of one of the first Jesuits – and a companion of St. Ignatius – named Jeronimo Nadal who said, “The road is our home.”

This Jesuit was also asked by a Coptic Orthodox friend of mine how Jesuits and monks compare. The Coptic Catholic Jesuit explained that people would seek out the monks who remained put whereas Jesuits would seek out the people, finding them wherever they are.

I recently came upon these two quotations in juxtaposition:

“Those who travel much seldom achieve holiness.” – Thomas À Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, I, 23, in about 1418

and then:

“They consider that they are in their most peaceful and pleasant house when they are constantly on the move, when they travel throughout the earth, when they have no place to call their own.” – Jeronimo Nadal, in about 1565

Is it holier to be a hermit or a missionary?

Is it holier to be able to be at home in a cell or to be able to be at home anywhere in the world?

What are the circumstances most conducive to spiritual detachment?

Of course, the appropriate answers are more nuanced than dichotomous. And, it’s a matter of discernment and temperament.

Such meditations transcend the imminent and the immanent; they demand, at the very least, some eternal consideration.

Doing what you want to be doing

Part of returning to student life means facing the constant questioning about what I might like to do in the future.

What am I aspiring to? What am I grasping for? What am I doing now in order to be able to do something else later?

Sometimes I say – and it is the truth – that I am doing exactly what I want to be doing right now. And, even if I knew I were going to die a year from now, I do not think that I would radically change anything (or very much) about my current life.

I think I have come to this existential satisfaction through contemplating mortality (including my own) quite a lot. Whatever I want to eventually be doing, I can usually just do it. What impact I want to eventually be making, I can usually just make it.

Proper mindfulness of mortality is what is prompting me to say ‘yes’ to many things to which I was initially tempted to say ‘no.’ It is creating an open-heartedness with audacity and urgency.

It will not always be so easy to contend with these themes but I do so in a way that I cannot but know is prescient, and so, worthwhile ultimately.

A Patron for the Elderly

Twelve years ago, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI canonized Jeanne Jugan about whom he said:

By her admirable work at the service of the most deprived elderly, St Mary of the Cross is also like a beacon to guide our societies which must always rediscover the place and the unique contribution of this period of life. Born in 1792 at Cancale in Brittany, Jeanne Jugan was concerned with the dignity of her brothers and sisters in humanity whom age had made more vulnerable, recognizing in them the Person of Christ himself. “Look upon the poor with compassion”, she would say, “and Jesus will look kindly upon you on your last day”. Jeanne Jugan focused upon the elderly a compassionate gaze drawn from her profound communion with God in her joyful, disinterested service, which she carried out with gentleness and humility of heart, desiring herself to be poor among the poor. Jeanne lived the mystery of love, peacefully accepting obscurity and self-emptying until her death. Her charism is ever timely while so many elderly people are suffering from numerous forms of poverty and solitude and are sometimes also abandoned by their families. In the Beatitudes Jeanne Jugan found the source of the spirit of hospitality and fraternal love, founded on unlimited trust in Providence, which illuminated her whole life. This evangelical dynamism is continued today across the world in the Congregation of Little Sisters of the Poor, which she founded and which testifies, after her example, to the mercy of God and the compassionate love of the Heart of Jesus for the lowliest. May St Jeanne Jugan be for elderly people a living source of hope and for those who generously commit themselves to serving them, a powerful incentive to pursue and develop her work!

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Avoiding Easy Answers

The other day I had my first class called “Post-Holocaust Jewish Theologies and Selected Christian Responses.”

Among the readings with which we began the course, we were given this single page containing the following epitaph:

From the Psalms I learned to pray: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Psalm 19)

From Irving Greenberg I have learned to add:

“May they be credible in the presence of the burning children.”

The rabbi teaching our class also introduced us to some pages of Zalmen Gradowski who gave an eyewitness account of the death camps. Gradowski perished in October 1944 and his manuscripts were found after the war, hidden underground near the crematoria at Auschwitz.

