Those best prepared for death

The other day, Fr. Mike Schmitz released this video, “The Key to a Happy Death” in which he shares that a student recently asked him, “In your experience, have you found that people who live a long and fulfilling life are more prepared, or better prepared to die–that they’re able to let go of their life more easily?”

And to this, he answered no.

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The Task Report in Death

This evening I’ve been reading Tomáš Halík’s book, I Want You To Be: On the God of Love in which the thirteenth chapter is titled, “Stronger than Death.”

In this chapter, the Czech priest, philosopher, and Templeton Prize laureate discusses how, “in order to perceive death as a gift, one must first deeply experience life as a gift.”

Gratitude is the appropriate response to a gift but, importantly, life is not only a gift but also a responsibility. Halik, like Abraham Joshua Heschel, speaks of life as an assignment:

Death is not a mere returning of the gift of life. Only loans are returned, and to return a gift is always regarded as an insult to the donor. The entrance ticket to life (think of the conversation between Alyosha and Ivan Karamazov) is not returnable. Life is not just a gift; it is also an assignment. At the moment of death, the handing on of the life that was given to us as an opportunity and entrusted to us as a task is—in religion terms—a sort of completed task report, the hour of truth about the extent to which we have fulfilled or squandered the opportunity we were given. Aversion to that religious concept of death is possibly only assisted by arguments from the arsenal of materialistically interpreted science, although in fact it is more likely based on the anxiety aroused by the need to render an account to a Judge who cannot be bribed or influenced. Compared to that the atheist view that everything comes to an end at death is a comforting dose of opium!

How often do we consider giving God an inventory about how we have spent our lifetime?

To be accountable for our days is a basis for man’s proper dignity.

As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry put it, “To be a man is, precisely, to be responsible.”

And responsibility is not only a matter of what we do but, most importantly, of who we become through the moral footprint of our deeds in this world.

Photo: With Fr. Tomáš Halík in Prague in April 2016

This is What I Like Best

Today is Alice von Hildebrand’s 98th birthday. I was delighted to meet this wonderful philosopher, teacher, and author when I set out to visit her at her home in New Rochelle a couple years ago. The widow of eminent philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand, Alice exudes a profound joy – that is, a joy that is rooted in her deep existential gratitude through which she has grown to love the reality of her present circumstances, no matter what they may be.

In honour of her birthday, I read this piece of hers titled, “Made for Joy“, in which she writes:

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Happy Are Those Who Don’t Fear Death

This evening I was having a chat with a friend who shared with me about growing up with parents who differ considerably in terms of their outlook on the risks of life.

My friend’s father is the social, energetic, and adventurous type. Whereas her mother has always been more cautious – even to the point of being afraid of flying, anxious in the passenger seat, and worried about safety.

“Maybe it comes from a good place,” my friend reflected, wanting to offer the most charitable interpretation. “Maybe it’s a matter of gratitude – knowing that you have a lot and simply wanting it to stay that way, not wanting to risk damage or disruption to that which you cherish so much.”

My friend told me that her mother’s fear of loss can be crippling but that, as a mother herself, she can also understand it to some extent.

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Now I Have A Skull On My Desk

“We got you something for your birthday to remind you of your mortality,” Sam said.

Daniel and Max followed him into my office and the three of them proceeded to present me with a box that contained the skull pictured above.

“Thanks,” I told them. “Very thoughtful!”

Some years ago, a religious sister with the epic name Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble, received a ceramic skull during a retreat. This began her daily meditations on death, about which she tweeted, chronicling her new insights that came from keeping a skull on her desk. Working on Parliament Hill, I particularly appreciated Day 6.

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Treasuring Time

Yes, even on my birthday I keep my death before me. It makes life sweeter by increasing my sense of its preciousness.

A friend of mine gave me a birthday card with this quotation by Josemaria Escriva: “Time is our treasure, the ‘money’ with which to buy eternity.”

On my birthday, I am filled with gratitude and responsibility – gratitude for God’s generosity in giving me these years and responsibility to live and love well with vision, depth, and hope.

I am thankful to my friends and family who have helped me to treasure time in this season – to sincerely savour and cherish it rather than wasting time or wishing it were some other time.

There is no better time, and “my times are in [His] hands.” (Ps. 31:15)

Have Eulogies Become Résumés?

For several years, David Brooks has been drawing the distinction between résumé virtues and eulogy virtues.

“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.

About his father, Michael wrote:

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Rabbi Bulka is a Role Model in How to Suffer

It would be understandable if, upon receiving a cancer diagnosis, a person were to retreat, to withdraw.

But that’s not Rabbi Dr. Reuven Bulka’s way. Instead, as ever, he continues to show leadership, to give example, and, above all, to generously go outside of himself for the good of others.

It seems that every time there is a tragedy or crisis, particularly in which his community or he himself is implicated, Rabbi Bulka has something to say with humility, sincerity, and gratitude.

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A Death Chat Over Wine and Cheese

Years ago, one cold December night, I approached St. Christopher’s Hospice in South London. Through the window, I could see several people getting seated around a table. I went to the main entrance and informed the receptionist that I was here for the Death Chat, and she pointed me toward the room that I had seen through the window.

Those who were there greeted me warmly. A man named Anthony was speaking and it was the opposite of small talk. After a few others had arrived, Kostas, a principal social worker in Social Work, Bereavement, and Welfare, facilitated the introductions.

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