To the Tomb of a Teacher

On this date in 2008, Mieczysław Albert Maria Krąpiec OP, passed away.

I learned about this man as I gradually also learned how to pronounce his name.

This Polish priest-professor was a former rector of my university and is considered the founder of the Lublin Philosophical School – the most notable proponent of whom became Karol Wojtyła/Pope John Paul II.

It was in my very first week of classes that a professor of mine named Fr. Maryiniarczk spoke in an earnest yet convivial manner about this tradition saying, “The Lublin Philosophical School prepared, amid a very harsh time, an understanding of the human person and of reality. We aim to continue in this tradition of realistic philosophy. Metaphysics is concerned with discovering the content of being, not a conception of being and not merely a definition of concepts. We do not try to grasp a theory of man, but rather to understand man himself. This is part of what is meant by the approach called existential Thomism – an integration of truth and experience in our lives.”

Continue reading

Seeing that we will die

Josef Pieper is truly one of the most wonderful (i.e., actually filled-with-wonder) philosophers of the twentieth century. Just when I thought that I had read most of his works, I discovered that he wrote a book entitled Death and Immortality. A huge thanks to St. Augustine’s Press for translating and publishing Pieper’s works and I especially look forward to reading the recently published parts two and three of Pieper’s three-part autobiography.

Today I want to share with you a marvelous section on Rembrandt in “The Vocabulary of Death” chapter of Pieper’s Death and Immortality book.

Continue reading

Could there be a more beautiful farewell?

Today a friend and colleague of mine shared this incredibly moving video in which a priest who has received a terminal diagnosis bids farewell to the priests, seminarians, and women religious surrounding him with prayer and affection.

With birds chirping, the sunlight shimmering, and a gentle breeze blowing, it seems like Heaven was smiling upon this tender and profound occasion.

Father Michael Kottar speaks briefly saying, “In case I die…” What he chooses to say next reveals the clarity of a person of faith approaching death with a sense of what matters ultimately.

Watching the eyes of Fr. Kottar’s young listeners receiving his words with such ardour and brightness makes an impression. We have the sense that the future of which he speaks is being entrusted into good hands.

Is there any value to a bucket list?

The first time I made a bucket list–which I always insisted on simply calling a life list–I was about 12-years-old.

I almost certainly got the idea to write down my life goals from Oprah, Dr. Phil, or Dr. Laura Schlessinger– all of whom I paid attention to at that age.

And so I wrote up a mission statement for my life (which I still have memorized) and wrote down a long list of all the goals I could possibly dream of.

Over the years I kept adding to it until the list became about 190 items long with the note: “To be always continued… As long as I have breath, I will live with passion and purpose.”

The items were listed in no particular order, although the fact that “Eat Greek Salad in Greece” was number one indicates how highly enthusiastic I was about that one.

Some goals were quite serious (e.g., 3. Make and honour a lifelong commitment , 23. Never be “too busy” for people, 55. Speak in front of 1,000 people or more about something important, etc.).

Some goals were quite civic and reflected my early passion for politics and history (e.g,. 28. Vote in every election in which I am eligible, 49. Visit New York and the United Nations Headquarters building, 31. Put a poppy on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier monument on Remembrance Day in Ottawa, 101. Visit Fort McMurray, etc.).

Continue reading

Death is Contagious

Today I was reading through Henri Nouwen’s correspondence and came across some interesting reflections of his in a letter he wrote to a friend whose father had just passed away.

In a 1987 letter addressed to Jurjen Beumer, Henri Nouwen wrote:

Many thanks for your very kind letter. I am very moved by what you write about the death of your father. I am so happy that you had a good and cordial farewell. I realize how important that is for you, especially since you told me a little about the tensions in your relationship with your father. Somehow I am convinced that this is a very important moment in your life, a moment in which you are facing your own mortality in a new way and where your father will become become a new companion in your own journey. I am deeply convinced that the death of those whom we love always is a death for us, that is to say, a death that calls us to deepen our own basic commitments and to develop a new freedom to proclaim what we most believe in.

Have you ever considered whether the death of a loved one has been a mini-death for you in the way Nouwen describes?

Is it true that the death of a loved one “calls us to deepen our own basic commitments and to develop a new freedom to proclaim what we most believe in”?

Continue reading

Parting Words

If you died today, what are the last words of yours that your loved ones might find in your bag, on your computer, in a text message, or on your desk?

One of the victims of the recent tragedy in Meron reportedly gave his friend an envelope and told him not to open it until Sunday.

Rabbi Shimon Matlon could never have imagined that he would die that very night and that his note would be opened not only to his friend but to the world.

According to this source, the letter said:

Continue reading

Art guarded with your life

Leonardo da Vinci died on this date in 1519 and so today I am recalling the occasions on which I have had the opportunity to view some of his paintings.

