I can hardly believe it but today marks Day 365 of my daily blog about death and dying that I resolved to do as a project throughout all of 2021.
My first post was about my motivations for setting this new year’s resolution in order to “move in that momentum” of living with my end in mind.
I quickly learned that, by doing a daily blog about death, I would need to be more alert to reality, awake to ideas, and attentive in conversations in order to come up with the consistent content. This made my visits richer, my discussions deeper, and drew me out myself in surprising and uplifting ways.
On Christmas Day, I attended mass at 11:00 a.m. for the Feast of the Nativity and at 6:00 p.m. for the Vigil of Sunday at a small German Catholic parish in Antalya, Turkey.
The morning mass was in German and the evening mass was in English. After the English mass, I heard the ‘Hail Mary’ prayed in Turkish.
Here’s what the priest said during his homily:
Many people live in a lockdown of thinking without an open heaven but Christmas is when God opens up the lockdown of our small existence. And he’s doing it because he is the redeemer of the world. It’s a real renaissance to become a child of God – to be a witness of God coming down into the lockdown of this small world is something new. He changes everything. But he comes in povety and, as an adult, he is beside those who are lost. At Christmas we exchange gifts because it’s a birthday but it’s not our birthday, so what can we give Christ? The only present we can give to him is our love.
I found it interesting that the German priest used the term “renaissance” in connection with the Nativity. From death and darkness, life and light has come forth – Merry Christmas!
Today I had an opportunity to visit a Muslim cemetery (Üçler Mezarlığı) in Konya, Turkey.
Perusing the graves, I noticed the words “Ruhuna Fatiha.” At first I thought it was a common name like “Mehmet” but then I realized that this phrase is on almost every tombstone whether in full form or abbreviation and that it is a kind of Islamic equivalent to “Rest in Peace.”
There is a common custom not to inscribe Torah books with “From the Library of John Doe,” “This Book Belongs to . . .” or similar Hebrew equivalents. Instead, the name itself is written with no preamble. Some have the custom to preface their names with “LaHashem haaretz umeloah,” “The earth and all that fills it belong to G‑d,” or the acronym lamed, hay, vav.
The custom is attributed to Rabbi Yehuda Hachassid (“the pious”) 1150-1217, who writes in his ethical will that people should “not write in a holy book that it is theirs. Rather, they should write their name without writing it is theirs.”
Some explain that this custom is a fitting reminder that nothing truly belongs to us; it is only entrusted to us. Accordingly, one should follow this practice not just with regard to Torah books, but with all personal belongings.
What a remarkable attitude of detachment in recognition of God’s sovereignty and generosity.
Imagine extending the approach more broadly: The earth and all that fills it belong to God. This MacBook, this iPhone, this winter jacket, this meal, etc. belong to God. And I am ready to hand it over to whoever is in need of it when my stewardship of it should cease.
Today I was having a conversation with someone who has visited persons who are elderly and receiving palliative care. I asked him if any of them have expressed temptations to end their lives prematurely.
“Many,” he said.
“Why is that?” I asked.
He told me that it’s because of a sense of no longer being useful. “For so many, their sense of worth is connected to how useful they can be to their loved ones and to others in their life. When these opportunities diminish, so does their estimation of the value of their lives.”
There’s this Jewish prayer I like very much called the Hashkiveinu.
Here’s the text of it:
Lie us down to peace, Adonai our God, and raise us up to life, our king (protector), and spread over us the shelter of your peace, and direct us with good advice before You, and save us for the sake of your name, and look out for us, and keep enemies, plagues swords, famines, and troubles from our midst, and remove Satan from in front of us and from behind us, and cradle us in the shadow of your wings, for You are God who guards us and saves us, for You are God. Our gracious and merciful king (protector). Guard our departure and our arrival to life and to peace, from now and ever more.
Isn’t it remarkable to contemplate being “raised up to life” before falling asleep?
Yes, there is the hope in being raised to “this same life” the following morning. But the prayer is also evocative of being raised to everlasting life. As sleep seems to be a death but actually leads to a new day, so death seems to be an end but leads to resurrection.
