“And fear not them which kill the body”

This evening I have been reflecting on the life and legacy of Fulton J. Sheen, one of the most influential Catholics of the twentieth century who died on this day at age 84 in 1979.

In 2011, I read his autobiography Treasure in Clay, which is really splendid. Tonight I was reminded that he dictated parts of it shortly before his death “from his sickbed as he clutched a crucifix.”

I want to share with you an excerpt from a brief piece by Fulton Sheen titled “Dying to Live“:

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If you’re free to prepare for dying before it’s happening…

This is my 336th post about death and dying on this blog. And I am now into the final month of this yearlong project.

I am amazed and grateful that I get to contemplate dying so intentionally and comfortably before it is happening. I know that I will not always be up for this work.

Some friends of mine, while they have been hospitalized or sick, have testified to me that it is not possible for them to read and think about death under such circumstances. It seems too raw and too sad.

This makes sense.

We have investment accounts and retirement savings so that we do not need to think and worry too much about money later in life.

It seems worthwhile to store away reflection on the last things and to build an accounting of what matters ultimately when we are young and healthy so that we do not need to worry about this so much when we are sick or dying.



“Do not lose these special characters.”

Some years ago in Poland, an elderly professor of mine who had been a student of John Paul II told us that, earlier that day, he had been giving a lecture to some high school students, a society of Young Humanists, as they called themselves.

He says he spoke to them about Dostoevsky and said: “In all of Dostoevsky’s books you can find characters who are very poor from the worldly view, especially in The Idiot with Prince Myshkin who is so poor and naive. But can such persons be heroes from the moral point of view?”

He continued to us, “Of course, high schoolers are beginning to look toward their careers and for success. And I wanted to say to them, ‘Look, if you close your understanding of happiness in a human life to this sort of success, you miss these important characters who were definitely not professionally successful. Look out for your goals, okay. But please do not lose these special characters. Sometimes these aspirations cannot be easily held together. Remember, though, that even if you lose this success for which you strive, you do not need to lose your humanity, your heart, your life,’

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Unique and unrepeatable

I was always intuitively and viscerally upset whenever women who had suffered miscarriages would lament well-intentioned people having attempted to console them with the words, “You can try again.”

Like Job’s “friends”, such people unfortunately misunderstood the nature of the situation so profoundly as to be unable to offer a meaningful response to those suffering this loss.

Having understood it intuitively, I also wanted to try to understand as rationally as possible why saying, “You can try again” is so inappropriate.

That is when I came upon this compelling paragraph by bioethicist Robert Spaemann who tackles various intellectual positions that would seek to eject members from the human family.

He says:

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More care > Less suffering

This evening I read a chapter from Gilbert Meilaender’s book, Bioethics and the Character of Human Life: Essays and Reflections.

Here is one paragraph that particularly captured my attention:

Thus, although compassion surely moves us to try to relieve suffering, there are things we ought not to do even for that worthy end–actions that would not honour or respect our shared human condition. One of the terrible truths that governs the shape of our lives is that somethings there is suffering we are unable–within the limits of morality–entirely to relieve. Hence, the maxim that must govern and shape our compassion should be “maximize care,” which may not always be quite the same as “minimize suffering.”

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We are 38 million hostages

This morning I read Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1973 short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

The story is about an idyllic town, flourishing with music, processions, decorations, horses, abundant food, flowers, bells, and so on.

The only trouble is that, in order to sustain all of this revelry and satisfaction, one child must be kept trapped in a small broom closet with no light, malnourished, naked, covered in sores, and sitting in its own excrement.

We read that, “this is usually explained to children when they are between eight and twelve, whenever they seem capable of understanding.”

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Jordan Peterson challenges us to have strength at funerals

This evening I finished reading Jordan Peterson’s latest book, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life.

In the last chapter, Rule XII: Be grateful in spite of your suffering, Peterson mentions that he has repeatedly suggested to his various audiences “that strength at the funeral of someone dear and close is a worthy goal” and he notes that “people have indicated to me that they took heart in desperate times as a consequence.”

After a worldwide book tour and many other public appearances, Peterson has had the opportunity to test and play with his ideas with many audiences. And it is interesting to read his thoughtful reflections based on his careful observation of the reactions of persons in the audience.

Earlier in the book, he mentions, as he has said elsewhere, that he sees people’s faces light up whenever he speaks about responsibility. Peterson is keenly aware that people have been raised with a greater emphasis on rights and the corresponding sense of entitlement that ensues with this focus. Yet, a sense of responsibility is what ennobles and fills persons with a sense of their proper dignity and capacity.

Accordingly, this challenge to have strength at funerals is an extension of his usual exhortation to responsibility.

He writes:

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Don’t Die Twice

Recently I have been reflecting on a particular chapter in the last book Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks published just before his death. The book is titled Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times and the chapter that I have in mind is titled “Victimhood.”

Rabbi Sacks opens the chapter with a discussion of Yisrael Kristal, a Holocaust survivor who lived to be 113.

During the Holocaust, Yisrael’s wife and children were murdered. And, after years in ghettos and concentration camps, he weighed just 82 pounds.

We learn that Yisrael remained a religious Jew throughout his life. He married another survivor with whom he had children and they settled in Haifa and opened a business selling sweets and chocolates as he had done in Poland.

Rabbi Sacks goes on to compare Yisrael Kristal to Abraham insofar as Yisrael was able to integrate into his life completely the transformative idea: “To survive tragedy and a trauma, first build the future. Only then, remember the past.”

“There are real victims,” Rabbi Sacks affirms. “And they deserve our empathy, sympathy, and compassion. But there is a difference between being a victim and defining yourself as one. The first is about what happened to you. The second is about how you define who and what you are. The most powerful lesson I learned from these people I have come to know, people who are victims by any measure, is that, with colossal willpower, they refused to define themselves as such.”

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Is your work to die for?

Today is the feast of St. Joseph the Worker and this post examines Pope Francis’ beautiful Apostolic Letter “With A Father’s Heart” to explore the practical ways in which we can see work as a context for self-gift through which we fulfill the meaning of our lives.

I have organized the themes of the letter into the following eight categories. Each category begins with a excerpt from the letter and then includes a question or two for our contemplation of some possible practical applications.

1. Names and Relationships:

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What would you do with a longer life, anyway?

I just finished re-reading Leon Kass’s splendid essay, “L’Chaim and Its Limits: Why Not Immortality?

I was reminded of that 2001 piece when I read this interview published yesterday about Archbishop Emeritus Charles Chaput’s new book Things Worth Dying For: Thoughts on a Life Worth Living.

Leon Kass begins his piece by exploring the primacy of life in Judaism and our wider culture’s interest in prolonging life and forestalling death.

Then, he raises some questions:

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