A Moment for Anonymous Heroes

I am obsessed with the stories of noble lives and acts of heroism.

In particular, I have been very focused on stories of heroism during the Second World War, particularly in the context of the Holocaust.

I cannot imagine my sustained engagement with the history of the Holocaust if not for the stories of the Righteous Among the Nations, who risked their lives to save Jews, as well as many other stories of courage and martyrdom.

These lights illuminate the darkness, clarify it and, to some modest extent possible, dispel it.

What I have begun thinking about more recently is how many stories of heroism are unknown to us and can never be known.

The stories that we have are a sliver of the humanity that persisted in the most dehumanizing of contexts.

Yet, there are surely many more stories that were snuffed out before they could edify successive generations.

The stories that we do know can help us exercise our imagination about what might have constituted noble and courageous responses in dire circumstances.

Can we let ourselves also be fortified by the confidence that there were also many anonymous heroes?

The facts of their righteousness may be known only to God, but the confidence that they existed can be known to us in hope.

Photo: Wall of Death at Auschwitz

The Sweetness of a Short Life

Today my friend Max told me the story of a turning point in his life.

It was summer vacation and he was a seventeen-year-old teaching English in Spain at a camp for boys.

During the camp, he came across this prayer card with a short description of Venerable Montse Grases, a young woman who “knew how to find God in the loving fulfillment of her work and study duties, in the small things of each day.”

Montse had been diagnosed with bone cancer as a teenager and, “throughout her illness, she never lost her infectious cheerfulness or her capacity for friendship.”

Max was totally struck by the fact that Montse died when she was 17 – the same age he was then.

Continue reading

Having something at stake

This weekend I read Sohrab Ahmari’s new book The Unbroken Thread. While there is much upon which I could comment and that I plan to discuss with friends, for the purpose of this post I refer ever so briefly to his final chapter on death.

In this concluding chapter, Ahmari raises his twelfth question of the book: What’s Good About Death? (The other day an excerpt of this chapter was published, here.)

Throughout this section, Ahmari largely discusses Seneca, a Stoic philosopher who said, “Whoever doesn’t want to die, doesn’t want to live.”

In considering why this is, Ahmari explains:

Here is why: The state of being alive—fully alive—is possible only in relation to an endpoint, death. It is the certainty of an end to life that allows us to appreciate sacrifice, heroism, love, beauty, the kind of virtuous life a man like Seneca lived of the self-sacrificing death of a Maximilian Kolbe. As any decent novelist or screenwriter knows, if there is nothing at stake in the story, the story is boring. If there is no final terminus to life, life loses its vitality, its zest, its drama.

What is good about death is that its inevitability means that there is always something at stake in life.

The vulnerability of life increases its preciousness; the risk in life increases the adventure.

This “goodness” of death does not diminish grief or sorrow, though. Instead, it makes the drama of human responses to death intelligible, meaningful, and even capable of pointing beyond themselves to realities transcending this-worldly concerns.



Unflinching from the sacrifice

I’m thankful to a friend who reminded me that today is the feast day of St. Gianna Beretta Molla and who, accordingly, suggested that I devote today’s post to her.

Gianna was an Italian Catholic pediatrician and mother of four. She is known for refusing life-saving medical interventions that would have resulted in the death of her fourth child with whom she was pregnant at the time.

While it would have been morally licit for her to opt for the interventions in an attempt to save her own life, since the loss of her child would have been wholly unintended and inadvertent, Gianna was willing to die in order that her unborn child might live.

How someone comes to such a decision with faith and courage is almost never momentary happenstance. As John Paul II put it– that Gianna knew how to offer her life as a sacrifice was the crowning of an exemplary existence.

Continue reading