The Task Report in Death

This evening I’ve been reading Tomáš Halík’s book, I Want You To Be: On the God of Love in which the thirteenth chapter is titled, “Stronger than Death.”

In this chapter, the Czech priest, philosopher, and Templeton Prize laureate discusses how, “in order to perceive death as a gift, one must first deeply experience life as a gift.”

Gratitude is the appropriate response to a gift but, importantly, life is not only a gift but also a responsibility. Halik, like Abraham Joshua Heschel, speaks of life as an assignment:

Death is not a mere returning of the gift of life. Only loans are returned, and to return a gift is always regarded as an insult to the donor. The entrance ticket to life (think of the conversation between Alyosha and Ivan Karamazov) is not returnable. Life is not just a gift; it is also an assignment. At the moment of death, the handing on of the life that was given to us as an opportunity and entrusted to us as a task is—in religion terms—a sort of completed task report, the hour of truth about the extent to which we have fulfilled or squandered the opportunity we were given. Aversion to that religious concept of death is possibly only assisted by arguments from the arsenal of materialistically interpreted science, although in fact it is more likely based on the anxiety aroused by the need to render an account to a Judge who cannot be bribed or influenced. Compared to that the atheist view that everything comes to an end at death is a comforting dose of opium!

How often do we consider giving God an inventory about how we have spent our lifetime?

To be accountable for our days is a basis for man’s proper dignity.

As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry put it, “To be a man is, precisely, to be responsible.”

And responsibility is not only a matter of what we do but, most importantly, of who we become through the moral footprint of our deeds in this world.

Photo: With Fr. Tomáš Halík in Prague in April 2016

“We Gradually Deserve Those Who Demand to Be Helped”

There is a little book by Antoine De Saint-Exupéry called Letter to a Hostage. In the first part, the author paints a scene of emigrants aboard a ship. Even without more context than this, this passage is remarkable:

How to construct a new self. How to remake the heavy skein of memories? That phantom ship was crowded, like Limbo, with souls unborn. The only ones who showed any semblance of reality, so much so that one would have wanted to touch them, were those who, belonging to the ship and ennobled by real duties, carried the trays, polished the brass and shoes and, slightly scornful, served the dead. That slight disregard of the staff towards the emigrants was not due to their poverty. They were not lacking in money, but destiny. They were not attached to any home, to any friend, to any responsibility. They played a part, but it was no longer true. No one wanted them, no one would call on them. What a thrill it is to receive a telegram in the middle of the night, summoning you to the station: “Hurry, I need you!” We soon discover friends to help us. We gradually deserve those who demand to be helped. Of course no one hated my ghosts, no one envied them, no one bothered them. But no one loved them with the only love that is worthwhile. I thought: as soon as they arrive they will be taken into welcome cocktail parties, consolation suppers. But who will ever knock at their doors, begging to be let in. “Open, it’s me!” A child must be fed for a long time before he can demand. A friend must be cultivated for a long time before he claims his due friendship. It is necessary to spend fortunes for generations on repairing an old ruined castle before one learns to love it.

Such realities are best explained through stories and scenes and anecdotes; they are not abstract principles, though they are tinged with the mystery and depth that prevents them from being grasped, especially all at once.

Indeed there are many emigrants passing through life like souls unborn without ties and without purpose. And among the dead of expressive individualists, what could possibly be the meaning of: “We gradually deserve those who demand to be helped”?

Yet, as usual, the clarity comes in the juxtaposition between the cocktail party versus the “Hurry, I need you!”

The human person, every human person, is ennobled by real duties and real attachments. The love that is worthwhile is not “Can I get a photo with you?” or “Here’s my card.” The love that is worthwhile is the demand of someone in need who says and who means, to someone in particular, “It’s me. I need you!”

Treasuring Time

Yes, even on my birthday I keep my death before me. It makes life sweeter by increasing my sense of its preciousness.

A friend of mine gave me a birthday card with this quotation by Josemaria Escriva: “Time is our treasure, the ‘money’ with which to buy eternity.”

On my birthday, I am filled with gratitude and responsibility – gratitude for God’s generosity in giving me these years and responsibility to live and love well with vision, depth, and hope.

I am thankful to my friends and family who have helped me to treasure time in this season – to sincerely savour and cherish it rather than wasting time or wishing it were some other time.

There is no better time, and “my times are in [His] hands.” (Ps. 31:15)

Justifying Our Contempt for Death

In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Wind, Sand and Stars, the author discusses the character of both his friend Guillaumet as well as that of an old gardener in juxtaposition with the story of a suicide. Take a look at the contrast between them that he paints by his description:

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How I Will Live after the Pandemic

There is a miscellaneous text by Janusz Korczak (the Polish Jew who perished in Treblinka along with 200 children and staff of the orphanage he directed) that is titled, “How I Will Live after the War.”

In it, he notices how “about fifteen of them are keeping journals.” Most of the journals document life day-to-day and, occasionally, there are reminiscences about the past. However, “only once did someone write about what he was going to do after the war.”

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Facing Up to One Another

There is a philosopher named Emmanuel Levinas who said, “The relationship with the face is immediately ethical in nature. The face is what you cannot kill, or at least in the sense that says: ‘thou shalt not kill’.”

And so, whenever I see a news article accompanied by an image of an elderly person’s hand, or a syringe, or an empty hospital hallway, this quotation always comes to my mind. How different it is to actually see faces. It is almost as if seeing faces (even if only as images) is to be given a different set of facts altogether.

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Rabbi Bulka is a Role Model in How to Suffer

It would be understandable if, upon receiving a cancer diagnosis, a person were to retreat, to withdraw.

But that’s not Rabbi Dr. Reuven Bulka’s way. Instead, as ever, he continues to show leadership, to give example, and, above all, to generously go outside of himself for the good of others.

It seems that every time there is a tragedy or crisis, particularly in which his community or he himself is implicated, Rabbi Bulka has something to say with humility, sincerity, and gratitude.

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What We Gain From Loss

The remarkable poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote more than fourteen thousand letters over the course of his life. A few years ago, an editor published a compilation of selected letters entitled, The Dark Interval: Letters on Loss, Grief, and Transformation.

Here is an excerpt from one of the letters that particularly struck me:

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