Photo: First or second century Jewish tomb at Emmaus in Israel
This evening I attended a brief talk by one of the students in my residence on the particularities of the Orthodox Church. It was an interesting overview and one of the things that caught my attention (because of the photos in his slideshow) was the feature of the clergy wearing black.
Doing a bit of research online afterwards, I found this explanation offered for it:
The color black indicates spiritual poverty – it is historically the easiest and cheapest color to dye fabric with. Moreover, black is a color of mourning and death for the priest, the symbolism is dying to oneself to rise and serve the Lord as well as giving witness of the Kingdom yet to come. Black is associated with sorrow but in the case of priestly robe this color has another symbolic meaning. A black cassock is to remind a priest that he ‘dies to the world’ every day and immerses in eternity. Blackness also symbolizes giving up bright colors and thus giving up what the world brings, its glittering, honors and entertainment. Also, as an Archpriest once pointed out to me, stains are readily visible on black, reminding the priest that he is held to a higher standard. His sins and failings will be more visible and judged harsher, than those of other people. In our very secular world, the wearing of the cassock continues to be a visible sign of belief and of the consecration of one’s life to the service of the Lord and His Church.
The first time I heard this question was during a homily about a decade ago.
When the bishop raised the question, the congregation responded with some subtle laughter.
Now, there are actually ways to “arrange your digital legacy” that involve transferring ownership of your accounts to others.
But, if we are being honest with ourselves, that won’t really be that important.
Here’s what the bishop had said to provoke our reflection:
When you die, you are going to have emails in your inbox, and then what are you going to do? We live in a society obsessed with accomplishment and completion. Are your daily activities lifting your spirit and bringing you rest? Ask yourself not only what you are going to do, but who you will be once you’ve done it.
What a good meditation on mortality.
No one will answer our emails when we’re dead. Have we become comfortable with the realization?
I once heard that Cicero exhorted others to write even if they didn’t feel that they had anything to write.
This is a particularly relevant and resonant exhortation for a daily blogger and lifelong writer of journals and letters.
Today I looked for the context of this quotation and found this letter:
Quintus Cicero to Tiro
I have castigated you, at least with the silent reproach of my thoughts, because this is the second packet that has arrived without a letter from you. You cannot escape the penalty for this crime by your own advocacy: you will have to call Marcus to your aid, and don’t be too sure that even he, though he should compose a speech after long study and a great expenditure of midnight oil, would be able to establish your innocence. In plain terms, I beg you to do as I remember my mother used to do. It was her custom to put a seal on wine – jars even when empty to prevent any being labelled empty that had been surreptitiously drained. In the same way, I beg you, even if you have nothing to write about, to write all the same, lest you be thought to have sought a cover for idleness: for I always find the news in your letters trustworthy and welcome. Love me, and good-bye.
I love this idea: Write just to show your alertness to reality. Write just to prove you are really awake and alive.
It is told that there was once a grandson who claimed that his grandfather had been a hidden saint.
In attesting to his grandfather’s virtue, the grandson recounted the honourable work that his grandfather would do, the hours that he committed to prayer and study, and that he would donate ten percent to the poor.
The listeners were not particularly impressed since these are characteristics of any righteous and observant Jew.
The grandson continued saying, “My grandfather would give a tenth of his profits to [charity] and he would give a tenth of his losses as well.”
On the Seventh Night of Hanukkah, Rabbi YY Jacobson released this video telling the dramatic story of a Jew who survived the Holocaust, became a Catholic priest, and sought to receive a Jewish burial alongside his parents’ graves in Poland.
I have shared this story many times today and gotten a wide range of reactions from friends about it.
The wisest comment, in my view, came from a friend who said, “One has to be somehow ‘living in the hyphen’ to appreciate such a story.”
Instead, the story of “the complexity of a soul” (as Rabbi YY Jacobson puts it) demands a certain openness and receptivity in order to be touched by it. Such complexity may unsettle many of us but we can take comfort in knowing that none of our souls are too complex for God.
On two distinct occasions this past week, I have heard references to a Jewish text (the source of which is still a bit unclear to me) that presents a striking image juxtaposing how we enter the world and how we leave it.
