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)
Four years ago, on November 13, 2017, the mother of one of my closest friends passed away.
This morning, the first thing that my friend Ashley Muse wanted to do was to share – with me and with you – how she planned to live this fourth anniversary of her mother’s death.
Here is our interview:
How did you decide to get a puppy on the anniversary of your mother’s passing, and what makes this meaningful for you?
Ashley Muse: I think, as for most people, my mother’s passions formed such a critical part of who I am and of my identity today. And so, even the reason why I chose to get a Dachshund specifically is because she loved Dachshunds. She had one before I was born and then another after, so that we always had Dachshunds growing up and she always loved them. It was also important for me to choose a name that would honour her, that would be a kind of a nod to her. And so, I picked the name Sanibel, which is an island off the coast of Florida to which we used to vacation as a family every summer. My best childhood memories are from there, from the times we would go to visit aunts and uncles there on the Fourth of July. My sister helped me come up with the name, and the reason that I am picking up Sanibel today is because I wanted to attach a good memory to this date.
“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.”
On November 9th, I noticed that it was the anniversary of two dramatically different events.
The first is the feast day of the rededication of the St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome. This is the closest papal basilica to where I now live. The church was established in 324 and the feast is to celebrate its rededication in 1724. The basilica is the seat of the bishop of Rome and is called the “mother of all churches.”
The second event is known as Kristallnacht when, in 1938, Nazis destroyed thousands of Jewish businesses and property and desecrated synagogues throughout Germany and Austria.
In a 1994 speech at a conference on “Spirituality and Healing”, Wendell Berry spoke about the importance of good food to a person’s healing, saying:
You would think also that a place dedicated to healing and health would make much of food. But here is where the disconnections of the industrial system and the displacement of industrial humanity are most radical. Sir Albert Howard saw accurately that the issue of human health is inseparable from the health of the soil, and he saw too that we humans much responsibly occupy our place in the cycle of birth, growth, maturity, death, and decay, which is the health of the world. Aside from our own mortal involvement, food is our fundamental connection to that cycle. But probably most of the complaints you hear about hospitals have to do with the food, which, according to the testimony I have heard, tends to range from unappetizing to sickening. Food is treated as another unpleasant substance to inject. And this is a shame. For in addition to the obvious nutritional link between food and health, food can be a pleasure. People who are sick are often troubled or depressed, and mealtimes offer three opportunities a day when patients could easily be offered something to look forward to. Nothing is more pleasing or heartening than a plate of nourishing, tasty, beautiful food artfully and lovingly prepared.
Anything less is unhealthy, as well as a desecration. Why should rest and food and ecological health not be the basic principles of our art and science of healing? Is it because the basic principles already are technology and drugs? Are we confronting some fundamental incompatibility between mechanical effciency and organic health? I don’t know. I only know that sleeping in a hospital is like sleeping in a factory and that the medical industry makes only the most tenuous connection between health and food and no connection between health and the soil. Industrial medicine is as little interested in ecological health as is industrial agriculture.
I recently came across this intriguing excerpt from David Velleman’s paper, “Against the Right to Die.”
Once a person is given the choice between life and death, he will rightly be perceived as the agent of his own survival. Whereas his existence is ordinarily viewed as a given for him – as a fixed condition with which he must cope – formally offering him the option of euthanasia will cause his existence thereafter to be viewed as his doing.
The problem with this perception is that if others regard you as choosing a state of affairs, they will hold you responsible for it; and if they hold you responsible for a state of affairs, they can ask you to justify it. Hence if people ever come to regard you as existing by choice, they may expect you to justify your continued existence. If your daily arrival in the office is interpreted as meaning that you have once again declined to kill yourself, you may feel obliged to arrive with an answer to the question ‘Why not?’.
Usually, on the anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, I like to re-read what ended up being his final speech.
Permit me to say that I am deeply moved. I wish to thank each and every one of you, who have come here today to take a stand against violence and for peace. This government, which I am privileged to head, together with my friend Shimon Peres, decided to give peace a chance–a peace that will solve most of Israel’s problems.
I was a military man for 27 years. I fought so long as there was no chance for peace. I believe that there is now a chance for peace, a great chance. We must take advantage of it for the sake of those standing here, and for those who are not here–and they are many.
The monument at the entrance to the former Nazi concentration camp Majdanek was designed to be reminiscent of Dante’s Gates of Hell.
Into that secret place he led me on. Here sighs, with lamentations and loud moans, Resounded through the air pierced by no star, That e’en I wept at entering. – Dante
When I first visited this former camp in 2010, I never expected that I would ever return there. At the time, I did not even know where we were on the map. It seemed that we had been brought to the brink of an abyss, and that even our own existence became more tenuous as we stood there.
