And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sounds – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attentions to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance. – Rainer Maria Rilke
Today’s the anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Thomas More who was executed for refusing to swear the Oath of Supremacy.
I find it interesting to note that this 1535 oath began with the words, “I [name] do utterly testifie and declare in my Conscience, that the Kings Highnesse is the onely Supreame Governour of this Realme, and all other his Highnesse Dominions and Countries, as well in all Spirituall or Ecclesiasticall things or causes, as Temporall […].”
In a collection of More’s correspondence written before his death, Father Alvaro De Silva writes in the introduction that More used the word conscience more than 100 times throughout these letters.
More would not say with the solemnity of assertion that he “declares in his conscience” something he believed to be false.
Now conscience is not a word that has widespread resonance and people are not usually asked about what they “declare in their Conscience.”
Yet, there is a reason why the deaths of martyrs are worth remembering long beyond the memory of the powerful people who martyred them.
Today is the anniversary of the death of Terry Fox on June 28th, 1981.
One of the most memorable aspects of my early education was learning the story of Terry Fox and participating in the Annual Terry Fox Run in order to raise money and awareness for cancer research.
We would sit on the gym floor in an elementary school-wide assembly and watch either a short film or a longer documentary about the young man who had cancer and attempted to run across Canada from coast to coast on his prosthetic leg.
This evening I am reflecting on two famous Italians who died on this date – one is Niccolò Machiavelli who died in 1527 and the other is Aloysius de Gonzaga, S.J. who died in 1591. The latter lived fewer than half as many years than the former. And, while Machiavelli is certainly on more course syllabi today, Aloysius de Gonzaga is a canonized saint whose example and spirit continues to be invoked from generation to generation.
Aloysius de Gonzaga came from an affluent and influential family. He decided, however, to renounce his aristocratic lifestyle and joined the Jesuits while he was still a teenager. When there was a plague in Rome in 1591, Aloysius insisted on volunteering at a hospital and it was in this context that he contracted the disease and died when he was just 23.
What does a 23-year-old who died in the sixteenth century have to teach young people today living in the 21st century?
Here is a summary of Pope Francis’ remarks on this point to high schoolers:
“My public life is before you; and I know you will believe me when I say, that when I sit down in solitude to the labours of my profession, the only questions I ask myself are, What is right? What is just? What is for the public good?” – Joseph Howe
It was on this date in 1873 that Joseph Howe, “Defender of Freedom of the Press and Champion of Responsible Government in Nova Scotia” died in Halifax. He was a journalist, editor, newspaper owner, poet, member of parliament, president of the Privy Council, premier, and lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia.
A few years ago, while visiting Halifax, I chose to visit his grave at which I took the opportunity to read aloud with a friend Howe’s 1851 Letter to Electors, which ends with the poetic words: “A noble heart is beating beneath the giant ribs of North America now. See that you do not, by apathy or indifference, depress its healthy pulsations.”
Joseph Howe is known (if he is known at all, and that is rather unlikely in Canada these days) for having been charged with libel against which he argued passionately for “six hours and a quarter.” The charge came after his newspaper, the Novascotian, published a letter criticizing local politicians and exposing their corruption.
To get a taste of his rhetorical style, here is a brief excerpt:
On this date in 2008, Mieczysław Albert Maria Krąpiec OP, passed away.
I learned about this man as I gradually also learned how to pronounce his name.
This Polish priest-professor was a former rector of my university and is considered the founder of the Lublin Philosophical School – the most notable proponent of whom became Karol Wojtyła/Pope John Paul II.
It was in my very first week of classes that a professor of mine named Fr. Maryiniarczk spoke in an earnest yet convivial manner about this tradition saying, “The Lublin Philosophical School prepared, amid a very harsh time, an understanding of the human person and of reality. We aim to continue in this tradition of realistic philosophy. Metaphysics is concerned with discovering the content of being, not a conception of being and not merely a definition of concepts. We do not try to grasp a theory of man, but rather to understand man himself. This is part of what is meant by the approach called existential Thomism – an integration of truth and experience in our lives.”
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)
One of the most amazing speeches I ever had the privilege of hearing in person was delivered by Gila Sacks, the daughter of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Gila delivered this speech to honour her father on the occasion of him being awarded the Templeton Prize in 2016.
A few years after that event, just this past fall, Rabbi Sacks passed away. When I watched the eulogy (below) that Gila delivered, many of the same qualities I had so admired about her Templeton speech shone through this one as well:
In this eulogy, Gila speaks to her father’s conviction that things can change and people can be responsible for changing them as well as to his character in forging his own children to become who they were created to be.
These are not mere words of sentimentality. What makes the eulogy so compelling is how Gila weaves the lessons from her father together with anecdotes from her ordinary, daily life along with what she learns and grapples with in the Bible.
I was struck by how well this eulogy fulfills the Jewish custom of eulogizing and lament, which has its basis in when Abraham eulogized and mourned his wife Sarah.
According to Jewish tradition, as discussed in this article, “When composing a eulogy, the goal is to praise the deceased, evoke an emotional reaction from the listeners, inspire listeners to improve their own lives by finding the qualities mentioned within themselves, and to consider their own legacies.”
Gila’s eulogy of her father is exemplary of this in every respect. She honoured her father well by reminding her listeners of their own capacity to build the world from love and responsibility.
When my brother Brandon was born prematurely, my mother met at lot of other parents in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) who were all living on pins and needles with uncertainty over the future of their respective children.
One woman was continually writing letters to her child about what she was feeling and about what he was going through each day. Together, she and my mom went shopping for clothes at Build-A-Bear because the clothing for teddy bears was the right size for their premature children who were too small to fit any of the baby clothing they could find.