“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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Neither cynical nor naive

It’s been five years since the death of Shimon Peres on September 28, 2016. Today was my first time watching the address that Barack Obama delivered at his funeral.

It is a remarkable eulogy, and it is hard for me to think of other statesmen or leaders about whom such a tribute has or could be given.

Below is the full speech on Youtube and here is the link to the transcript:

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Prophetic Cutlery

Growing up, my mom used to tell me stories of people who asked to be buried with a dessert fork to testify to their conviction that the best was yet to come because eternal life will be sweeter.

The other day, dining in my student residence, a Brazilian student delightedly noticed a dessert spoon set above his plate and exclaimed, “Ah, a prophet!”

Now, I had never before heard someone refer to their cutlery as prophetic, but it made quite a lot of sense.

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Unique and unrepeatable

I was always intuitively and viscerally upset whenever women who had suffered miscarriages would lament well-intentioned people having attempted to console them with the words, “You can try again.”

Like Job’s “friends”, such people unfortunately misunderstood the nature of the situation so profoundly as to be unable to offer a meaningful response to those suffering this loss.

Having understood it intuitively, I also wanted to try to understand as rationally as possible why saying, “You can try again” is so inappropriate.

That is when I came upon this compelling paragraph by bioethicist Robert Spaemann who tackles various intellectual positions that would seek to eject members from the human family.

He says:

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Deserving Tomorrow

This evening I came upon this quotation attributed to Rabbi Nachman of Breslov:

“If you are not going to be any better tomorrow than you were today, then what need have you for tomorrow?”

That is a serious provocation to self-examination and personal responsibility.

What have I done to deserve tomorrow?

Tomorrow is a gift I cannot merit, but what would it look like to try to become more worthy of it?

What difference would it make, every night, to create new day’s resolutions?

“The Saint Makes the Difference”

The other day I asked a visiting priest responsible for Catholic higher education to speak to us about the most influential teachers in his life.

To this, he immediately responded that he has had many teachers throughout the course of his life who were alright but rather unremarkable. He noted that he thinks this is the case for most people. But, he insisted, there are, of course, those one or two teachers who stand out and whose influence upon you is something you will remember and cherish for your entire life.

As he said this, it was clear that he was conjuring up his own recollections of these special and extraordinary teachers. Gradually, he told us a few anecdotes about them.

Then, he encouraged us not to expect every teacher to be extraordinary but insisted that we do establish the hope of encountering at least some of them who are truly excellent.

“Given the choice between 5,000 decent but mediocre and lukewarm people or 4,999 heretics and one shining saint, I would definitely choose the heretics and the saint,” this priest said. “The saint makes the difference.”

“No insurmountable solitude”

“I render my thanks and return to my work, to the blank page which every day awaits us poets so that we shall fill it with our blood and our darkness, for with blood and darkness poetry is written, poetry should be written.”

Imagine hearing those words at the conclusion of a brief speech by a laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature at an extravagant banquet.

Pablo Neruda, who died on September 23, 1973, was a poet and diplomat from Chile who, in 1971, received this prize.

Here is an excerpt from his acceptance speech:

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Dying to Anonymity

I recently started reading Carl Rogers’ very interesting book titled, On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy.

There are many gems already, but check out this one in particular with my emphasis added:

During this past year the Student Union Forum Committee at Wisconsin made a somewhat similar request. They asked me to speak in a personal vein on their “Last Lecture” series, in which it is assumed that, for reasons unspecified, the professor is giving his last lecture and therefore giving quite personally of himself. (It is an intriguing comment on our educational system that it is assumed that only under the most dire circumstances would a professor reveal himself in any personal way.) In this Wisconsin talk I expressed more fully than in the first one the personal learnings or philosophical themes which have come to have meaning for me. In the current chapter I have woven together both of these talks, trying to retain something of the informal character which they had in their initial presentation. The response to each of these talks has made me realize how hungry people are to know something of the person who is speaking to them or teaching them. Consequently I have set this chapter first in the book in the hope that it will convey something of me, and thus give more context and meaning to the chapters which follow.