One experience that especially stands out was when I saw the Lady with an Ermine painting at Wawel Castle and Cathedral in Poland. There was a long line to see this painting and only a few museumgoers at a time could enter the room in which the painting was exclusively displayed. Once my friends and I finally crossed the threshold and entered the room containing the painting, we noticed the armed guards attending to it.

This was several years ago when Islamist terrorists were wreaking havoc and attacks were a high threat in Europe. I thought about the armed guards and how it was that they were defending this artwork with their lives, particularly when there was a real threat of terrorism in key sites epitomizing our civilization.

Continue reading

Is your work to die for?

Today is the feast of St. Joseph the Worker and this post examines Pope Francis’ beautiful Apostolic Letter “With A Father’s Heart” to explore the practical ways in which we can see work as a context for self-gift through which we fulfill the meaning of our lives.

I have organized the themes of the letter into the following eight categories. Each category begins with a excerpt from the letter and then includes a question or two for our contemplation of some possible practical applications.

1. Names and Relationships:

Continue reading

What You Are Doing Is Important

What a remarkable photo it is taken by Ariel Schalit for the Associated Press. The caption in this Globe and Mail story says, “Mourners gather around the body of Shraga Gestetner, a Canadian singer who died during Lag BaOmer celebrations at Mt. Meron, in northern Israel, on April 30, 2021.”

Shraga Gestetner was among those accidentally trampled and killed in the midst of a big celebration in Israel. Many commentators are reflecting on the heightened fervour and enthusiasm among those who were finally able to gather for the annual event, partly in celebration of the luminousness of Judaism’s mystical teachings.

The Montreal-born victim had been in Israel without any of his family members and he was buried immediately in accordance with Jewish law.

Continue reading

Twitter Has a Character Limit that Epitaphs Do Not

Twitter has a character limit – by which I do not mean the 160 maximum characters allowed in a Twitter bio nor the 280 maximum characters allowed in a tweet.

Of course I mean to highlight the limits we find in bio blurbs and tweets when it comes to revealing anything substantive about a person’s actual character from a moral standpoint.

However, it is not the circumscribed brevity that leads to the omission of character.

The case in point for this for me came from reading Martin Mosebach’s The 21: Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs.

In the chapter titled, “With the Martyrs’ Families”, Mosebach recounts travelling to visit the homes of the families of the Coptic Christians who were martyred by Islamists on the coast of Libya in 2015.

These poor Egyptian Christian martyrs did not have Twitter accounts. In fact, Mosebach gives us a sense of their lifestyle by indicating that these men didn’t sleep on sheets, didn’t have bathtubs, and were likely acquainted with fleas and lice.

Continue reading

Unflinching from the sacrifice

I’m thankful to a friend who reminded me that today is the feast day of St. Gianna Beretta Molla and who, accordingly, suggested that I devote today’s post to her.

Gianna was an Italian Catholic pediatrician and mother of four. She is known for refusing life-saving medical interventions that would have resulted in the death of her fourth child with whom she was pregnant at the time.

While it would have been morally licit for her to opt for the interventions in an attempt to save her own life, since the loss of her child would have been wholly unintended and inadvertent, Gianna was willing to die in order that her unborn child might live.

How someone comes to such a decision with faith and courage is almost never momentary happenstance. As John Paul II put it– that Gianna knew how to offer her life as a sacrifice was the crowning of an exemplary existence.

Continue reading

What would you do with a longer life, anyway?

I just finished re-reading Leon Kass’s splendid essay, “L’Chaim and Its Limits: Why Not Immortality?

I was reminded of that 2001 piece when I read this interview published yesterday about Archbishop Emeritus Charles Chaput’s new book Things Worth Dying For: Thoughts on a Life Worth Living.

Leon Kass begins his piece by exploring the primacy of life in Judaism and our wider culture’s interest in prolonging life and forestalling death.

Then, he raises some questions:

Continue reading

Thou shalt not kill a book

This evening I’m thinking about these passages from Areopagitica, John Milton’s defense of freedom of speech against the restrictions of his day:

[…] for books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous dragon’s teeth: and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet, on the other hand, unless wariness be used, as good almost kill a man as kill a good book: who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye.

[…]

We should be wary, therefore, what persecution we raise against the living labours of public men, how we spill that seasoned life of man preserved and stored up in books; since we see a kind of homicide may be thus committed, sometimes a martyrdom; and if it extend to the whole impression, a kind of massacre, whereof the execution ends not in the slaying of an elemental life, but strikes at that ethereal and fifth essence, the breath of reason itself; slays an immortality rather than a life.

Why are these excerpts coming back to me tonight?

Three years ago on this date, I was attending an event hosted by the Montreal Press Club with keynote speaker Dr. Jordan Peterson to honour the inaugural “Freedom Award” recipient Raif Badawi.

Continue reading

Marking Time: Do you remember where you were when… ?

