Brandsma: “Love will regain the hearts of the pagans.”

An Irish Carmelite priest was a guest at my student residence this evening.

Over dinner, he mentioned the recent announcement that Titus Brandsma will be canonized.

Not knowing anything of this story, my friends and I asked the priest to tell us the story.

Fr. Brandsma was a Dutch Carmelite priest who worked as a philosophy professor and journalist.

His campaign for the freedom of the Catholic press to refuse to print Nazi propaganda led to his arrest and eventual martyrdom by lethal injection at Dachau.

John Paul II canonized Fr. Brandsma in 1985 saying, “Of course, such heroism cannot be improvised” in attesting to Brandsma’s authentic Catholic upbringing and formation throughout his life.

“Although neo-paganism no longer wants love, love will regain the hearts of the pagans,” Brandsma had said.

John Paul II even recounted that the “nurse” who murdered Brandsma with the lethal injection could not resist acknowledging that Brandsma’s look toward her was one of compassion.

How much are we seized by the conviction that “love will regain the hearts of the pagans”, that death and evil will never have the last word?

Tithing Your Losses

It is told that there was once a grandson who claimed that his grandfather had been a hidden saint.

In attesting to his grandfather’s virtue, the grandson recounted the honourable work that his grandfather would do, the hours that he committed to prayer and study, and that he would donate ten percent to the poor.

The listeners were not particularly impressed since these are characteristics of any righteous and observant Jew.

The grandson continued saying, “My grandfather would give a tenth of his profits to [charity] and he would give a tenth of his losses as well.”

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Remember when you suffered most

Pope Francis has a lot of countercultural recommendations and one upon which I came the other day is to remember the times that we have suffered most.

Usually, we want to forget the times we’ve suffered. Maybe we consoled ourselves in the midst of some trial saying, “This too shall pass.” And, once it has passed, we’re happy to move on from it.

But Pope Francis says, “I believe that in this time of the pandemic it is good for us to remember even of the times we have suffered the most: not to make us sad, but so as not to forget, and to guide us in our choices in the light of a very recent past.”

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Bernadette’s Testament of Gratitude

Recently I was having dinner with a friend who spoke to me about Tadeusz Dajczer’s book The Gift of Faith.

My friend had found this among the most startling and edifying spiritual books he’d read. In particular, he had been struck by the inclusion of St. Bernadette’s “Testament of Gratitude.”

Written shortly before her death from illness at a young age, my friend initially thought this “testament” was rather sarcastic and facetious.

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Avoiding Easy Answers

The other day I had my first class called “Post-Holocaust Jewish Theologies and Selected Christian Responses.”

Among the readings with which we began the course, we were given this single page containing the following epitaph:

From the Psalms I learned to pray: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Psalm 19)

From Irving Greenberg I have learned to add:

“May they be credible in the presence of the burning children.”

The rabbi teaching our class also introduced us to some pages of Zalmen Gradowski who gave an eyewitness account of the death camps. Gradowski perished in October 1944 and his manuscripts were found after the war, hidden underground near the crematoria at Auschwitz.

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We might never have made it

Lately I’ve been perusing Leon Kass’s book Toward a More Natural Science. Most recently, I read the chapter on prenatal diagnosis which begins with this excerpt:

The chapter you are about to read might never have been written. The same, of course, could be said about any work of writing, for the usual and obvious reasons—not least, because the author might never have been born. But for the present author and the present readers of the present chapter, the accident of our births may now be seen to have been more than usually accidental. Reflect a moment, gentle reader, and take stock of yourself: I suppose that you, too, will discover how fortunate we are to be here. For we were conceived after the discovery of antibiotics yet before amniocentesis, late enough to have benefited from medicine’s ability to prevent and control fatal infectious diseases, yet early enough to have escaped from medicine’s ability to detect, and to prevent us from living to suffer, our genetic diseases. To be sure, my own genetic vices are, as far as I know them, rather modest, taken individually—myopia, asthma and other allergies, bilateral forefoot adduction, bowleggedness, loquacity, and pessimism, plus some four to eight as yet undiagnosed recessive lethal genes in the heterozygous condition—but, taken together, and if diagnosable prenatally, I might never have made it.

After antibiotics and before amniocentesis – this is the in-between we who are alive today straddle.

Kass makes obvious in this paragraph that preventing people from suffering can go so far as to prevent them from living.

Many have a lower threshold for what suffering they will tolerate for others compared to what they could endure themselves. This is something worth bearing in mind whenever we hear words like “intolerable” and “unbearable.” What we ourselves cannot bear or tolerate cannot be the standard for evaluating others’ quality of life.

After all, one of the best qualities of life is the way it continually surprises us.

Wishing to Die

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.

He says:

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In solidarity with the sufferers

In his book, Patience with God: The Story of Zacchaeus Continuing In Us, Tomáš Halík has an intriguing chapter on Thérèse of Lisieux. In it, I read many things I hadn’t known about her and gained a completely novel perspective on her value.

Here are some selected excerpts:

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Neither cynical nor naive

It’s been five years since the death of Shimon Peres on September 28, 2016. Today was my first time watching the address that Barack Obama delivered at his funeral.

It is a remarkable eulogy, and it is hard for me to think of other statesmen or leaders about whom such a tribute has or could be given.

Below is the full speech on Youtube and here is the link to the transcript:

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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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