This excerpt causes me to speculate that, perhaps one reason why people tend to fear both mortality and public speaking so much is the same: it amounts to a death to anonymity. The person is revealed in an eminent way that is vulnerable and transparent. And, interestingly, this can be attractive and hospitable for others who can be received into a story without posturing and pretence, but filled with sincerity and reality.

Two Kinds of Dignity

The philosopher Robert Spaemann has taught me to understand how there are two kinds of dignity. First, there is the universal dignity that all persons have by virtue of being human. This is also discussed within bioethics as fundamental human equality. Secondly, there is dignity that accords with a person’s particular worthiness owing to the virtue of an office, rank, or moral excellence.

Some healthcare professionals purport to have such neutrality and objectivity so to be inclined to treat every person equally according to the first kind of universal dignity characteristic of all human beings.

But persons, being persons, have a natural regard for both kinds of dignity.

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More care > Less suffering

This evening I read a chapter from Gilbert Meilaender’s book, Bioethics and the Character of Human Life: Essays and Reflections.

Here is one paragraph that particularly captured my attention:

Thus, although compassion surely moves us to try to relieve suffering, there are things we ought not to do even for that worthy end–actions that would not honour or respect our shared human condition. One of the terrible truths that governs the shape of our lives is that somethings there is suffering we are unable–within the limits of morality–entirely to relieve. Hence, the maxim that must govern and shape our compassion should be “maximize care,” which may not always be quite the same as “minimize suffering.”

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A Lesson in Disinterestedness

Is it really possible to teach lessons about knowledge being for its own sake and learning being its own reward? How, in our hyper-utilitarian age of credentials, competition, and consumerism can such things be instilled and affirmed?

Here is a story from when I studied in Poland.

It so happened that I would be absent on the date of a scheduled exam in “Main Problems in Philosophy” due to a conference and so I arranged to write my exam in the professor’s office in advance.

I showed up to his office at 1 o’clock and he handed me a piece of paper with two questions that he had written out for me:

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Cobbled Remembrance

On my walk home from university the other day, I came upon these Stolpersteine – “stumbling stones” – which are brass cubes laid among the cobblestones in remembrance of the Holocaust victims who once lived in various places throughout Europe.

To date more than 75,000 of these mini memorials have been laid throughout the continent.

When I tried to search the names on the stones that I had seen, I found several news articles reporting that these stones had been stolen and then replaced.

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“Once a flower, I have become a root.”

I have got to share with you this remarkable excerpt from Pope Francis’s recent address to members of the Jewish community in Hungary:

I am moved by the thought of all those friends of God who shone his light on the darkness of this world. I think in particular of Miklós Radnóti, a great poet of this country. His brilliant career was cut short by the blind hatred of those who, for no other reason than his Jewish origins, first prevented him from teaching and then separated him from his family.

Imprisoned in a concentration camp, in the darkest and most depraved chapter of human history, Radnóti continued until his death to write poetry. His Bor Notebook was his only collection of poems to survive the Shoah. It testifies to the power of his belief in the warmth of love amid the icy coldness of the camps, illumining the darkness of hatred with the light of faith. The author, crushed by the chains that constrained his soul, discovered a higher freedom and the courage to write that, “as a prisoner… I have taken the measure of all that I had hoped for” (Bor Notebook, Letter to his Wife). He also posed a question that resonates with us today: “And you, how do you live? Does your voice find an echo in this time?” (Bor Notebook, First Eclogue). Our voices, dear brothers and sisters, must not fail to echo that Word given us from Heaven, echoes of hope and peace. Even if no one listens or we are misunderstood, may our actions never deny the Revelation to which we are witnesses.

Finally, in the solitude and desolation of the concentration camp, as he realized his life was fading away, Radnóti wrote: “I am now myself a root… Once a flower, I have become a root” (Bor Notebook, Root). We too are called to become roots. For our part, we usually look for fruits, results or affirmation. Yet God makes his word fruitful on the earth with a soft rain that makes the fields flower (cf. Is 55:10). He reminds us that our faith journeys are but seeds, seeds that then become deep roots nourishing the memory and enabling the future to blossom. This is what the God of our fathers asks of us, because – as another poet wrote – “God waits in other places; he waits beneath everything. Where the roots are. Down below” (Rainer Maria Rilke, Vladimir, the Cloud Painter). We can only reach the heights if we have deep roots. If we are rooted in listening to the Most High and to others, we will help our contemporaries to accept and love one another. Only if we become roots of peace and shoots of unity, will we prove credible in the eyes of the world, which look to us with a yearning that can bring hope to blossom. I thank you and I encourage you to persevere in your journey together, thank you! Please forgive me for speaking while seated, but I am no longer fifteen years old! Thank you.