Here’s the excerpt:
All those coming to this world, come in crying and depart the world crying. They come in voices and depart with voices. They arrive from secretion and decay and return to secretion and decay. They come in from darkness and return to darkness. They arrive from within towards the outside and when they depart it is also from one place towards the outside. They come from a place where no living being can see to a place that no one will ever see. They come from a place of impurity and return to a place of impurity. They come naked and depart naked. And so Job said: naked have I come from the womb of my mother and naked will I come back there. But they come with hand clenched together but depart with open hands as a newborn baby always comes to this world with his fist closed as if to say, all this world is for me to take possession, but when one dies, his hands are always open as if to say: I have nothing in this world. They arrive with kindness and compassion and depart with kindness and compassion. They arrive with no desire of their own and depart with no desire of their own. They come because of love and they depart with love.
What a beautiful meditation on the journey of life.
May all our lives be an opening of our hands and hearts in generosity until we return to God in love.
This is my 336th post about death and dying on this blog. And I am now into the final month of this yearlong project.
I am amazed and grateful that I get to contemplate dying so intentionally and comfortably before it is happening. I know that I will not always be up for this work.
Some friends of mine, while they have been hospitalized or sick, have testified to me that it is not possible for them to read and think about death under such circumstances. It seems too raw and too sad.
This makes sense.
We have investment accounts and retirement savings so that we do not need to think and worry too much about money later in life.
It seems worthwhile to store away reflection on the last things and to build an accounting of what matters ultimately when we are young and healthy so that we do not need to worry about this so much when we are sick or dying.
A dear friend of mine who has spent the past two years living in Nazareth introduced me to the story of Blessed Charles de Foucauld. Somehow I had never heard his story before or, at least, it hadn’t caught my attention.
Blessed Charles de Foucauld, born in 1858, was a French aristocrat and religious, whose work and writings led to the founding of the Congregation of the Little Brothers of Jesus. During his adventurous life, he was a Cavalry Officer in the French Army, and then an explorer and geographer before becoming a Catholic priest and hermit who lived among the Tuareg in Algeria’s Sahara Desert. He lived a life of prayer, meditation and adoration, in the incessant desire to be, for each person, a “universal brother”, a living image of the love of Jesus. On the evening of December 1, 1916, he was killed by bandits.
On the First Night of Hanukkah this year, I had the great joy of being Jerusalem and, more specifically, in the vibrant neighbourhood of Nachlaot.
I joined some friends outdoors, warm beverages in hand, and we sat outdoors enjoying the light of the hanukkiah. Throughout Jerusalem, there is a big emphasis on publicizing the miracle of Hanukkah, as has always been the aim but as has not always been the possibility on the holiday.
After some time, we began a stroll throughout the neighbourhood. Every few doors, we came upon families lighting their hanukkiot, saying the blessings, singing songs and playing instruments, serving soup and latkes to their neighbours, and enjoying being in the Jewish homeland.
Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, has recognized 27,921 Righteous Among the Nations. That’s the number of non-Jews who risked their lives to help and save Jews during the Holocaust that Yad Vashem has been able to ascertain with evidence.
These are remarkable stories of personal risk, self-sacrifice, living in truth, fidelity to conscience, charity toward neighbour, and the unshakable determination to live honourably in the sight of God.
Consider that number: 27,921. If you learned the story of one Righteous Among the Nations each day, it would take you 76 years.
The other day, my professor shared this striking and evocative quotation by Maurice Blanchot, who was good friends with Levinas. (Levinas described him as “a man without opportunism, that’s the moral touch with him.)
Here’s the quotation:
What does it mean to be Jewish? Why does it exist? It exists so that the idea of the road as a just movement exists; it exists so that in and through the road the experience of strangeness asserts itself to us in an irreducible relationship; it exists so that, through the authority of this experience, we learn to speak. To be a “man of the road” is at all times to be ready to set out on the road, a demand for uprooting, an affirmation of nomadic truth. Thus the Jewish being is opposed to the pagan being. To be a pagan is to be fixed, to be rooted to the ground in a way, to establish oneself by a pact with the permanence which authorises the stay and which is certified by the certainty of the ground. The journey, nomadism, responds to a relationship that possession does not satisfy. To set out on the road, to be on the road, is already the meaning of the words heard by Abraham: “Go away from your native place, from your kinship, from your home”.
