Before anyone close to me had died, my early reflection on death took place most routinely sitting on gymnasium floors during Remembrance Day assemblies on November 11th each year.
I even remembering colouring pages with poppies on them in Grade 1.
These early experiences stirred my imagination in gradual and subtle ways.
As I got older, the school assemblies became more intense. Parents of soldiers who had graduated from my high school came and spoke to us about the wars in which they had died.
I still remember my utter perplexity at a so-called professor of Genocide Studies at a Canadian university having accused me of “voyeurism” for having travelled to Germany, Poland, and Rwanda on genocide study trips.
Now, I can see that such a bizarre accusation might stem from failing to see the way in which studying genocide properly can actually constitute an education in moral sense. By learning about perpetrators and meeting with rescuers and survivors, my friends and I with whom I studied and travelled encountered the moral drama of human action and responsibility in persons and deeds, not in mere systems or abstractions.
Today I began reading The Ball and the Cross by G.K. Chesterton, which a friend just gave to me.
Early on in it, two men are brought before a police magistrate named Cumberland Vane. One of the men is a atheist named Mr. Turnbull who owns a secular bookshop and the other is a Catholic named Evan MacIan, who broke the window of Mr. Turnbull’s shop.
When Mr. Vane asks MacIan why he broke the window, he replied, “Because [Mr. Turnbull] blasphemed Our Lady.”
The magistrate then considers MacIan insane and asks, “What conceivable right have you to break other people’s windows because their opinions do not agree with yours? This man only gave expression to his sincere belief.”
In this provocative and imaginative paragraph, MacIan responds:
If he had said of my mother what he said of the Mother of God, there is not a club of clean men in Europe that would deny my right to call him out. If he had said it of my wife, you English would yourselves have pardoned me for beating him like a dog in the market place. Your worship, I have no mother; I have no wife. I have only that which the poor have equally with the rich; which the lonely have equally with the man of many friends. To me this whole strange world is homely, because in the heart of it there is a home; to me this cruel world is kindly, because higher than the heavens there is something more human than humanity. If a man must not fight for this, may he fight for anything? I would fight for my friend, but if I lost my friend, I should still be there. I would fight for my country, but if I lost my country, I should still exist. But if what that devil dreams were true, I should not be—I should burst like a bubble and be gone. I could not live in that imbecile universe. Shall I not fight for my own existence?”
What makes the fight worthwhile, in spite of everything?
And what it is that is worthy of the fight ultimately?
How, at first disappointing, and then irrelevant, would the greatest earthly victories and worldly successes be if good did not ultimately triumph over evil and life and love did not ultimately conquer death?
Photo: Soldiers receiving Communion
This evening, over a dinner reunion with a dear friend of mine, she confided to me that she did not consider herself to have been up to anything interesting lately.
As soon as I heard this, I objected because my friend most certainly has been up to a very many interesting things, and it is only a matter of clarifying what “interesting” truly means.
If you have ever had the delight of reading – or, even better, having read aloud to you – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry The Little Prince, you will remember the Little Prince’s reproach of the those grown ups who are ever concerned with matters of consequence: