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.

If you’re free to prepare for dying before it’s happening…

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.



Soldiers and Death as Sacrifice

Before anyone close to me had died, my early reflection on death took place most routinely sitting on gymnasium floors during Remembrance Day assemblies on November 11th each year.

I even remembering colouring pages with poppies on them in Grade 1.

These early experiences stirred my imagination in gradual and subtle ways.

As I got older, the school assemblies became more intense. Parents of soldiers who had graduated from my high school came and spoke to us about the wars in which they had died.

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Holding Life and Death Together

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.

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Prophetic Cutlery

Growing up, my mom used to tell me stories of people who asked to be buried with a dessert fork to testify to their conviction that the best was yet to come because eternal life will be sweeter.

The other day, dining in my student residence, a Brazilian student delightedly noticed a dessert spoon set above his plate and exclaimed, “Ah, a prophet!”

Now, I had never before heard someone refer to their cutlery as prophetic, but it made quite a lot of sense.

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Hope is death’s counterweight

This evening I was reading some of the poetry of Karol Wojtyła and came across a poem called “Hope Reaching Beyond the Limit.”

Take a look at these excerpted lines:

Hope rises in time
from all places subject to death—
hope is its counterweight.
The dying world unveils its life again
in hope.

[…]

But death is the experience of the limit,
it has something of annihilation,
I use hope to detach my own self,
I must tear myself away
to stand above annihilation.
And then from all sides they call and will call out:
“You are mad, Paul, you are mad.” [Acts 26:24]
I wrestle with myself,
with so many others I wrestle for my hope.

We need to exercise our disposition to hope.

Looking forward to the future.
Seeing the possibility of new generations.
Delighting in the glorious unpredictability of human affairs.

Otherwise, the limits of this life can “annihilate” our spirit.

What do you do to stand beyond the limits?

What do you do to wrestle for your hope?

Death is Contagious

Today I was reading through Henri Nouwen’s correspondence and came across some interesting reflections of his in a letter he wrote to a friend whose father had just passed away.

In a 1987 letter addressed to Jurjen Beumer, Henri Nouwen wrote:

Many thanks for your very kind letter. I am very moved by what you write about the death of your father. I am so happy that you had a good and cordial farewell. I realize how important that is for you, especially since you told me a little about the tensions in your relationship with your father. Somehow I am convinced that this is a very important moment in your life, a moment in which you are facing your own mortality in a new way and where your father will become become a new companion in your own journey. I am deeply convinced that the death of those whom we love always is a death for us, that is to say, a death that calls us to deepen our own basic commitments and to develop a new freedom to proclaim what we most believe in.

Have you ever considered whether the death of a loved one has been a mini-death for you in the way Nouwen describes?

Is it true that the death of a loved one “calls us to deepen our own basic commitments and to develop a new freedom to proclaim what we most believe in”?

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Is your work to die for?

Today is the feast of St. Joseph the Worker and this post examines Pope Francis’ beautiful Apostolic Letter “With A Father’s Heart” to explore the practical ways in which we can see work as a context for self-gift through which we fulfill the meaning of our lives.

I have organized the themes of the letter into the following eight categories. Each category begins with a excerpt from the letter and then includes a question or two for our contemplation of some possible practical applications.

1. Names and Relationships:

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I Want What You Have Lived And Suffered

Among my hobbies these days is attending a bioethics book club every two weeks on O. Carter Snead’s new book What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics. The book is about how the dominant view in our time of persons as expressive individualists contradicts the lived experience of our embodied reality. Snead analyzes why we go astray in our public bioethics when we do not account for the realities of vulnerability and mutual dependence in and throughout our lives.

Most recently the study group finished reading the chapter on Death and Dying. In it, Snead notes: “By far the most common rationales cited for seeking assisted suicide were concerns about ‘losing autonomy’ (92 percent) and being ‘less able to engage in activities making life enjoyable’ (91 percent).”

Since there are many reasons why we can lose autonomy and the ability to engage in activities that make life enjoyable, it is worth scrutinizing these ideas of “freedom” – the loss of which risks rendering life seemingly not worth living.

I am reminded of Russian filmmaker Andrey Tarkovsky’s reflections. In Sculpting in Time, he says: “And the longer I lived in the West the more curious and equivocal freedom seems to me. Freedom to take drugs? To kill? To commit suicide?”

He goes on:

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Commemoration for All Ages

Today marks the 81st anniversary of the Katyn Forest Massacre and is the designated day of remembrance for the victims.

I don’t remember really learning about this event until I moved to Poland.

But once I was in Poland, I saw lots of monuments and memorials commemorating the more than 20,000 Poles who were murdered by Soviets in 1940. Since many of the mass graves were discovered in the Katyn Forest, this became the name by which the massacre came to be known.

One of the prominent Katyn memorials I saw was this one at the Lipowa Cemetery in Lublin, Poland.

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