Pope Francis has a lot of countercultural recommendations and one upon which I came the other day is to remember the times that we have suffered most.
Usually, we want to forget the times we’ve suffered. Maybe we consoled ourselves in the midst of some trial saying, “This too shall pass.” And, once it has passed, we’re happy to move on from it.
But Pope Francis says, “I believe that in this time of the pandemic it is good for us to remember even of the times we have suffered the most: not to make us sad, but so as not to forget, and to guide us in our choices in the light of a very recent past.”
In Judaism, there is the idea: “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”
This is very good. And yet, it is but half the equation. As much as each person is a whole world, there is also a sense in which the world really can and does go on without us. But far from diminishing us, this perspective can give us tremendous peace.
On the Feast of Christ the King, I was at Emmaus with the Community of the Beatitudes for mass. During his homily, the priest traced history of nationalism and totalitarianism throughout the twentieth century. Then, he said, “Today the conflict is more with my individual kingdom, my personal sovereignty. Today we don’t have much sense of the common good because we think it’s against our personal good.”
“So teach the number of our days, so that we shall acquire a heart of wisdom.” – Psalm 90:9
The other day I came across quite the footnote in a collection of Hasidic Tales.
The Baal Shem Tov taught that a person is born with a fixed number of words to speak; when they are spoken, the person dies. Imagine that this is true for you. Every word you speak brings you closer to your death. The next time you are about to utter a word, ask yourself whether the word is worth dying for.
What a warning against idle speech! And what a reminder of the power and dignity of our words!
Each word I write on this daily blog about death, too, brings me nearer to my own death.
There is something solemn about this, but also something profoundly invigorating.
The other day, a friend of mine shared something gripping on which he has been reflecting lately. He said, “You don’t want to hear your deepest convictions from someone else for the first time; say it yourself.”
I was really taken by this idea — that it’s a shame to hear your own deepest convictions and insights spoken aloud by someone else before you have had the courage and boldness to speak them yourself.
My friend told me that he found this idea in an 1841 essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson. The next day, I read the essay and here’s the crucial section to which he alluded:
Do you ever think about what you might like others to say about you after you die?
I do not mean to ask whether you are concerned with being praised posthumously. The point is: Does what you want to have been true about you inspire you practically in your character and conduct now?
November 17th is the feast day of St. Elizabeth of Hungary. There is a wonderful piece by St. Edith Stein about her titled, “On God’s Mercy: The Spirit of St. Elizabeth As It Informed Her Life.”
In it, there are several sentences that speak to St. Elizabeth’s character in such a way that is eminently attractive and yet, upon any serious consideration, is grasped as being deeply countercultural.
“Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: Bishvili nivra ha-olam “The world was created for me.” (BT Sanhedrin 37B) But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: V’anochi afar v’efer “I am but dust and ashes.” (Gen. 18:27)
“To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
There is a reason why Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote The Little Prince for grown ups who are apt to forget the things that they knew so intuitively when they were children.
The excerpt above, for example, strikes us as beautiful and true. We grasp the total uniqueness and utter unrepeatability of those we love.
To be a young person and, especially, to be a student is to be continually asked by others about what you hope and plan to do in the future.
Many years ago, I read this excerpt in Henri Nouwen’s book Aging: the Fulfillment of Life that has remained with me:
Not too long ago a thirty-two-year-old, good-looking, intelligent man, full of desire to live a creative life, was asked: “Jim, what are your plans for the future?” And when he answered: “I want to work with he elderly and I am reading and studying to make myself ready for the task,” they looked at him with amazement and puzzlement. Someone said, “But Jim, don’t you have anything else to do?” Another suggested, “Why don’t you work with the young? You’ll really be great with them.” Another excused him more or less, saying: “Well, I guess you have a problem which prevents you from pursuing your own career.” Reflecting on these responses, Jim said: “Some people make me feel like I have become interested in a lost cause, but I wonder if my interest and concern do not touch off in others a fear they are not ready to confront, the fear of becoming an old stranger themselves.”