“So teach us to number our days
that we may gain a wise heart.”
– Psalm 90:12

I remember seeing the news of Palm Sunday church bombings in Egypt on my phone while I was in Poland.

I had not been to Egypt before but of course the photos gripped me.

That was a year that the Western and Orthodox calendars synced up and so Christians worldwide were commemorating on the same day Jesus’ triumphal entrance into Jerusalem before his Passion.

That suicide bombers charged into two Alexandria churches on this date and in this way indicates that their intent was to wreak not only destruction but desecration.

What was the impact of looking at the those photos on my phone in a small Polish church?

Continue reading

When genocide concerns you

Today is Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day and I’ve been reading through Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story: A Personal Account of the Armenian Genocide while eating some Armenian snacks from my Ararat Box.

Genocide is a weighty word and the recognition of it implies our moral responsibility not to be bystanders to the egregious evils of which we admit being aware.

During the First World War, Henry Morgenthau, a German-born Jewish American was serving as the the fourth 4th US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.

As ambassador, he did his utmost to try to reason with the Ottoman authorities, to stop the genocide, and to implore the U.S. government on behalf of the Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians who were being persecuted and massacred.

Continue reading

I Want What You Have Lived And Suffered

Among my hobbies these days is attending a bioethics book club every two weeks on O. Carter Snead’s new book What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics. The book is about how the dominant view in our time of persons as expressive individualists contradicts the lived experience of our embodied reality. Snead analyzes why we go astray in our public bioethics when we do not account for the realities of vulnerability and mutual dependence in and throughout our lives.

Most recently the study group finished reading the chapter on Death and Dying. In it, Snead notes: “By far the most common rationales cited for seeking assisted suicide were concerns about ‘losing autonomy’ (92 percent) and being ‘less able to engage in activities making life enjoyable’ (91 percent).”

Since there are many reasons why we can lose autonomy and the ability to engage in activities that make life enjoyable, it is worth scrutinizing these ideas of “freedom” – the loss of which risks rendering life seemingly not worth living.

I am reminded of Russian filmmaker Andrey Tarkovsky’s reflections. In Sculpting in Time, he says: “And the longer I lived in the West the more curious and equivocal freedom seems to me. Freedom to take drugs? To kill? To commit suicide?”

He goes on:

Continue reading

“I should be dead, so what’s the worst that can happen?”

Recently, I spoke with Ottawa resident Darryl Sequeira about his near-death experience fifteen years ago.

In September 2005, Darryl was a 20-year-old university student in Saint John, New Brunswick.

He got drunk at a party one night and was passed out in the back seat of the car of a friend’s friend.

Unbeknownst to Darryl, the driver was also drunk and so, “It was the wrong car to fall asleep in.”

When the drunk driver crashed, the driver broke both his legs, the front seat passenger broke his right arm, the guy to Darryl’s left broke his left arm and the guy to Darryl’s right managed to get just a few cuts and bruises.

Because Darryl had been the only one asleep in the vehicle, he suffered the worst consequences. The car flipped over three times and he flew forward.

Continue reading

Are your affairs in order – now?

If you died today, how would people find your office, your bedroom, your bookshelves?

What would happen with your email, your social media, your bank accounts?

Who would you have wanted to forgive? To pay back? To return to with gratitude?

Many people cannot die well because of leading lives that are not yet in any meaningful order.

Before I take a trip, I often organize my bedroom and office so that – were I to die during the trip – my possessions would reflect my priorities and the order in which I had them would (hopefully) be a reflection of my soul when I had left them.

“Putting our affairs in order” has become an idiom for a one-time event when, in fact, we are all meant to put our affairs into order each day.

Augustine even described peace as “the tranquility of order.”

And so, if we want to eventually rest in peace, then we’ll need to live our lives in order.

At the End of Life, the Artist is Necessary

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the word “clinical” may denote “expressing no emotion or feelings” or “showing no character and warmth.” The sentence that is given to illustrate its meaning is this: “We were going to paint our kitchen white, but we decided that would look too clinical.”

Do you ever wonder why hospitals and doctor’s offices are so drab? Why does there seem to be so little attention paid to aesthetics? What impact does this have on doctors, nurses, patients, and visitors?

One day, Cecily Saunders, the British pioneer of modern-day hospice care, was “magnetically drawn” to an oil painting in a gallery window. She was so taken by it that she parked her car and entered the gallery moments before they were closing on the last day of the exhibition. Cecily Saunders moved eagerly from painting to painting. The blue Crucifixion had been the piece to catch her eye from the window, but the piece she impulsively chose to purchase was of ‘Christ Calming the Waters.’

The following day, she wrote the following to the artist, Marian Bohusz-Szyszko:

Continue reading

Making Use of Languishing

Today there is a very interesting piece published in The New York Times titled, “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing.”