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Death Rehearsal

This year I came upon this interesting sermon for Yom Kippur titled, “Let Death Be Our Teacher.”

This piece explains the way in which Yom Kippur is traditionally understood to be “a rehearsal of our death.”

In it, Rabbi Dara Frimmer says:

Let’s be honest, most of us wait until a crisis is upon us to make significant changes in our lives.

My father had a great life before he was diagnosed. He worked hard AND played golf every Wednesday. He loved photography, travel, and good food. He collected recipes from the New York Times and once a month our kitchen would become a gastronomy lab.

And when he was diagnosed, as most of us might do, he took account of his life – a Cheshbon Ha- Nefesh – literally, an accounting of his soul. Which is exactly what we are asked to do on Yom Kippur. A Cheshbon HaNefesh invites us to take inventory: Are we wasting moments of our life or are we lifting up and celebrating what is most precious?

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The Triumph of the Cross

The September 14th feast day of the Triumph of the Cross (also known as the Exaltation of the Cross) is a reminder of the paradox that the greatest tragedy became the greatest triumph.

To think that the Nazi propaganda film The Triumph of the Will was released in 1935, four years before a Jewish-Catholic named Edith Stein wrote the following words in addressing her religious community on the September 14th feast…

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The Opposite of Throwaway Culture

The author of the book Resisting Throwaway Culture has laid out some concrete proposals for how to do so at the end of his newly published book, Losing Our Dignity.

Like Pope Francis, author Charles Camosy agrees that it is our cultural consumerism that is contributing to a “throwaway” mentality extending toward human beings.

The opposite of throwaway culture, Camosy suggests, is to “live out a counterculture of responsibility, encounter, and hospitality.”

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Not just façades

The other day I was attending a lecture by a scholar who is interested in architecture.

He spoke about why he considers façades to be the most important aspect of architecture given that this is what gets projected outward into the public realm.

Perhaps there is something neighbourly and civic-minded in this view.

Still, upon reflection, I think that the beauty of houses, buildings, tombs, and churches depends largely on the reverence shown toward what is inside.

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How we remember 9/11

On September 11th, I am remembering my visits to the 9/11 memorial in New York City.

Earlier this year, I listened to this interesting podcast episode by Malcolm Gladwell discussing both the 9/11 memorial as well as memorials for the homeless. If that sounds intriguing to you, click here.

The 9/11 Memorial and Museum has a lot of elements that very much reveal the character, spirit, and approach of the American people to tragedy, patriotism, and the value of human life.

Here are some snaps from my visits:

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Declaration of Dependence

The other day a friend of mine shared this profound aphorism from Nicolás Gómez Dávila which says:

Death is the unequivocal sign of our dependence.
Our dependence is the unequivocal foundation of our hope.

In 1993, a Canadian Supreme Court judge included the following statement in his decision:

“Although palliative care may be available to ease the pain and other physical discomfort which she will experience, the appellant fears the sedating effects of such drugs and argues, in any event, that they will not prevent the psychological and emotional distress which will result from being in a situation of utter dependence and loss of dignity.”


Here “utter dependence” is conflated with a “loss of dignity”, not the foundation of our hope.

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Mysterious Reminders

My mother sent me the snap accompanying this post of a page from a booklet she received when she went to hear the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.

I was curious to look up these various symbolic interpretations of the significance of the shofar. This list was devised by a rabbi from the late ninth-to-early tenth century.

I had heard Rabbi Jonathan Sacks recall how Maimonides considered the shofar as “God’s Alarm Clock“, but I had never before heard about the connection between the sounding of the shofar as a reminder of the resurrection of the dead.

