Mysterious Reminders

My mother sent me the snap accompanying this post of a page from a booklet she received when she went to hear the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.

I was curious to look up these various symbolic interpretations of the significance of the shofar. This list was devised by a rabbi from the late ninth-to-early tenth century.

I had heard Rabbi Jonathan Sacks recall how Maimonides considered the shofar as “God’s Alarm Clock“, but I had never before heard about the connection between the sounding of the shofar as a reminder of the resurrection of the dead.

Eliyahu Kitov’s article says, “The sounding of the shofar serves to remind us of the resurrection of the dead, as the verse [Isaiah 18:3] states: All those inhabitants of the world and those who dwell in the earth, when a sign is lifted upon the mountains you shall see and when the shofar is sounded you shall hear.”

I went and tried to read that chapter of Isaiah in context and I could not really figure out what it had to do with the resurrection of the dead.

I also tried to find other Jewish sources speaking to the importance of being reminded about resurrection on Rosh Hashanah and I didn’t really find anything.

The shofar can only be the spiritual wake-up call it’s meant to be if it’s understood what exactly we are being awoken to and for.

What difference would it make if we were reminded, even annually, to think about resurrection?

“I know that he will rise again…”

On the Feast Day of St. Martha, I am thinking about what I consider to be one of the most intriguing sentences in the New Testament – “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” (John 11:24)

This statement demonstrates the forcefulness and solidity of Jewish belief in an eventual resurrection of the dead.

Another pertinent section is 1 Corinthians 15 in which St. Paul discusses the importance of Christ having been raised from the dead saying, “If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.” (1. Cor. 15:14)

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A Graduation Speech About Deathbed Reflections

This is a really short post to direct you to this excellent commencement address delivered by Ryan T. Anderson.

He titled it, “‘He Knows What He Is About’: Living a Life That Matters”, which is derived from one of the most splendid quotations of John Henry Newman that Dr. Anderson quotes at the outset and on which my friends and I have been reflecting a lot in recent days.

Particularly of relevance to the theme of this blog, I was struck by how Dr. Anderson exhorted the high schoolers on multiple occasions throughout the address to contemplate the thoughts they might have on their deathbeds as a key to discerning how to live a life that matters.

Below are three short excerpts:

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Caregiving as a school in humanity

This evening I read a short book written by my friend and colleague’s grandmother.

In the brief memoir, Walk with Me: growing rich through relationships, author Judy Rae reflects on the experience of caring for her husband Joe while he developed Alzheimer’s.

Presented with honesty and infused with a faith, Rae offers a window into how caregiving can be a school in humanity.

Judy recounts the pain and sorrow of watching her husband lose his memory and she does not skirt the undeniably tragic dimensions of this disease.

“I have been told that when a person is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, he is introduced to a world of loneliness, rejection, terror, confusion, misinformation, and termination. Can this tragedy bring with it any victory into our lives?” she asks.

Rae speaks about how Joe became embarrassed and humiliated by what he could no longer do or remember. Despite the continual accompaniment, affection, and affirmation of his wife, Joe’s feelings of uselessness regularly caused him to get frustrated with himself and even to cry.

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Could there be a more beautiful farewell?

Today a friend and colleague of mine shared this incredibly moving video in which a priest who has received a terminal diagnosis bids farewell to the priests, seminarians, and women religious surrounding him with prayer and affection.

With birds chirping, the sunlight shimmering, and a gentle breeze blowing, it seems like Heaven was smiling upon this tender and profound occasion.

Father Michael Kottar speaks briefly saying, “In case I die…” What he chooses to say next reveals the clarity of a person of faith approaching death with a sense of what matters ultimately.

Watching the eyes of Fr. Kottar’s young listeners receiving his words with such ardour and brightness makes an impression. We have the sense that the future of which he speaks is being entrusted into good hands.

Sanctity Amidst An Epidemic

Today is the death anniversary and feast day of St. Kateri Tekakwitha – an indigenous Catholic who was born in 1656 to a Mohawk father and a Christian Algonquin mother.

During the homily announcing her canonization in 2012, Pope Benedict XVI said: “Kateri impresses us by the action of grace in her life in spite of the absence of external help and by the courage of her vocation, so unusual in her culture. In her, faith and culture enrich each other! May her example help us to live where we are, loving Jesus without denying who we are.”

In honour of the occasion, I discussed the life, death, and legacy of St. Kateri with my good friend Maria Lucas who is herself an indigenous Catholic.