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You (don’t) only live once

This evening I was contemplating the frantic modern aphorism YOLO – you only live once – in juxtaposition with today’s psalm (Psalm 90) which says, “So teach the number of our days, so that we shall acquire a heart of wisdom.”

The verse that I found most striking from this psalm, however, is this one: “Cause us to rejoice according to the days that You afflicted us, the years that we saw evil.”

Rashi’s commentary offers: “Cause us to rejoice in the days of our Messiah according to the number of days that You afflicted us in the exiles and according to the number of years that we experienced evil.”

Or, in other words: Redeem whatever time we spent not truly living. As many days as were sorrowful, give us glorious ones.

How natural is it to pray: As many days as we lived during the pandemic, give us in health and freedom and adventure.

Sometimes we don’t only live once. Sometimes we live affliction, then rejoicing. Sometimes we live exile, then return. Sometimes we live desolation, then hope.

Sometimes everything that wasn’t truly living can be somewhat redeemed, even in this life.

And when that happens, it’s like living (at least) twice.

Being God’s Pilgrim

Since Pope Pius XII died on this date in 1958, this is a quick throwback post to the summer of 2018 when I visited the Campo Verano cemetery in Rome.

Take a look at the statue I found at the entrance, followed by the story of a Jew who chose to take this pope’s name upon deciding to the enter the Catholic Church.

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We might never have made it

Lately I’ve been perusing Leon Kass’s book Toward a More Natural Science. Most recently, I read the chapter on prenatal diagnosis which begins with this excerpt:

The chapter you are about to read might never have been written. The same, of course, could be said about any work of writing, for the usual and obvious reasons—not least, because the author might never have been born. But for the present author and the present readers of the present chapter, the accident of our births may now be seen to have been more than usually accidental. Reflect a moment, gentle reader, and take stock of yourself: I suppose that you, too, will discover how fortunate we are to be here. For we were conceived after the discovery of antibiotics yet before amniocentesis, late enough to have benefited from medicine’s ability to prevent and control fatal infectious diseases, yet early enough to have escaped from medicine’s ability to detect, and to prevent us from living to suffer, our genetic diseases. To be sure, my own genetic vices are, as far as I know them, rather modest, taken individually—myopia, asthma and other allergies, bilateral forefoot adduction, bowleggedness, loquacity, and pessimism, plus some four to eight as yet undiagnosed recessive lethal genes in the heterozygous condition—but, taken together, and if diagnosable prenatally, I might never have made it.

After antibiotics and before amniocentesis – this is the in-between we who are alive today straddle.

Kass makes obvious in this paragraph that preventing people from suffering can go so far as to prevent them from living.

Many have a lower threshold for what suffering they will tolerate for others compared to what they could endure themselves. This is something worth bearing in mind whenever we hear words like “intolerable” and “unbearable.” What we ourselves cannot bear or tolerate cannot be the standard for evaluating others’ quality of life.

After all, one of the best qualities of life is the way it continually surprises us.

“Do not lose these special characters.”

Some years ago in Poland, an elderly professor of mine who had been a student of John Paul II told us that, earlier that day, he had been giving a lecture to some high school students, a society of Young Humanists, as they called themselves.

He says he spoke to them about Dostoevsky and said: “In all of Dostoevsky’s books you can find characters who are very poor from the worldly view, especially in The Idiot with Prince Myshkin who is so poor and naive. But can such persons be heroes from the moral point of view?”

He continued to us, “Of course, high schoolers are beginning to look toward their careers and for success. And I wanted to say to them, ‘Look, if you close your understanding of happiness in a human life to this sort of success, you miss these important characters who were definitely not professionally successful. Look out for your goals, okay. But please do not lose these special characters. Sometimes these aspirations cannot be easily held together. Remember, though, that even if you lose this success for which you strive, you do not need to lose your humanity, your heart, your life,’

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“Angry enough to die”

In today’s reading, the prophet Jonah became so frustrated with God for not carrying out the evil He’d threatened against Nineveh that Jonah said, “I would be better off dead than alive.”