Eliyahu Kitov’s article says, “The sounding of the shofar serves to remind us of the resurrection of the dead, as the verse [Isaiah 18:3] states: All those inhabitants of the world and those who dwell in the earth, when a sign is lifted upon the mountains you shall see and when the shofar is sounded you shall hear.”

I went and tried to read that chapter of Isaiah in context and I could not really figure out what it had to do with the resurrection of the dead.

I also tried to find other Jewish sources speaking to the importance of being reminded about resurrection on Rosh Hashanah and I didn’t really find anything.

The shofar can only be the spiritual wake-up call it’s meant to be if it’s understood what exactly we are being awoken to and for.

What difference would it make if we were reminded, even annually, to think about resurrection?

Musical aid in suffering

The other day I met a woman who is a classical singer and musical therapist. Over lunch she told me about how she works with some stroke patients who cannot speak, yet who can sing.

The photo accompanying this post is from this article explaining how this works.

Take a look at this quick clip showing showing an example of neurologic music therapy:

This classical singer has also worked with orphans, palliative care patients, and others in vulnerable states.

Another musician at the lunch explained to us that the more complexity there is to the music, the more order the music can put into your soul. This led me to think: Instead of medical aid in dying, we need musical aid in suffering.

First things first

A few days ago, I attended a conference at which I met a Venezuelan currently in exile in the U.K.

This young man is passionate about politics and philosophy.

When I shared with him about some of the current debates in Canadian politics concerning bioethics, he was perplexed.

Essentially he expressed his perplexity as follows: My country is a mess. There is massive corruption, countless human rights violations, and many basic needs of citizens are unmet. We imagine that Canada is so much more advanced. Yet, you seem to be divided on the most fundamental questions.

Indeed, Canadians are divided about what it means to be a man, to be a woman, to be married, to be a person, to be alive.

Despite industrial development, material prosperity, and impressive longevity, we are still unsure about a lot of the basics.

It is revealing that someone from Venezuela can question our supposed advancement in this way.

Black & White

Recently I was getting ready to head to the U.K. for a five-day seminar.

Before leaving, I showed the webpage announcing the program to a Chinese student at my residence.

As he scrolled the webpage, a concerned expression spread across his face.

“Why are these photos black and white?” he asked nervously, perusing the headshots and bios of faculty and fellows.

“Just for branding and aesthetic,” I shrugged. “Why?”

“In China, black and white photos indicate the person has died,” he explained to me.

Ah, I realized.

No wonder he had looked so startled upon seeing my black and white headshot on his laptop as I sat across from him.

“The light she has lit in my life is still burning.”

On this feast day of Saint Mother Teresa, I read the address that she gave upon being awarded the Templeton Prize and came upon this striking anecdote:

“And in one of the places in Melbourne I visited an old man and nobody ever knew that he existed. And I saw his room in a terrible state, and I wanted to clean his house, his room, and he kept on saying ‘I’m all right!’ but I repeated the same word, ‘You will be more all right if you will allow me to clean your place’, and at the end he allowed me. And there in that room there was a beautiful lamp covered with dirt of many years, and I asked him ‘Why do you not light your lamp?’ Then I asked him, ‘Will you light the lamp if the Sisters come to see you?’ He said, ‘Yes, if I hear a human voice I will do it.’ And the other day he sent me word, ‘Tell my friend the light she has lit in my life is still burning.’”

How many in our world, particularly after this painful season of mandatory isolation, also need to hear a human voice for the light of their life to be rekindled in their soul?

You can read the full address here:

In Silence and Solitude

“I’m looking forward to a season of retreat and contemplation,” I told a Dutch priest upon my arrival to Italy.

“And you’re moving to Rome?” he asked incredulously. “Have you been there before?”

Of course I had been to Rome before and I knew exactly what he meant. Rome is extremely chaotic, noisy, and bustling.

But I have the great privilege of living in a place known as a “retreat” of the Passionist Congregation – a beautiful site atop the Celian Hill – about which the founder of this religious community wrote in 1747:

It is one of the most solitary places in Rome, a place of great silence and recollection, almost a mountain, with good air, a garden, with water […] There are cabbages, enough fruit for summer and winter, at least partially, figs, grapes, artichokes, beans, broccoli, enough even to give to your novices. […] It is a fine location, not a better one is to be found in Rome with delightful air – a place prepared by our Great Father for his servants.

