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

An Exemplary Eulogy

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.

“We Gradually Deserve Those Who Demand to Be Helped”

There is a little book by Antoine De Saint-Exupéry called Letter to a Hostage. In the first part, the author paints a scene of emigrants aboard a ship. Even without more context than this, this passage is remarkable:

How to construct a new self. How to remake the heavy skein of memories? That phantom ship was crowded, like Limbo, with souls unborn. The only ones who showed any semblance of reality, so much so that one would have wanted to touch them, were those who, belonging to the ship and ennobled by real duties, carried the trays, polished the brass and shoes and, slightly scornful, served the dead. That slight disregard of the staff towards the emigrants was not due to their poverty. They were not lacking in money, but destiny. They were not attached to any home, to any friend, to any responsibility. They played a part, but it was no longer true. No one wanted them, no one would call on them. What a thrill it is to receive a telegram in the middle of the night, summoning you to the station: “Hurry, I need you!” We soon discover friends to help us. We gradually deserve those who demand to be helped. Of course no one hated my ghosts, no one envied them, no one bothered them. But no one loved them with the only love that is worthwhile. I thought: as soon as they arrive they will be taken into welcome cocktail parties, consolation suppers. But who will ever knock at their doors, begging to be let in. “Open, it’s me!” A child must be fed for a long time before he can demand. A friend must be cultivated for a long time before he claims his due friendship. It is necessary to spend fortunes for generations on repairing an old ruined castle before one learns to love it.

Such realities are best explained through stories and scenes and anecdotes; they are not abstract principles, though they are tinged with the mystery and depth that prevents them from being grasped, especially all at once.

Indeed there are many emigrants passing through life like souls unborn without ties and without purpose. And among the dead of expressive individualists, what could possibly be the meaning of: “We gradually deserve those who demand to be helped”?

Yet, as usual, the clarity comes in the juxtaposition between the cocktail party versus the “Hurry, I need you!”

The human person, every human person, is ennobled by real duties and real attachments. The love that is worthwhile is not “Can I get a photo with you?” or “Here’s my card.” The love that is worthwhile is the demand of someone in need who says and who means, to someone in particular, “It’s me. I need you!”

The Opposite of Autonomy

This morning, a topic of Sunday brunch conversation concerned determining the opposite of such words as “autonomy” and “abandonment.” My friend and I wanted equally precise and forceful words that denote the antidotes to these terms without these being too vague or all-encompassing.

In considering this, I came upon not a word, but a paragraph that I do consider to quite aptly describe the opposite of autonomy. And since it took an entire piece for Marina Keegan to beautifully explore “the opposite of loneliness“, we can certainly afford to take a look at this paragraph from Paul Quenon’s book, In Praise of the Useless Life: A Monk’s Memoir.

This is a book I read a few years ago that I find myself recommending to more and more friends often these days.

It is in the epilogue, where the author is describing what he has found monastery life to be, that I consider somewhat of an exposition of the opposite of autonomy:

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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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This World Day of the Sick

In 1993, John Paul II inaugurated the World Day of the Sick to be celebrated each year on February 11th. He wanted the annual day to serve as “a special occasion for growth, with an attitude of listening, reflection, and effective commitment in the face of the great mystery of pain and illness” and he specifically addressed all those who are sick, calling them “the main actors of this World Day.”

What did he mean by this?

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Facing Up to One Another

There is a philosopher named Emmanuel Levinas who said, “The relationship with the face is immediately ethical in nature. The face is what you cannot kill, or at least in the sense that says: ‘thou shalt not kill’.”

And so, whenever I see a news article accompanied by an image of an elderly person’s hand, or a syringe, or an empty hospital hallway, this quotation always comes to my mind. How different it is to actually see faces. It is almost as if seeing faces (even if only as images) is to be given a different set of facts altogether.

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“I Want to Burden My Loved Ones”

In a short essay, Gilbert Meilaender reflected on attending a workshop on “advance directives” at a nearby hospital. Throughout the workshop, participants expressed their intent not to be a burden on their family members at the end of life. But the more Meilaender thought about this, the more he determined that this was not his view. He reflected, “I don’t know how to make the point other than too crassly–other than by saying that I want to be a burden to my loved ones.”

He then goes on to discuss the various ways he cared for his children that “burdened” him but that he certainly does not resent – teaching sports, playing games, attending recitals, volunteering at school, negotiating dinner choices. While he does not begrudge these things, he does ask, “Is this not in large measure what it means to belong to a family: to burden each other–and to find, almost miraculously that others are willing, even happy to carry such burdens?”

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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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