I will always remember pressing my hand against that massive, imposing monument and praying: “Lord, etch this experience on my memory and engrave this upon my conscience because I don’t want to ever forget the testimony of the survivors that I’ve heard in this place.”
Once, when I was a student in Poland, I was living in a dormitory taken care of by Ursuline sisters.
It was a Wednesday morning on November 2nd when I came downstairs to do my laundry.
The kind ginger sister, a young Catholic from Russia, Sister Maria, took pity on me but the elderly Sister Elisabeth at her side at reception was clearly dismayed at the need to make an exception. I approached the reception window at the entrance lobby of my dormitory with a plastic bag, full of dirty laundry, my bottle of detergent, my ID card to exchange for the laundry room key and five złoty in change to receive a special coin to activate the washing machine.
They both looked at me with a look that said, “Shouldn’t you know better?” But, in truth, I didn’t know better.
“Today is a holiday,” Sister Maria stated, alluding to All Souls’ Day.
Some reflections from the Poland years (2015-2017):
“There was a cross in every direction. And there weren’t just four directions, like now.” – Wiesław Myśliwski, Stone Upon Stone
In the lead up to All Saints’ Day, there were dozens of people selling candles and flowers at each of the entrances leading into the Lipowa cemetery. It was easy to notice this happening, because this cemetery is right next to the main mall in the city. This reminded me of how Plutarch had praised the Spartan Lycurgus for doing away with superstitions by allowing citizens to bury their dead within the city which, he said, had the effect of making the youth familiar with such sights so that they were neither confounded by death nor fearful of it.
In these days, I observed all of the flowers and candles being placed on the graves in anticipation of the feast days – seeing sisters in their habits scrubbing the graves of the members of their communities who had gone before them, and men raking the leaves between the tombs, and students and graduates decorating with flowers and candles and rosaries the graves of the university’s founder and first rector, Rev. Idzi Radziszewski as well as that of Mieczysław Albert Maria Krąpiec OP, the founder of the Lublin Philosophical School – who struck me as among the cemeterary’s leading protagonists.
On All Saints’ Day, my friends and I went again to this cemetery. As we walked, we passed many others who were visiting, walking slowly and reverently. Has anyone ever run through a cemetery, anyway? The setting seems to slow you down, as if to teach that rushing through life will only bring you more quickly to your grave.
I saw a young man holding his grandmother’s arm to assist her. I saw a father carrying his young daughter on his shoulders. I saw an elderly couple sitting across from one another on benches before the graves – the husband taking a photo of his wife on a smartphone. I saw a boy in a wheelchair, staring at a grave with his family surrounding him. And I saw small children playing and smiling, hoping to get a candle or bouquet to place upon a grave or to contribute as part of a larger memorial. This is the most life I have ever witnessed in a cemetery, I marvelled to myself. It is also the most human cemetery I have seen. I glanced at the Latin inscription – Non omnis moriar – not all of me will die, or, I shall not wholly die. And I also thought to myself – not all is death. Among the dead, the living walk, play, talk, laugh, and visit.
Once, when I was 7-years-old and my brother Evan was 4, my mom brought us to the cemetery on Halloween.
We had been driving by anyway, and so she considered it a good occasion to introduce us to the upcoming feasts of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days even as our attention was fixated on costume-wearing and trick-or-treating later that evening.
My mom began, “This is the place where people are buried.”
“What?” my little brother asked incredulously. “You bury the person in the ground?”
My mom clarified, “The body is buried in the cemetery because you don’t need your body when you die because your soul goes to heaven to be with God. The body is like a costume.”
This is a throwback post to my Reflections on Rwanda Genocide Study Trip in May 2012
In May 2012, I travelled on the Reflections on Rwanda program, a two-week trip for Canadian students to visit the Republic of Rwanda and study the genocide that occurred there in 1994. The purpose for studying genocide is to gain insight into human nature through studying the extremes in human action. Listening to the stories of rescuers and survivors prompts me to study the virtues required to affirm the sanctity of human persons.
Confronting profound evil is a difficult experience that challenges my faith. We toured dozens of memorial sites throughout the country. Many of these sites were former churches where people had fled seeking refuge and peace. At each site, we saw hundreds of skulls and bones of victims. Looking at those skulls and bones, I thought about my own skull and my own bones. I thought about how these bones and skulls fall short of truly representing the victims. What the skulls and bones do emphasize is equality, but what they deemphasize is individuality. When I observed a display with rosaries and identity cards among the skulls, it made me think about the dynamism of the life that once animated those bodies that were so violently destroyed.