Check out our discussion about St. Kateri’s virtues, her willingness to chart her own course in obedience to God’s will, the ways she navigated her indigenous Catholic identity, and how she died with tremendous faith and peace at age 24.

Photo: Statue of St. Kateri at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. (2017)

Responding to Death with Poetry

My grandmother died on September 22, 2009 between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. A few days after her death, when I was 18, I wrote this poem in memory of her, which I just found again today:

A Tribute to My Grandmother

I first met my grandmother
When I was very young
She held me in her arms
Before I had turned one

My family ventured to Toronto
And she and grandpa came to Calgary
Those times were special then
Always remembered they will be

When I was only four
My grandma called me near
I didn’t like her nickname for me
She used to call me ‘dear’

So we agreed upon ‘Mandy’
This name for only her to call me
Her precocious little granddaughter 
And I would call her ‘Bubbie’

I remember the trips to Toys ‘R’ Us
With my brother to choose toys
We could pick almost anything
As long as it would bring us joy

My grandma loved education
And she always called me clever
She knew my commitment to my education
Would surely last forever

In her final years
Bubbie grew old and frail
But my grandpa visited her
Every day without fail

I learned unconditional love
Through the witness that they gave
To a love that knows no bounds
And to a love that is very brave

Sometimes it was hard to see my grandma
Lost and confused in her mind
Then I’d remember though
How much her heart was refined

My grandma’s life was a gift
From the God who I do praise
The Lord is compassionate and loving
In all His mighty ways

Ever since I was a child, writing has been my favourite creative outlet. Whenever someone would die or whenever I would grapple with the mystery of suffering and death, I would scribble words of poetry and reflection to contend and find meaning.

In addition to being a helpful outlet at the time, I find it interesting to look back on what I wrote in the past and to discover how sealing those memories through creative acts magnifies the memories I hold.

Resting in Abraham’s Bosom

Thomas Aquinas died on this date 747 years ago. Accordingly, I decided to see what came up first with a quick search about Aquinas on death. I was led to the Summa Theologiae and, specifically, to Question 69 on “Matters concerning the resurrection, and first of the place where souls are after death.”

During his lifetime, Thomas Aquinas considered many questions that most people would never consider at all. Take, for example, Article 4 of Question 69 in which he asks: “Whether the limbo of hell is the same as Abraham’s bosom?”

I had not heard (or didn’t particularly recall hearing) of “Abraham’s bosom” but a detailed Wikipedia article discusses the concept as it appears in the Bible, Jewish and Christian history, and religious art and literature.

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Caring for the Dying Without Props

Several years ago, I heard the story Bosco Gutierrez Cortina, a Mexican architect who was held hostage by kidnappers attempting to extort a ransom from his family. What struck me most about his story is how he devised a disciplined schedule for himself while is solitary confinement and he resolved to make good use of his time even while being held captive. Stripped of all of his ordinary resources, attachments, and supports, he was forced to discover what he actually had within inside himself. Without books, work, family, community, means of communication, and so much more, Bosco discovered what was a matter of his inner reserves versus what he had not yet deeply interiorized and made his own.

Sometimes I think about this and wonder just how well I know my faith, my family, and my friends. If I lost the ability to worship in community and to communicate with those I love, what would I have interiorly that would sustain me amid such deprival?

These thoughts also bring to mind an anecdote shared by Cicely Saunders, the founder of modern hospice and palliative care. In her biography, Shirley du Boulay writes, “When Cecily offered to read to David Tasma [the man who became the ‘founding patient’ of St. Christopher’s Hospice], thinking to comfort him, he said, ‘No — no reading. I only want what is in your mind and in your heart.’ She never forgot that simple reaction; and mind and heart became twin poles of St. Christopher’s philosophy.”

What do we have inside ourselves with which to comfort the dying? Without props, without activities, without prestige, who do we have to give when someone says, “I only want what is in your mind and in your heart”?

The Past and Present Tense in Vanessa Bryant’s Tributes

Today marks the first anniversary of the death of Kobe and Gianna Bryant.

Much has been said and written about the faith of the family, and there is something that I find remarkably demonstrative of that faith in the speech Vanessa Bryant delivered at a memorial.

In her 20-minute speech about her husband and daughter, Vanessa Bryant alternated, in a subtle way that seemed very deliberate, sincere, and full of faith, between speaking in the past and present tense.

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