This article describes the paradoxical combination of restlessness and lethargy that many people are now experiencing as “languishing.”

It turns out the etymology of the word is “to fail in strength, exhibit signs of approaching death” and the word is derived from the Latin word languere meaning to be listless, sluggish, and lacking in vigour.

The whole New York Times piece is very much worth reading because the author is not only articulate in describing the phenomenon but is also edifying in proposing some possible antidotes.

Adam Grant writes:

Continue reading

The Value of a Last Lecture

Today I am remembering Fr. James V. Schall – Jesuit priest, longtime professor of political philosophy at Georgetown University, and the author of more than thirty books. He died around this time two years ago.

I had heard that he had given a Last Lecture at Georgetown entitled “The Final Gladness,” but I only listened to it for my first time this evening.

Here is the video of the lecture and below are some highlights in summary as well as some brief thoughts on the value of a last lecture.

Continue reading

Sanctity Amidst An Epidemic

Today is the death anniversary and feast day of St. Kateri Tekakwitha – an indigenous Catholic who was born in 1656 to a Mohawk father and a Christian Algonquin mother.

During the homily announcing her canonization in 2012, Pope Benedict XVI said: “Kateri impresses us by the action of grace in her life in spite of the absence of external help and by the courage of her vocation, so unusual in her culture. In her, faith and culture enrich each other! May her example help us to live where we are, loving Jesus without denying who we are.”

In honour of the occasion, I discussed the life, death, and legacy of St. Kateri with my good friend Maria Lucas who is herself an indigenous Catholic.

Check out our discussion about St. Kateri’s virtues, her willingness to chart her own course in obedience to God’s will, the ways she navigated her indigenous Catholic identity, and how she died with tremendous faith and peace at age 24.

Photo: Statue of St. Kateri at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. (2017)

Those best prepared for death

The other day, Fr. Mike Schmitz released this video, “The Key to a Happy Death” in which he shares that a student recently asked him, “In your experience, have you found that people who live a long and fulfilling life are more prepared, or better prepared to die–that they’re able to let go of their life more easily?”

And to this, he answered no.

Continue reading

The Opposite of Social Distancing

Jozef De Veuster was a Belgian Catholic who asked God to be sent on a mission.

Having done his formation for the priesthood in Belgium, he was then sent to Honolulu and was ordained two months later.

He took the name Damien and began his priestly ministry in the Hawaiian Islands.

During Fr. Damien’s time, there was a public health crisis. Mortality rates were high due to infectious diseases for which there was no herd immunity. Chinese workers were suspected of having brought the disease to the islands. The outbreak was not well understood and experts were unsure as to how it spread, whether it could be cured, and whether transmission could be stopped. The government passed mandatory quarantine legislation, even sending some people to isolate in remote locations. The officials insisted that these were not prisons, but there was certainly not enough medical supplies or doctors and nurses. Some experts thought the lepers would be better off dead. One health official conjectured, “It would seem that even demons themselves would pity their condition and hasten their death.”

Continue reading

Does your education fix your mind on eternal life?

In the chapter on Hope in Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis discusses the paradox that “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.”

I certainly observed this during my studies and travels throughout Europe during which I was continually struck that the most beautiful art and architecture was made by people who believed in the immortality of the soul whereas materialists always seemed to produce the most ugly and bland structures and stuff.

There is something about looking forward longingly to the world to come that makes us more effective in this world than we could possibly be otherwise.

Continue reading

Commemoration for All Ages

Today marks the 81st anniversary of the Katyn Forest Massacre and is the designated day of remembrance for the victims.

I don’t remember really learning about this event until I moved to Poland.

But once I was in Poland, I saw lots of monuments and memorials commemorating the more than 20,000 Poles who were murdered by Soviets in 1940. Since many of the mass graves were discovered in the Katyn Forest, this became the name by which the massacre came to be known.

One of the prominent Katyn memorials I saw was this one at the Lipowa Cemetery in Lublin, Poland.

Continue reading

Made for Inexhaustible Joy

Today Facebook reminded me of this quotation I’d posted a few years ago from Brother Alois’ 2018 letter:

In privileged circles, where people are well fed, well educated, and well taken care of, joy is sometimes absent, as if some people were worn out and discouraged by the banality of their lives.

At times, paradoxically, the encounter with a destitute person communicates joy, perhaps only a spark of joy, but an authentic joy nonetheless.

This reminded me of what has been among the most joyful times of my life – the semester I lived at a homeless shelter as part of an intentional community at the Calgary Mustard Seed.

Continue reading

My Last Visit with My Last Grandparent

I didn’t know it at the time, but April 11th, 2015 marked my last visit with my last grandparent.

Joseph Achtman (Zaida) died two weeks later, and I am so grateful not only for my final visit with him, but also that I took the time to journal about our visit right after the fact.

Here is an excerpt from exactly what I wrote in April 2015.

