On the feast day of John Paul II, I am remembering this anecdote from my time in Poland:
One day, after breakfast, I was sitting in Starbucks and an elderly gentleman began speaking to me in Polish.
“I’m sorry, I don’t speak Polish,” I told him.
It can be quite unsettling to us when someone expresses a desire to die.
Even when a person is very elderly and is naturally approaching death, hearing them say that they want to die can sound to us like a complaint, a cry for help.
Yet, Michel de Montaigne has a very articulate reflection on how ageing and illness naturally draws a person into resignation concerning death and toward an acceptance of it in a way that makes sense.
I have got to share with you this remarkable excerpt from Pope Francis’s recent address to members of the Jewish community in Hungary:
I am moved by the thought of all those friends of God who shone his light on the darkness of this world. I think in particular of Miklós Radnóti, a great poet of this country. His brilliant career was cut short by the blind hatred of those who, for no other reason than his Jewish origins, first prevented him from teaching and then separated him from his family.
Imprisoned in a concentration camp, in the darkest and most depraved chapter of human history, Radnóti continued until his death to write poetry. His Bor Notebook was his only collection of poems to survive the Shoah. It testifies to the power of his belief in the warmth of love amid the icy coldness of the camps, illumining the darkness of hatred with the light of faith. The author, crushed by the chains that constrained his soul, discovered a higher freedom and the courage to write that, “as a prisoner… I have taken the measure of all that I had hoped for” (Bor Notebook, Letter to his Wife). He also posed a question that resonates with us today: “And you, how do you live? Does your voice find an echo in this time?” (Bor Notebook, First Eclogue). Our voices, dear brothers and sisters, must not fail to echo that Word given us from Heaven, echoes of hope and peace. Even if no one listens or we are misunderstood, may our actions never deny the Revelation to which we are witnesses.
Finally, in the solitude and desolation of the concentration camp, as he realized his life was fading away, Radnóti wrote: “I am now myself a root… Once a flower, I have become a root” (Bor Notebook, Root). We too are called to become roots. For our part, we usually look for fruits, results or affirmation. Yet God makes his word fruitful on the earth with a soft rain that makes the fields flower (cf. Is 55:10). He reminds us that our faith journeys are but seeds, seeds that then become deep roots nourishing the memory and enabling the future to blossom. This is what the God of our fathers asks of us, because – as another poet wrote – “God waits in other places; he waits beneath everything. Where the roots are. Down below” (Rainer Maria Rilke, Vladimir, the Cloud Painter). We can only reach the heights if we have deep roots. If we are rooted in listening to the Most High and to others, we will help our contemporaries to accept and love one another. Only if we become roots of peace and shoots of unity, will we prove credible in the eyes of the world, which look to us with a yearning that can bring hope to blossom. I thank you and I encourage you to persevere in your journey together, thank you! Please forgive me for speaking while seated, but I am no longer fifteen years old! Thank you.
A few days ago, I attended a conference at which I met a Venezuelan currently in exile in the U.K.
This young man is passionate about politics and philosophy.
When I shared with him about some of the current debates in Canadian politics concerning bioethics, he was perplexed.
Essentially he expressed his perplexity as follows: My country is a mess. There is massive corruption, countless human rights violations, and many basic needs of citizens are unmet. We imagine that Canada is so much more advanced. Yet, you seem to be divided on the most fundamental questions.
Indeed, Canadians are divided about what it means to be a man, to be a woman, to be married, to be a person, to be alive.
Despite industrial development, material prosperity, and impressive longevity, we are still unsure about a lot of the basics.
It is revealing that someone from Venezuela can question our supposed advancement in this way.
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.