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.”
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.
I recall reading in a biography of Cecily Saunders, the founder of the modern hospice and palliative care movement, that she had been struck by how many women were pioneering and influential in the care of the dying throughout the centuries.
This is something that I contemplate whenever I look at religious art depicting the women at the scene of the Crucifixion.
In his letter on the dignity and vocation of women, John Paul II wrote:
Indeed, the Gospels not only describe what that woman did at Bethany in the house of Simon the Leper; they also highlight the fact that women were in the forefront at the foot of the Cross, at the decisive moment in Jesus of Nazareth’s whole messianic mission. John was the only Apostle who remained faithful, but there were many faithful women. Not only the Mother of Christ and “his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene” (Jn 19:25) were present, but “there were also many women there, looking on from afar, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him” (Mt 27: 55). As we see, in this most arduous test of faith and fidelity the women proved stronger than the Apostles. In this moment of danger, those who love much succeed in overcoming their fear. Before this there were the women on the Via Dolorosa, “who bewailed and lamented him” (Lk 23:27). Earlier still, there was Pilate’s wife, who had warned her husband: “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much over him today in a dream” (Mt 27:19).
It is interesting to consider the impact that art can have on the imagination and also on forming a person’s sensitivity to his or her role to play within a society.
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”:
This is a short post to direct you over to the excellent, thoughtful piece by Joshua Briscoe published in the summer edition of The New Atlantis titled, “Dying, But Not Alone.”
Here are two of my favourite paragraphs:
A patient’s choice to end her life is not “defined” by her, if by that we mean that it is a choice that is just about herself. Rather, it is a declaration about what kind of life is worth living. It is thus also a statement about other people’s lives, a statement to others about when their own lives are worth living or not.
This is why choices about how we die are not just about us; they are also about how others think about us and are involved in our care. When someone says, “I would never want to live like that,” “She’s just a shell of who she once was,” or “This death is undignified,” the person is expressing our culture’s prejudices about aging and dying, and in doing so is further reinforcing them and thus shaping how others view themselves.
A lot has been written about the lonely and solitary dimensions of death but not enough attention is paid in our time to its social dimensions. Briscoe highlights this in his piece and makes the case that our cultural attitudes toward death concern and implicate us long before the hour of our death.
A few years ago, I conducted this interview with Juliana Taimoorazy, founder of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council. Since it was not previously published, but contains many worthwhile remarks about why cultural preservation is an important aspect to human dignity, I now post it here.
Amanda: You were once interviewed on CBN about the Iraqi elections and Iraqi Christians. In that clip you said, “In addition to building communities in terms of brick and mortar, their homes, their streets, and churches… there must be real attention paid to building the human person.” What does it mean to build up the human person, in general and in Iraq specifically?
After nearly 200 days of blogging about death every day, where is this leading?
I find myself becoming fascinated and absorbed by the topic of the resurrection of the dead.
As a friend remarked to me the other day, this is one of the most fundamental beliefs underlying our civilization and yet, it is a teaching about which most people are, if they are being honest about it, rather incredulous or indifferent.
My very preliminary hypothesis is that belief in resurrection is subliminally decisive to how we live and that it has wide-ranging implications in ethics, technology, and culture.
To play with these ideas, we can ask: What difference does it make whether or not we believe in a resurrection of the dead? What are the practical consequences in our lives of its possibility or impossibility?
Another question: If people believed in the resurrection of the body, what would it change in our public bioethics?
I do not yet have many answers to propose. However, my first intuition is that the precariousness of our embodiedness needs redemption.
Whether this redemption is possible and whether we stake (or mistake) our hope about it in the correct place is, I think, a more interesting and practical question than many realize.
In this chapter, Peterson discusses how choosing to take responsibility is fundamental to being useful and leading a meaningful life. As usual, he weaves a range of sources together from the Hebrew Bible, to Egyptian myths, to Pinocchio and Peter Pan.
The section of this chapter that especially interested me is about conscience. Since conscience is a word that does not have a great deal of resonance in our contemporary culture, Peterson patiently expounds upon what conscience is and how it works.