Continue reading

Does Tragedy Confer Dignity?

Today marks the 11th anniversary of the 2010 plane crash in which 96 people, including Poland’s then president Lech Kaczyński and his wife Maria, died.

They were en route to commemorate the 1940 Katyn Forest Massacre in which more than 20,000 Poles had been murdered by Soviets.

Those on the flight composed an official delegation and so many of the other crash victims were political, church, and military leaders in Poland.

I still remember a religious sister guiding me toward a monument commemorating victims of the crash in the Lublin cemetery. She whispered, “Some do not refer to this as the Smolensk disaster but rather as Katyn the Second.”

Continue reading

Bonhoeffer’s Worldliness

On this date in 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Protestant pastor and theologian known for his ardent resistance to Nazism, was hanged at the Flossenbürg concentration camp.

Reportedly, an SS doctor who saw his execution testified to Bonhoeffer having been “devout, brave, and composed.” He said, “His death ensued after a few seconds . . . I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

Today I am reflecting on this excerpt from a 1944 letter that Bonhoeffer wrote to a friend in 1944 in which he reflects on what he calls “the worldliness of Christianity.”

Continue reading

With Eyes Open

I first heard the following story told by the incredible storyteller and guide Michael Bauer during the 2010 March of Remembrance and Hope Holocaust study trip to Germany and Poland.

Shmuel Gogol was a Polish Jew who was born in Warsaw. His mother died and his father was expelled from Poland. For a time, Shmuel was raised by his grandmother before she eventually brought him to Janusz Korczak’s orphanage.

One day, Shmuel saw a boy playing a harmonica and he immediately longed to have one of his own so that he could learn to play it. Janusz Korczak finally gave him one for his birthday.

As I have written about before, Korczak and 200 children of the orphanage were deported to the death camp called Treblinka. However, Shmuel was not among these children because his grandmother had smuggled him out of the Warsaw Ghetto to stay with his uncle in a different Polish town during the war.

However, despite these efforts to protect him, Shmuel still ended up getting deported to Auschwitz.

At Auschwitz, all of Shmuel’s possessions were confiscated, including his harmonica.

Time went on and, one day, Shmuel could hear the sound of a harmonica from within the concentration camp. So intent was he at the prospect of once again having a harmonica that he traded several days of food rations in order to obtain it from the other prisoner.

Continue reading

Remembrance in the Living Room

In 2010, some friends gathered in a living room to discuss the Holocaust, the testimony of survivors, and its impact on society over time in an intimate and familiar setting.

Since then, this experience has become an annual international initiative called Zikaron Basalon, which means “remembrance in the living room.”

The event usually takes place on Yom HaShoah, Israel’s official date of commemoration for those who perished in the Holocaust.

Continue reading

“Your listening is medicine for me.”

Tomorrow, April 7th, is Genocide against the Tutsi Memorial Day.

Nine years ago, I participated in the Reflections on Rwanda program to study this genocide, especially through encountering rescuers and survivors and listening to their stories.

Some of my family and friends were not sure why I wanted to go on a genocide study a trip.

I even met a professor (of Genocide Studies, no less) who described travelling to the sites of historical genocides as voyeurism.

Continue reading

We are all terminal, so what’s your decision?

One of the best things about doing this daily blog is that my friends now think to share with me anything particularly good and interesting about death or dying that they’ve seen or heard lately.

And so, quite a few of my friends have brought up this homily by Fr. Mike Schmitz’s from Palm Sunday:

In it, he says, “We’re all going to be dead at some point and I don’t think that that’s the problem. I think the problem is that we pretend that we’re not. We pretend that that’s not true and then, when tragedy happens, when death cuts close, I think it cuts through the illusion that my choices don’t matter.”

Continue reading

The Longest Line to See Nothing

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is a place to which thousands of pilgrims flock every day to see what isn’t there.

It is quite amusing, in fact, to wait in line for hours in order to see a place that you know to be empty.

Life is filled with a great many paradoxes. It is a paradox that the cross, which was an instrument of torture, became an instrument of divine reconciliation and the most enduring symbol of Christian faith. It is a paradox that the empty tomb became the sign of the fullness of Christian hope – that we “will not all die, but we will all be changed” and that “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

Continue reading

Where are your wounds?

Thanks to a dear friend of mine who recommended this fantastic episode of The Rubin Report in which David Rubin speaks with Bishop Robert Barron and Rabbi David Wolpe about what Easter and Passover teach us about freedom and hope.

I am equally recommending the episode and could not be more impressed by the quality of Jewish-Catholic relations presented in this cordial and substantive conversation.

In the course of the discussion, Rabbi Wolpe says, “This South African author, Alan Paton, has a beautiful scene in one of his novels about a guy who goes to heaven and he comes before God and God says, ‘Where are your wounds?’ And he says, ‘I don’t have any wounds.’ And God says, ‘Why? Was there nothing worth fighting for?'”