Today a friend of mine sent me a text with Ed Sheeran’s new-ish song “Visiting Hours” because, as she noted in her caption accompanying the video, it’s “On Mortality.”
I’ve listened to the song several times today, including watching the video of its premiere on the occasion of the state memorial for Michael Gudinski in whose memory Sheeran wrote the song in tribute.
In addition to being incredibly talented, there are other reasons why this song at this time is topping charts and resonating worldwide with the global population that has endured the pandemic – paradoxically, collectively and in isolation.
The first line begins, “I wish that Heaven had visiting hours…”
If there was any doubt that people could connect with such a paradisiacal lyric before the pandemic, the doubt has been resolved. The past two years, we have realized that we wish for our world to have visiting hours, too.
While we’re alive, we have a lot of workshops, education, and professional development on how to do things more strategically.
But, when is the last time you considered a strategy for how to die better?
The other day, I came across this great podcast episode by Dr. Yosefa (Fogel) Wruble onprecisely this.
In it, she reflects on how Moses is an exemplar of dying well.
Here are three intriguing reasons she gives, which continue to be instructive and resonant today:
1) Appoint your successor
“One of the biggest gifts that a leader can give to his or her followers, to his or her community, is the clear – very clear – appointment of a successor. We know so many Hasidic sects and groups and different political parties and there’s so much history surrounding the lack of appointment of a successor and whenever I read the number of passages in which Joshua is appointed, it always makes my heart so happy because it’s one of the most basic lessons of leadership: When you’re a leader, learn how to delegate and when you’re done leading, when your time has come to a close, make sure that you find someone who can take your place and who can bring the institution or this group of people into their next era.”
Three years ago, on October 27, 2018, a white supremacist committed the deadliest attack on Jews in the United States, killing eleven worshippers at a Shabbat morning service in Pittsburgh.
That weekend, I was attending a Shabbaton [program of Jewish learning over the Sabbath] in Thornhill. Since I was staying with an Orthodox family, I did not use my phone during Shabbat. And so, like many in the Jewish community, I found out about the shooting once Shabbat ended.
My heart sank. I read a few articles before heading upstairs and I wasn’t going to mention the news to my hosts until they had seen it for themselves.
That weekend, I had experienced what it is to be guarded by the oasis of time that Shabbat had been for all of us. I recalled Heschel’s words: “The Sabbath is no time for personal anxiety or care, for any activity that might dampen the spirit of joy. The Sabbath is no time to remember sins, to confess, to repent or even to pray for relief or anything we might need. It is a day for praise, not for petitions.” How could we have avoided anxiety and petitions on that day had we not been observing Shabbat?
The other day, I learned about this interesting section in the Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Gifts to the Poor 7:3) concerning charity which says:
One is commanded to give to a poor person according to what he lacks. If he has no clothes, they clothe him. If he has no utensils for a house, they buy [them] for him. If he does not have a wife, they arrange a marriage for him. If [the poor person] is a woman, they arrange a husband for marriage for her. Even if it was the custom of [a person who was rich but is now] a poor person to ride on a horse with a servant running in front of him, and this is a person who fell from his station, they buy him a horse to ride upon and a servant to run in front of him, as it is said, (Deut. 15:8) Sufficient for whatever he needs. You are commanded to fill whatever he lacks, but you are not commanded to make him wealthy.
My professor, in remarking upon this passage, noted the two-fold dimensions to charity being discussed here.
First, there is the idea that giving charity involves restoring the person in need to their proper dignity.
Secondly, and perhaps more beautifully, there is the implicit virtue that this demands of showing real attentiveness to the person.
In order to perceive that a person is lacking in some respect, it is necessary to be familiar with their ordinary standard of living.
I am obsessed with the stories of noble lives and acts of heroism.
In particular, I have been very focused on stories of heroism during the Second World War, particularly in the context of the Holocaust.
I cannot imagine my sustained engagement with the history of the Holocaust if not for the stories of the Righteous Among the Nations, who risked their lives to save Jews, as well as many other stories of courage and martyrdom.
These lights illuminate the darkness, clarify it and, to some modest extent possible, dispel it.
What I have begun thinking about more recently is how many stories of heroism are unknown to us and can never be known.
The stories that we have are a sliver of the humanity that persisted in the most dehumanizing of contexts.
Yet, there are surely many more stories that were snuffed out before they could edify successive generations.
The stories that we do know can help us exercise our imagination about what might have constituted noble and courageous responses in dire circumstances.
Can we let ourselves also be fortified by the confidence that there were also many anonymous heroes?
The facts of their righteousness may be known only to God, but the confidence that they existed can be known to us in hope.