Grasping and Releasing Life

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.

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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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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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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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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The Courage of Kolbe

Today is the Feast Day of St. Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish priest who willingly offered to take the place of a prisoner destined for death in Auschwitz.

For many years this story has permeated my moral and spiritual imagination, and it has always been a great honour to get to share this remarkable story for the first time.

When you visit Auschwitz, it is possible to see the starvation cell in which Maximilian was held and to contemplate this story of sacrifice.

Maximilian’s selfless act was not a moral fluke. It was, to use an expression a friend offered recently, very much “in character.”

Earlier this year I heard another anecdote about Kolbe that I hadn’t heard before. I don’t have the source for it with me now, but from memory I will endeavour to retell it.

It is told that there was a prisoner in Auschwitz who was made to retrieve a corpse from a pile of bodies and move it to another place, probably to be burned. This prisoner, a Catholic man, was so repulsed by the pile of corpses that he could hardly bring himself to do it. Of course, not complying would have its own consequences for him. Fr. Maximilian saw this man’s distress and, looking between this man and then to the pile of bodies, whispered, “And the Word was made flesh.”

At this, a slight brightness returned to the prisoner’s eyes and he was consoled by this word (and the Word) to the extent that he was able to pick up the dead body and carry it reverently.

I am so taken by this story that shows that the Incarnation is a breakthrough. The compassion that God has for man is shown in His willingness to come alongside us and lift us up from the world of sin and darkness.

Will we have the courage, whenever and wherever we see a desecration of persons, to give encouragement and consolation with the poignant reminder that God is truly with us?

“The Opposite of Everything Bad I Ever Did”

In Charles Camosy’s Losing Our Dignity, he mentions a documentary about prisoners providing hospice care for their fellow innates.

Intrigued, I searched for the trailer for this film titled Serving Life.

Take a look:

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Where is Your Devotion to the Mystery of the Person?

Recently, I sat down with my friend Anna to listen to some of her stories.

It might surprise you that this young woman told me, “The happiest time of my life was working 16-hour days in a retirement home during COVID.”

“My body ached and my heart rejoiced,” Anna testified.

She spoke with such empathy about the elderly residents.

“Imagine! A person who has lived a hundred years might be reduced to ‘June at Table 20.’ The residents might have lived a long, fruitful life only to be reduced to their dietary preferences in their final months and years.”

Because Anna regards these seniors’ long lives with reverence, she does not like to see nor participate in taking such a reductive view of the human person.

Instead, she relishes doing her utmost to serve the residents and considers every conversation as an opportunity for a meaningful interaction.

“My favourite residents are the ones who would get agitated easily,” Anna told me. “And it became a challenge: ‘How can I make them happy?'”

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