Continue reading

Responding to Death with Poetry

My grandmother died on September 22, 2009 between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. A few days after her death, when I was 18, I wrote this poem in memory of her, which I just found again today:

A Tribute to My Grandmother

I first met my grandmother
When I was very young
She held me in her arms
Before I had turned one

My family ventured to Toronto
And she and grandpa came to Calgary
Those times were special then
Always remembered they will be

When I was only four
My grandma called me near
I didn’t like her nickname for me
She used to call me ‘dear’

So we agreed upon ‘Mandy’
This name for only her to call me
Her precocious little granddaughter 
And I would call her ‘Bubbie’

I remember the trips to Toys ‘R’ Us
With my brother to choose toys
We could pick almost anything
As long as it would bring us joy

My grandma loved education
And she always called me clever
She knew my commitment to my education
Would surely last forever

In her final years
Bubbie grew old and frail
But my grandpa visited her
Every day without fail

I learned unconditional love
Through the witness that they gave
To a love that knows no bounds
And to a love that is very brave

Sometimes it was hard to see my grandma
Lost and confused in her mind
Then I’d remember though
How much her heart was refined

My grandma’s life was a gift
From the God who I do praise
The Lord is compassionate and loving
In all His mighty ways

Ever since I was a child, writing has been my favourite creative outlet. Whenever someone would die or whenever I would grapple with the mystery of suffering and death, I would scribble words of poetry and reflection to contend and find meaning.

In addition to being a helpful outlet at the time, I find it interesting to look back on what I wrote in the past and to discover how sealing those memories through creative acts magnifies the memories I hold.

Achievement in Dying

Founder of modern palliative care, Cecily Saunders, was the 1981 Laureate of the Templeton Prize.

In her address, this section, in which she speaks about “achievement in dying”, especially struck me:

The first challenge was for the better understanding and control of pain. The seven years part time volunteer experience in St Luke’s and the later seven years full time developing this in St. Joseph’s laid the foundation for the increasingly sophisticated symptom control that means hospice today. There was much more to learn from St. Joseph’s from the strength and prayerfulness of the community of the Irish Sisters of Charity and, above all, from uncounted hours with the patients. It was they who showed me by their achievements how important the ending of life could be and many that I knew briefly and a few long stay patients, friends over the years, are the real founders of St. Christopher’s. One, another Pole, special among them all, left me other key phrases. When I told him he had not much further to go, he asked me, ‘Was it hard for you to tell me that?’ When I said that it had been, he said, ‘Thank you. It is hard to be told, but it is hard to tell too. Thank you’. We have to care what we say; this work is hard and demanding as well as rewarding. Two other things he said were separated by some three weeks. The first, ‘I do not want to die, I do not want to die’. The second, ‘I only want what is right’. Sometimes people ask me what I mean by achievement in dying. Here was one, Gethsemane made present today.

Later, in the same address she says:

Continue reading

Something to offer

Sixteen years ago, Terri Schiavo died.

I remember that when she was in the news, I heard the term “vegetative state” for the first time. It immediately struck me as a completely inappropriate term for any person since it explicitly dehumanizes someone by applying an incorrect analogy. Initially the adjective meant, “endowed with the power of growth” but it has come to denote exactly the opposite in public bioethics – that a person is incapable of any significant growth or development. We do not tolerate those who would dehumanize others by calling them cockroaches, so we ought not tolerate the dehumanizing language that refers to persons as “vegetables.”

When I think about Terri Schiavo, I think especially about the impact that her life and death had on my friend Taylor Hyatt. She wrote this great piece several years ago titled, “13 days that changed my life: Remembering Terri Schiavo.”

In the piece, Taylor reflects on how Terri’s story captivated her when she was in Grade 7.

She wrote:

Continue reading

Doing away with superstitions

One of my favourite classical texts is Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. In writing about the lives of noble Greeks and Romans, Plutarch said his intention was not so much to write history as to write edifying moral biographies.

He said, “For I do not write Histories, but Lives; nor do the most conspicuous acts of necessity exhibit a man’s virtue or his vice, but oftentimes some slight circumstance, a word, or a jest, shows a man’s character better than battles with the slaughter of tens of thousands, and the greatest arrays of armies and sieges of cities. Now, as painters produce a likeness by a representation of the countenance and the expression of the eyes, without troubling themselves about the other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to look rather into the signs of a man’s character, and thus give a portrait of his life, leaving others to describe great events and battles.”

In introducing the life of Lycurgus, Plutarch even admits, “Concerning Lycurgus the lawgiver, in general, nothing can be said which is not disputed, since indeed there are different accounts of his birth, his travels, his death, and above all, of his work as lawmaker and statesman.”

Nevertheless, he has much to say about Lycurgus and his efforts “to make his people free-minded, self-sufficing, and moderate in all their ways.”

