The Complexity of a Soul

On the Seventh Night of Hanukkah, Rabbi YY Jacobson released this video telling the dramatic story of a Jew who survived the Holocaust, became a Catholic priest, and sought to receive a Jewish burial alongside his parents’ graves in Poland.

I have shared this story many times today and gotten a wide range of reactions from friends about it.

The wisest comment, in my view, came from a friend who said, “One has to be somehow ‘living in the hyphen’ to appreciate such a story.”

Instead, the story of “the complexity of a soul” (as Rabbi YY Jacobson puts it) demands a certain openness and receptivity in order to be touched by it. Such complexity may unsettle many of us but we can take comfort in knowing that none of our souls are too complex for God.

Fraternity on the Periphery

A dear friend of mine who has spent the past two years living in Nazareth introduced me to the story of Blessed Charles de Foucauld. Somehow I had never heard his story before or, at least, it hadn’t caught my attention.

The Vatican’s very short summary of him is this:

Blessed Charles de Foucauld, born in 1858, was a French aristocrat and religious, whose work and writings led to the founding of the Congregation of the Little Brothers of Jesus. During his adventurous life, he was a Cavalry Officer in the French Army, and then an explorer and geographer before becoming a Catholic priest and hermit who lived among the Tuareg in Algeria’s Sahara Desert. He lived a life of prayer, meditation and adoration, in the incessant desire to be, for each person, a “universal brother”, a living image of the love of Jesus. On the evening of December 1, 1916, he was killed by bandits.

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The world will not collapse without me

In Judaism, there is the idea: “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

This is very good. And yet, it is but half the equation. As much as each person is a whole world, there is also a sense in which the world really can and does go on without us. But far from diminishing us, this perspective can give us tremendous peace.

On the Feast of Christ the King, I was at Emmaus with the Community of the Beatitudes for mass. During his homily, the priest traced history of nationalism and totalitarianism throughout the twentieth century. Then, he said, “Today the conflict is more with my individual kingdom, my personal sovereignty. Today we don’t have much sense of the common good because we think it’s against our personal good.”

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“Tradition Says”

Once, when I was a student in Poland, I was living in a dormitory taken care of by Ursuline sisters.

It was a Wednesday morning on November 2nd when I came downstairs to do my laundry.

The kind ginger sister, a young Catholic from Russia, Sister Maria, took pity on me but the elderly Sister Elisabeth at her side at reception was clearly dismayed at the need to make an exception. I approached the reception window at the entrance lobby of my dormitory with a plastic bag, full of dirty laundry, my bottle of detergent, my ID card to exchange for the laundry room key and five złoty in change to receive a special coin to activate the washing machine. 

They both looked at me with a look that said, “Shouldn’t you know better?” But, in truth, I didn’t know better. 

“Today is a holiday,” Sister Maria stated, alluding to All Souls’ Day. 

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Living in the Cemetery – All Saints’ Day in Poland

Some reflections from the Poland years (2015-2017):

“There was a cross in every direction. And there weren’t just four directions, like now.”
– Wiesław Myśliwski, Stone Upon Stone

In the lead up to All Saints’ Day, there were dozens of people selling candles and flowers at each of the entrances leading into the Lipowa cemetery. It was easy to notice this happening, because this cemetery is right next to the main mall in the city. This reminded me of how Plutarch had praised the Spartan Lycurgus for doing away with superstitions by allowing citizens to bury their dead within the city which, he said, had the effect of making the youth familiar with such sights so that they were neither confounded by death nor fearful of it. 

In these days, I observed all of the flowers and candles being placed on the graves in anticipation of the feast days – seeing sisters in their habits scrubbing the graves of the members of their communities who had gone before them, and men raking the leaves between the tombs, and students and graduates decorating with flowers and candles and rosaries the graves of the university’s founder and first rector, Rev. Idzi Radziszewski as well as that of Mieczysław Albert Maria Krąpiec OP, the founder of the Lublin Philosophical School – who struck me as among the cemeterary’s leading protagonists. 

On All Saints’ Day, my friends and I went again to this cemetery. As we walked, we passed many others who were visiting, walking slowly and reverently. Has anyone ever run through a cemetery, anyway? The setting seems to slow you down, as if to teach that rushing through life will only bring you more quickly to your grave. 

I saw a young man holding his grandmother’s arm to assist her. I saw a father carrying his young daughter on his shoulders. I saw an elderly couple sitting across from one another on benches before the graves – the husband taking a photo of his wife on a smartphone. I saw a boy in a wheelchair, staring at a grave with his family surrounding him. And I saw small children playing and smiling, hoping to get a candle or bouquet to place upon a grave or to contribute as part of a larger memorial. This is the most life I have ever witnessed in a cemetery, I marvelled to myself. It is also the most human cemetery I have seen. I glanced at the Latin inscription – Non omnis moriar – not all of me will die, or, I shall not wholly die. And I also thought to myself – not all is death. Among the dead, the living walk, play, talk, laugh, and visit.

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A Lesson in Disinterestedness

Is it really possible to teach lessons about knowledge being for its own sake and learning being its own reward? How, in our hyper-utilitarian age of credentials, competition, and consumerism can such things be instilled and affirmed?

Here is a story from when I studied in Poland.

It so happened that I would be absent on the date of a scheduled exam in “Main Problems in Philosophy” due to a conference and so I arranged to write my exam in the professor’s office in advance.

I showed up to his office at 1 o’clock and he handed me a piece of paper with two questions that he had written out for me:

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A jolt of perspective

During my studies in Poland, I learned about a satellite campus of the Catholic University directly across the street from the former Nazi concentration camp, Majdanek.

One of my roommates was studying journalism there and I asked her what it is like to go to school across from the former camp.

She admitted that she no longer thinks about it every time she goes to class. But, she recalled, “One Friday, a professor gave us an assignment just when we all thought we would have a free weekend. Naturally, we started to complain a bit. Then he told us to think about what had happened across the street and take some perspective before we grumble about an assignment, and we all fell silent.”

Vocation Grasped in Retrospect

Today is the feast day of St. Edith Stein, a Jewish-Catholic saint and martyr born one century before me and to whom I have special devotion and affection.

In fact, I even spent one month a few years ago living in her former childhood home in Wroclaw, Poland (formerly Breslau, Germany).

Edith Stein was a German Jewish philosopher who became a Catholic nun and patron saint of Europe. Martyred in the Holocaust, she has been on my mind as I reflect on the meaning of vocation.

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Familiarity and Concern

Yesterday when I was visiting the Houston Holocaust Museum, I saw the map above.

The first thing that struck me about this map is that it has Rovno on it. Rovno is where my grandfather was born. It’s not always on maps of central Europe, just as it hasn’t always been on the map for me until I began to take a greater interest in his story.

The other thing that comes to mind whenever I visit Holocaust Museums now is that, looking at the maps, I now know how to correctly pronounce the names of many of the places that I wouldn’t have dared to attempt pronouncing just a few years ago.

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