Then, when God asked Jonah if he had reason to be angry, Jonah responded with pathos, “I have reason to be angry. Angry enough to die.”

Recently, I met up with a friend who I hadn’t seen for quite some time. We were having one of those conversations that immediately cuts to the heart.

“What have you wrestled with God over lately?” my friend asked, as though this were a casual question friends discuss after years apart. “What has caused you even to be angry with Him?”

The deepest friendships and the deepest relationships admit such pathos and consternation.

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Can you die of success?

In his piece, “The Patient As A Person,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says:

Striving for personal success is a legitimate and wholesome ingredient of the person. The danger begins when personal success becomes a way of thinking, the supreme standard of all values. Success as the object of supreme and exclusive concern is both pernicious and demonic. Such passion knows no limit. According to my own medical theory, more people die of success than of cancer.

Heschel contends that “making money is expensive” and that “making money may cost us values that no money can buy.”

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Wishing to Die

It can be quite unsettling to us when someone expresses a desire to die.

Even when a person is very elderly and is naturally approaching death, hearing them say that they want to die can sound to us like a complaint, a cry for help.

Yet, Michel de Montaigne has a very articulate reflection on how ageing and illness naturally draws a person into resignation concerning death and toward an acceptance of it in a way that makes sense.

He says:

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Misery and Mission

“Your lessons are hard, oh God, let me be your good and patient pupil. I feel that I am one of many heirs to a great spiritual heritage. I shall be its faithful guardian.” – Etty Hillesum, killed in Auschwtiz on November 30, 1943

Today I am reflecting on the transformative impact of encountering misery – past or present – to discerning one’s path in life.

Confrontations with grave moral evils and injustices can be decisive turning points in a person’s life when he or she becomes summoned to personal responsibility with a sense of mission.

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Creaturely Sovereignty

Today I came upon the Oath of Maimonides. Here is the short text written by the preeminent rabbi, physician, and philosopher of the medieval period:

The eternal providence has appointed me to watch over the life and health of Thy creatures. May the love for my art actuate me at all time; may neither avarice nor miserliness, nor thirst for glory or for a great reputation engage my mind; for the enemies of truth and philanthropy could easily deceive me and make me forgetful of my lofty aim of doing good to Thy children.

May I never see in the patient anything but a fellow creature in pain.

Grant me the strength, time and opportunity always to correct what I have acquired, always to extend its domain; for knowledge is immense and the spirit of man can extend indefinitely to enrich itself daily with new requirements.

Today he can discover his errors of yesterday and tomorrow he can obtain a new light on what he thinks himself sure of today. Oh, God, Thou has appointed me to watch over the life and death of Thy creatures; here am I ready for my vocation and now I turn unto my calling.

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In solidarity with the sufferers

In his book, Patience with God: The Story of Zacchaeus Continuing In Us, Tomáš Halík has an intriguing chapter on Thérèse of Lisieux. In it, I read many things I hadn’t known about her and gained a completely novel perspective on her value.

Here are some selected excerpts:

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“You must change your life.”

Rilke’s poem “The Archaic Torso of Apollo” ends with the famous lines, “[…] for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.”

This speaks to the way that we are admonished and summoned by an encounter with beauty and order.

On this feast of St. Jerome, I was re-reading Pope Francis’ Apostolic Letter on the Anniversary of the Death of St. Jerome which was published last year.

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Conversion as another life

This is a quick post to direct you to the story of Cyprien and Daphrose Rugumba, a Rwandan couple whose cause for canonization is underway.

This article in The Pillar tells the story of how Daphrose was a faithful Christian who raised her ten children in the faith despite her husband’s infidelity and the mockery he made of her witness and convictions.

As reported in aforementioned the article and also by the Emmanuel Community of which the couple eventually became members and founders of the Rwandan branch:

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