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!
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.
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.
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.
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,’
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.”
“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.