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,’
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.
In the chapter titled, “With the Martyrs’ Families”, Mosebach recounts travelling to visit the homes of the families of the Coptic Christians who were martyred by Islamists on the coast of Libya in 2015.
These poor Egyptian Christian martyrs did not have Twitter accounts. In fact, Mosebach gives us a sense of their lifestyle by indicating that these men didn’t sleep on sheets, didn’t have bathtubs, and were likely acquainted with fleas and lice.
Three years ago today, Arnaud Beltrame offered his life in the place of a female hostage.
I think his story of sacrifice is worth remembering not only because it was formerly news but because it is now an honourable legacy from which we can stand to gain understanding something about the purpose of life.
Beltrame’s act of heroism was not out of character for him since he had first prepared the ground by surrendering to the call of natural virtues through his commendable military service. He superiors had acknowledged his “resolutely offensive spirit when faced with adversity” and his preparedness to “fight to the end and never give up.” In Beltrame’s life we can see how human virtues, such as the loyalty and selflessness he cultivated through his military training and service, prefigured his act of supernatural virtue in laying down his life for a stranger.
Beltrame’s act was not mere chivalry or a random act of kindness; it was something more powerful than that. As Hildebrand reminds, “We can never bring about of our own volition this state of being possessed by and lost in what is greater than ourselves.” Beltrame clearly believed in something even greater than his own life.
“Whenever anything thus causes us to soar above the habitual plane of our life,” says Hildebrand, “Whenever we are possessed by something that overwhelms us… by its objective superiority, we also become delightfully aware that it is precisely this renunciation of our sovereignty which makes us really free.”
This is the freedom of a martyr who – even in losing his or her own life – still bears witness to that profounder and nobler reality than life itself – the love that triumphs over death.
Like the death of Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish priest who seventy-seven years ago offered to take the place of a husband and father in Auschwitz, may Beltrame’s self-surrender bear much fruit in witnessing to the fact that we love best when we lay down our lives for God and others.
We need Beltrame’s legacy.
We need his example to fill us with admiration at the nobility of self-surrender for the sake of others.
His willingness to take the place of a stranger, even though it meant death for himself, confirms to us that death is not the greatest evil. What the terrorist did to Beltrame was far worse than the death Beltrame suffered, particularly for the terrorist’s own soul. But for Beltrame, while the loss is certainly tragic for his loved ones, the nobility of his self-surrender remains a resplendent example so that we are free to contemplate what it is that gives a person the freedom to literally lay down their life for another.
In the highly interactive and exceptionally curated Museum of World Religions in Taipei, there is a permanent exhibit called Awakenings. As described by the museum, “This specially commissioned film includes interviews with world-renowned religious leaders, well-known laity, and other visitors. They bear witness to personal experiences that led to important changes in their lives. The aim of the film is to generate a resonance in visitors, irrespective of their time of life, and encourage them to actively seek changes at all opportunities.”
In the clip below, which I took during my visit, Cardinal Francis Arinze reflects on the formative persons in his life, mainly priests and teachers. One thing that struck me about this brief interview is how much affection he has for his teachers and how, even about teachers who have died he says, “the link remained because they made a change in my life, these people.
When persons instill something of there character, when they teach in such a way that, as Cardinal Arinze says, “you [cannot] be indifferent to [them]”, then these people do not disappear when they die, but rather remain in their students in whom they have made such an impression.
“The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?” Brooks says.
Recently, a friend of mine remarked on how, perhaps, this distinction is being blurred. More and more obituaries and eulogies are sounding like résumés.
She told me that she had read the obituary of a well-loved man named Dr. Paul Vincent Coldrey Adams who died in 2019 at age 99. While aspects of his obituary certainly testify to his character, much of the obituary reads more like a résumé insofar as it chronicles his education, profession, community service, committee participation, volunteer commitments, and hobbies. In this case, his faith and family also feature prominently.
But what is particularly interesting with this obituary is a comment left beneath it by Dr. Adams’ son, Michael.