One section that I found particularly interesting is about burial. Here’s what Plutarch tells us:

Continue reading

No One Dies Alone

This evening my aunt, who is a primary nurse at the Rockyview General Hospital, shared with me a bit about her experiences as a nurse both before and amidst the pandemic.

In particular, she told me about a program initiated in 2015 called No One Dies Alone. This project of Alberta Health Services is a effort to ensure that any patient, who is without family or friends to visit them as they approach death, is met with some form of intentional companionship.

My aunt told me that, throughout the entire pandemic, she does not think anyone has died alone at her hospital. Most have had family and friends who were able to visit and for those who did not, they were accompanied by volunteers or clergy.

Continue reading

Will loss enhance appreciation?

I recently asked a young woman about what ways she has found to profit from the situation of living during a pandemic.

Her immediate answer was that she came to truly value attending church because this is something that had been taken away during to the periods of lockdown. Prior to the pandemic, she would often skip church because of her erratic work hours, but once she had experienced the loss of this possibility that was not on her own terms, she resolved to make church attendance, when possible again, a non-negotiable commitment in her life.

This is a testament that we value that which costs us.

If something costs us nothing, it is natural to expect that we will not value it highly.

And so I am also reminded of the ardour with which persecuted Christians attend church.

Continue reading

“You will not always have me.”

In the long gospel reading for Palm Sunday, we hear the story of the woman who anointed Jesus at Bethany.

Of the entire Sunday gospel reading from Mark, this section really struck me this year.

The woman anoints Jesus with a costly ointment from an alabaster jar that she bursts open in order to pour the ointment on his head.

The action provokes anger among observers over the ointment having been “wasted” instead of sold so that the money could be given to the poor.

Continue reading

What if you embrace the discordant note?

Most people know that Ludwig van Beethoven was one of the world’s most renowned composers, but not many know that, instead of dying on this date in 1827 at age 56, Beethoven almost died before he was born.

Several years ago, this 15-minute short film called Crescendo was released. I saw an early screening of it at the G.K. Chesterton conference hosted by the film’s producer Jason Jones. (For more about that conference, including Jason’s personal story he shared there, click to my post about it here.)

Asked about the extent of creative license he took with the film, Jason told an interviewer, “There’s one piece of fiction. But Beethoven’s father was indeed an alcoholic, he was abusive, he was a philanderer. And Beethoven’s mother had written in her diary that she wanted an abortion and she was suicidal and depressed.”

Continue reading

The Task Report in Death

This evening I’ve been reading Tomáš Halík’s book, I Want You To Be: On the God of Love in which the thirteenth chapter is titled, “Stronger than Death.”

In this chapter, the Czech priest, philosopher, and Templeton Prize laureate discusses how, “in order to perceive death as a gift, one must first deeply experience life as a gift.”

Gratitude is the appropriate response to a gift but, importantly, life is not only a gift but also a responsibility. Halik, like Abraham Joshua Heschel, speaks of life as an assignment:

Death is not a mere returning of the gift of life. Only loans are returned, and to return a gift is always regarded as an insult to the donor. The entrance ticket to life (think of the conversation between Alyosha and Ivan Karamazov) is not returnable. Life is not just a gift; it is also an assignment. At the moment of death, the handing on of the life that was given to us as an opportunity and entrusted to us as a task is—in religion terms—a sort of completed task report, the hour of truth about the extent to which we have fulfilled or squandered the opportunity we were given. Aversion to that religious concept of death is possibly only assisted by arguments from the arsenal of materialistically interpreted science, although in fact it is more likely based on the anxiety aroused by the need to render an account to a Judge who cannot be bribed or influenced. Compared to that the atheist view that everything comes to an end at death is a comforting dose of opium!

How often do we consider giving God an inventory about how we have spent our lifetime?

To be accountable for our days is a basis for man’s proper dignity.

As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry put it, “To be a man is, precisely, to be responsible.”

And responsibility is not only a matter of what we do but, most importantly, of who we become through the moral footprint of our deeds in this world.

Photo: With Fr. Tomáš Halík in Prague in April 2016

A Most Noble Surrender

Three years ago today, Arnaud Beltrame offered his life in the place of a female hostage.

I think his story of sacrifice is worth remembering not only because it was formerly news but because it is now an honourable legacy from which we can stand to gain understanding something about the purpose of life.

Here’s some of what I wrote at the time:

Beltrame’s act of heroism was not out of character for him since he had first prepared the ground by surrendering to the call of natural virtues through his commendable military service. He superiors had acknowledged his “resolutely offensive spirit when faced with adversity” and his preparedness to “fight to the end and never give up.” In Beltrame’s life we can see how human virtues, such as the loyalty and selflessness he cultivated through his military training and service, prefigured his act of supernatural virtue in laying down his life for a stranger.