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A memory to sustain you as you suffer

In this clip, Rabbi YY Jacobson tells a powerful story about what saved a certain man when he was forced to undergo a death march as a child after his father had just been murdered.

Here’s that story:

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Filial Piety and Patriotism

Today I came across this striking passage in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France:

To avoid therefore the evils of inconstancy and versatility, ten thousand times worse than those of obstinacy and the blindest prejudice, we have consecrated the state, that no man should approach to look into its defects or corruptions but with due caution; that he should never dream of beginning its reformation by its subversion; that he should approach to the faults of the state as to the wounds of a father, with pious awe and trembling solicitude. By this wise prejudice we are taught to look with horror on those children of their country, who are prompt rashly to hack that aged parent in pieces, and put him into the kettle of magicians, in hopes that by their poisonous weeds, and wild incantations, they may regenerate the paternal constitution, and renovate their father’s life.

There is a relationship between filial piety and patriotism. The reverence we have for the traditions of our political communities is analogous to the reverence we have for our parents. Are we able to receive from our parents and from our tradition?

To what extent is our political culture reflective of “hack[ing] that aged parent”?

What difference could restoring filial piety have on renewing authentic patriotism?

“Prepare Yourself for An Ordeal”

Fr. Mark Goring, CC of the parish I attended in Ottawa likes to preach often on the first verse of the second chapter of the Book of Sirach which says, “My child, if you aspire to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for an ordeal.”

It is a startling sentence when we stop to think about it because most of the time we go through life trying to prepare ourselves for loving relationships, meaningful successes, a reasonable amount of prosperity, and an abundance of opportunities.

What, if anything, are we doing to prepare ourselves for an ordeal, for tests, for trials?

What young person, on being asked what he or she is doing or hopes to do, will respond that they are preparing themselves to suffer hardships honourably?

And yet, the verse above speaks about “preparing yourself” – not even being prepared simply by God or by circumstances – but intentionally and resolutely preparing yourself for the tests and trials of life that are sure to come.

What difference would it make if we set ourselves up not only for success but for ordeals?

And, what sort of education and training constitute such preparation?

Ever nearer to the grave

I just came upon this evocative sermon on death by John Henry Newman called “The Lapse of Time.”

Such is death considered in its inevitable necessity, and its unspeakable importance—nor can we ensure to ourselves any certain interval before its coming. The time may be long; but it may also be short. It is plain, a man may die any day; all we can say is, that it is unlikely that he will die. But of this, at least, we are certain, that, come it sooner or later, death is continually on the move towards us. We are ever nearer and nearer to it. Every morning we rise we are nearer that grave in which there is no work, nor device, than we were. We are now nearer the grave, than when we entered this Church. Thus life is ever crumbling away under us. What should we say to a man, who was placed on some precipitous ground, which was ever crumbling under his feet, and affording less and less secure footing, yet was careless about it? Or what should we say to one who suffered some precious liquor to run from its receptacle into the thoroughfare of men, without a thought to stop it? who carelessly looked on and saw the waste of it, becoming greater and greater every minute? But what treasure can equal time? It is the seed of eternity: yet we suffer ourselves to go on, year after year, hardly using it at all in God’s service, or thinking it enough to give Him at most a tithe or a seventh of it

It is rare to think with this level of attention about the brevity of life.

However, some people do.

A couple years ago, I went to meet someone at his office where I noticed a poster with many small dots on it in rows and columns.

When I asked this man about it, he explained that it is a sort of life calendar depicting how many weeks he has to live if he lives the average lifespan of someone in his demographic.

He showed me the point in the poster at which he is now and explained that having this reminder in his office of the shortness of life spurs him on to tackle his tasks with resolve, gratitude, urgency, and enthusiasm.

To me, this memento mori exemplified the conscientious of which Newman speaks.

Women at the foot of the cross

I recall reading in a biography of Cecily Saunders, the founder of the modern hospice and palliative care movement, that she had been struck by how many women were pioneering and influential in the care of the dying throughout the centuries.

