Five years ago, I was attending a cool Thomistic seminar in Norcia after which there was an optional trip to Rome.
Flashback to earlier that summer when I had been in America at the Hildebrand Project learning from and conversing with Italian statesman and professor Rocco Buttiglione.
As we sat outdoors, he memorably told me the story of St. Camillus de Lellis about whom I don’t remember having ever heard before.
Professor Buttiglione and I had been discussing end-of-life care when he began to speak to me about this saint who, almost 500 years ago, founded the Servants of the Sick.
Given my interest in these topics, I was happy to encounter the story of this saint in conversation.
Three years ago today, Arnaud Beltrame offered his life in the place of a female hostage.
I think his story of sacrifice is worth remembering not only because it was formerly news but because it is now an honourable legacy from which we can stand to gain understanding something about the purpose of life.
Here’s some of what I wrote at the time:
Beltrame’s act of heroism was not out of character for him since he had first prepared the ground by surrendering to the call of natural virtues through his commendable military service. He superiors had acknowledged his “resolutely offensive spirit when faced with adversity” and his preparedness to “fight to the end and never give up.” In Beltrame’s life we can see how human virtues, such as the loyalty and selflessness he cultivated through his military training and service, prefigured his act of supernatural virtue in laying down his life for a stranger.
Beltrame’s act was not mere chivalry or a random act of kindness; it was something more powerful than that. As Hildebrand reminds, “We can never bring about of our own volition this state of being possessed by and lost in what is greater than ourselves.” Beltrame clearly believed in something even greater than his own life.
“Whenever anything thus causes us to soar above the habitual plane of our life,” says Hildebrand, “Whenever we are possessed by something that overwhelms us… by its objective superiority, we also become delightfully aware that it is precisely this renunciation of our sovereignty which makes us really free.”
This is the freedom of a martyr who – even in losing his or her own life – still bears witness to that profounder and nobler reality than life itself – the love that triumphs over death.
Like the death of Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish priest who seventy-seven years ago offered to take the place of a husband and father in Auschwitz, may Beltrame’s self-surrender bear much fruit in witnessing to the fact that we love best when we lay down our lives for God and others.
We need Beltrame’s legacy.
We need his example to fill us with admiration at the nobility of self-surrender for the sake of others.
His willingness to take the place of a stranger, even though it meant death for himself, confirms to us that death is not the greatest evil. What the terrorist did to Beltrame was far worse than the death Beltrame suffered, particularly for the terrorist’s own soul. But for Beltrame, while the loss is certainly tragic for his loved ones, the nobility of his self-surrender remains a resplendent example so that we are free to contemplate what it is that gives a person the freedom to literally lay down their life for another.
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:
One of my very favourite organizations, the Hildebrand Project, is committed to advancing the legacy of Dietrich von Hildebrand and of the wider personalist tradition.
Most recently, the Hildebrand Project team republished Dietrich von Hildebrand’s existential and theological meditation, Jaws of Death: Gate of Heaven, which the twentieth-century philosopher wrote shortly before his own death.
The book is divided into two sections – the first of which considers the Natural Aspect of Death and the second of which considers Death in the Light of Christian faith.