[…]

Beltrame’s act was not mere chivalry or a random act of kindness; it was something more powerful than that. As Hildebrand reminds, “We can never bring about of our own volition this state of being possessed by and lost in what is greater than ourselves.” Beltrame clearly believed in something even greater than his own life. 

“Whenever anything thus causes us to soar above the habitual plane of our life,” says Hildebrand, “Whenever we are possessed by something that overwhelms us… by its objective superiority, we also become delightfully aware that it is precisely this renunciation of our sovereignty which makes us really free.”

This is the freedom of a martyr who – even in losing his or her own life – still bears witness to that profounder and nobler reality than life itself – the love that triumphs over death. 

[…]

Like the death of Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish priest who seventy-seven years ago offered to take the place of a husband and father in Auschwitz, may Beltrame’s self-surrender bear much fruit in witnessing to the fact that we love best when we lay down our lives for God and others.

We need Beltrame’s legacy.

We need his example to fill us with admiration at the nobility of self-surrender for the sake of others.

His willingness to take the place of a stranger, even though it meant death for himself, confirms to us that death is not the greatest evil. What the terrorist did to Beltrame was far worse than the death Beltrame suffered, particularly for the terrorist’s own soul. But for Beltrame, while the loss is certainly tragic for his loved ones, the nobility of his self-surrender remains a resplendent example so that we are free to contemplate what it is that gives a person the freedom to literally lay down their life for another.

An Exemplary Eulogy

One of the most amazing speeches I ever had the privilege of hearing in person was delivered by Gila Sacks, the daughter of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Gila delivered this speech to honour her father on the occasion of him being awarded the Templeton Prize in 2016.

A few years after that event, just this past fall, Rabbi Sacks passed away. When I watched the eulogy (below) that Gila delivered, many of the same qualities I had so admired about her Templeton speech shone through this one as well:

In this eulogy, Gila speaks to her father’s conviction that things can change and people can be responsible for changing them as well as to his character in forging his own children to become who they were created to be.

These are not mere words of sentimentality. What makes the eulogy so compelling is how Gila weaves the lessons from her father together with anecdotes from her ordinary, daily life along with what she learns and grapples with in the Bible.

I was struck by how well this eulogy fulfills the Jewish custom of eulogizing and lament, which has its basis in when Abraham eulogized and mourned his wife Sarah.

According to Jewish tradition, as discussed in this article, “When composing a eulogy, the goal is to praise the deceased, evoke an emotional reaction from the listeners, inspire listeners to improve their own lives by finding the qualities mentioned within themselves, and to consider their own legacies.”

Gila’s eulogy of her father is exemplary of this in every respect. She honoured her father well by reminding her listeners of their own capacity to build the world from love and responsibility.

The Way Teachers Remain With Us After They Die

In the highly interactive and exceptionally curated Museum of World Religions in Taipei, there is a permanent exhibit called Awakenings. As described by the museum, “This specially commissioned film includes interviews with world-renowned religious leaders, well-known laity, and other visitors. They bear witness to personal experiences that led to important changes in their lives. The aim of the film is to generate a resonance in visitors, irrespective of their time of life, and encourage them to actively seek changes at all opportunities.”

In the clip below, which I took during my visit, Cardinal Francis Arinze reflects on the formative persons in his life, mainly priests and teachers. One thing that struck me about this brief interview is how much affection he has for his teachers and how, even about teachers who have died he says, “the link remained because they made a change in my life, these people.

When persons instill something of there character, when they teach in such a way that, as Cardinal Arinze says, “you [cannot] be indifferent to [them]”, then these people do not disappear when they die, but rather remain in their students in whom they have made such an impression.

Thumbs Up for Life with Down Syndrome

Today is World Down Syndrome Day, and so this evening my friends and I were reflecting on the value of those with Down Syndrome in our lives.

My favourite story my friend shared was about a man named Peter for whom she cared for one year while working as a live-in assistant at a L’Arche community in Montreal.

Peter was in his 30s and his kidneys did not work well. He was on dialysis and, because he could not urinate properly, he also had a catheter that, in his case, was surgically changed every six months.

Continue reading

Cemeteries As Colourful As Life

In December 2019, I was strolling through the Cemetery at Santa Maria Huatulco.

It struck me how colourful the Mexican cemetery is, and I noticed that the cemeteries are as colourful as the rest of the community. Take a look at these images:

Probably this cemetery in Mexico is the most vibrantly colourful cemetery I have visited to date.

This serves to make the cemetery as attractive and inviting and as other parts of town.

I often reflect on why it is that our hospitals in Canada are so drab. Only the Children’s Hospitals, if any, seem to be bright and colourful. Most of the time, they live up to what you imagine when you hear the word “clinical.”

What does it say about a culture when the hospitals and cemeteries are colourful and when they are not?

Do you think it’s appropriate or worthwhile for such places to be colourful? Why or why not?