This is something that I contemplate whenever I look at religious art depicting the women at the scene of the Crucifixion.

In his letter on the dignity and vocation of women, John Paul II wrote:

Indeed, the Gospels not only describe what that woman did at Bethany in the house of Simon the Leper; they also highlight the fact that women were in the forefront at the foot of the Cross, at the decisive moment in Jesus of Nazareth’s whole messianic mission. John was the only Apostle who remained faithful, but there were many faithful women. Not only the Mother of Christ and “his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene” (Jn 19:25) were present, but “there were also many women there, looking on from afar, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him” (Mt 27: 55). As we see, in this most arduous test of faith and fidelity the women proved stronger than the Apostles. In this moment of danger, those who love much succeed in overcoming their fear. Before this there were the women on the Via Dolorosa, “who bewailed and lamented him” (Lk 23:27). Earlier still, there was Pilate’s wife, who had warned her husband: “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much over him today in a dream” (Mt 27:19).

It is interesting to consider the impact that art can have on the imagination and also on forming a person’s sensitivity to his or her role to play within a society.

Headed in different directions

On this feast day of St. John the Baptist, this is a quick post to direct you over to this History.com article, “Where is the Head of Saint John the Baptist?

In it, Sarah Pruitt tells us:

According to different traditions, no fewer than four locations lay claim to the murdered saint’s head. In Damascus, Syria, the Umayyad Mosque was built in the eighth century A.D. on the site of a Christian church named for John the Baptist; his head is said to be buried in a shrine there. A skull identified as the head of John the Baptist is on display at the Church of San Silvestro in Capite in Rome, built to house artifacts from the Roman catacombs. The 13th-century cathedral in Amiens, France was built specifically to house the head of John the Baptist, which a Crusader supposedly brought back from Constantinople in 1206. And in Munich, Germany, the Residenz Museum includes John’s skull among a number of relics collected by Duke Wilhelm V of Bavaria with the Pope’s permission in the mid-16th century.

Such stories show how martyrdom can multiply a saint’s legacy and that, far from destroying a person – even if the relics disappear – their presence can extend throughout the world.

A director of learning for the elderly

Even though it was published five years ago, I still remember this news article in my local paper in which an 89-year-old man describes his life at a retirement home.

It begins with this section on small talk:

Unlike soldiers, prisoners or students, we at the lodge are here voluntarily and with no objective other than to live. We don’t have a lot in common other than age (and means). However we are encrusted with 70 or 80 years of beliefs, traditions, habits, customs, opinions and prejudices. We are not about to shed any of them, so the concept of community is rather shadowy.

The common topics of conversation are the weather and the food, and since they both change every day, most of us never lack for conversation. For those contemplating a move to a lodge such as ours, it is wise to polish up their encrustations to make them as smooth and inoffensive as possible.

Thus we engage in the never-ending table talk with the minimum of disagreement.

Now I understand that the piece is intended to be a bit humorous in a certain way, but I haven’t been able to forget the grim picture painted in those short paragraphs.

By contrast, consider the aspirational vision that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel gives us in his piece, “To Grow in Wisdom”:

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We die together

This is a short post to direct you over to the excellent, thoughtful piece by Joshua Briscoe published in the summer edition of The New Atlantis titled, “Dying, But Not Alone.”

Here are two of my favourite paragraphs:

A patient’s choice to end her life is not “defined” by her, if by that we mean that it is a choice that is just about herself. Rather, it is a declaration about what kind of life is worth living. It is thus also a statement about other people’s lives, a statement to others about when their own lives are worth living or not.

[…]

This is why choices about how we die are not just about us; they are also about how others think about us and are involved in our care. When someone says, “I would never want to live like that,” “She’s just a shell of who she once was,” or “This death is undignified,” the person is expressing our culture’s prejudices about aging and dying, and in doing so is further reinforcing them and thus shaping how others view themselves.

A lot has been written about the lonely and solitary dimensions of death but not enough attention is paid in our time to its social dimensions. Briscoe highlights this in his piece and makes the case that our cultural attitudes toward death concern and implicate us long before the hour of our death.

Be sure to take a look at his piece, here.