Even though it was published five years ago, I still remember this news article in my local paper in which an 89-year-old man describes his life at a retirement home.
It begins with this section on small talk:
Unlike soldiers, prisoners or students, we at the lodge are here voluntarily and with no objective other than to live. We don’t have a lot in common other than age (and means). However we are encrusted with 70 or 80 years of beliefs, traditions, habits, customs, opinions and prejudices. We are not about to shed any of them, so the concept of community is rather shadowy.
The common topics of conversation are the weather and the food, and since they both change every day, most of us never lack for conversation. For those contemplating a move to a lodge such as ours, it is wise to polish up their encrustations to make them as smooth and inoffensive as possible.
Thus we engage in the never-ending table talk with the minimum of disagreement.
Now I understand that the piece is intended to be a bit humorous in a certain way, but I haven’t been able to forget the grim picture painted in those short paragraphs.
By contrast, consider the aspirational vision that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel gives us in his piece, “To Grow in Wisdom”:
Simone Weil, who died on this date in 1943 at the age of 34, was one of the most audaciously creative writers and earnest spiritual seekers of the past century.
In her aphoristically-styled Gravity and Grace, she has these words about suffering and affliction:
Suffering: superiority of man over God. The Incarnation was necessary so that this superiority should not be scandalous.
I should not love my suffering because it is useful. I should love it because it is.
Suffering, teaching and transformation. What is necessary is not that the initiated should learn something, but that a transformation should come about in them which makes them capable of receiving the teaching.
Pathos means at the same time suffering (notably suffering unto death) and modification notably transformation into an immortal being).
I do not suppose that thinking and writing about death every day will necessarily make it any easier to die one day or will make me any better at it.
I do know, however, that I will not always be in a position of wanting to think and write about these topics and so now is the time for it.
In Josef Pieper’s Death and Immortality, I just came across this excellent paragraph:
As a general rule, so-called “thinking about death” is probably a poor way of learning to die. Georges Bernanos in one of his last imaginative works, the Dialogues des Carmélites, has the dying prioress say: “I have meditated on death every hour of my life, but that does not help me at all now.” And when the philosopher Peter Wust learned for certain that he would never leave his sickbed, he asked in a diary note, evidently with profound surprise, why all philosophy failed him now.
Josef Pieper is truly one of the most wonderful (i.e., actually filled-with-wonder) philosophers of the twentieth century. Just when I thought that I had read most of his works, I discovered that he wrote a book entitled Death and Immortality. A huge thanks to St. Augustine’s Press for translating and publishing Pieper’s works and I especially look forward to reading the recently published parts two and three of Pieper’s three-part autobiography.
Today I want to share with you a marvelous section on Rembrandt in “The Vocabulary of Death” chapter of Pieper’s Death and Immortality book.
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.