Archive for the ‘Death’ Category


The Assumption and the Modern World — Fulton J. Sheen, Ph.D., D.D.

October 18, 2013
The first overshadowing for Mary was to give birth to the Head of the Church; this second overshadowing is to give birth to His Body as she is in the midst of the Apostles abiding in prayer. The third transition is the Assumption, as she becomes the first human person to realize the historical destiny of the faithful as members of Christ's Mystical Body, beyond time, beyond death, and beyond judgment.

The first overshadowing for Mary was to give birth to the Head of the Church; this second overshadowing is to give birth to His Body as she is in the midst of the Apostles abiding in prayer. The third transition is the Assumption, as she becomes the first human person to realize the historical destiny of the faithful as members of Christ’s Mystical Body, beyond time, beyond death, and beyond judgment.

The definition of the Immaculate Conception was made when the Modern World was born. Within five years of that date, and within six months of the apparition of Lourdes where Mary said, “I am the Immaculate Conception.”

Charles Darwin wrote his Origin of Species, Karl Marx completed his Introduction to the Critique of the Philosophy of Hegel (“Religion is the opium of the people”), and John Stuart Mill published his Essay on Liberty. At the moment the spirit of the world was drawing up a philosophy that would issue in two World Wars in twenty-one years, and the threat of a third, the Church came forward to challenge the falsity of the new philosophy. Darwin took man’s mind off his Divine Origin and fastened it on an unlimited future when he would become a kind of God.

Marx was so impressed with this idea of inevitable progress that he asked Darwin if he would accept a dedication of one of his books. Then, following Feuerbach, Marx affirmed not a bourgeois atheism of the intellect, but an atheism of the will, in which man hates God because man is God. Mill reduced the freedom of the new man to license and the right to do whatever he pleases, thus preparing a chaos of conflicting egotisms, which the world would solve by Totalitarianism.

If these philosophers were right, and if man is naturally good and capable of deification through his own efforts, then it follows that everyone is immaculately conceived. The Church arose in protest and affirmed that only one human person in all the world is immaculately conceived, that man is prone to sin, and that freedom is best preserved when, like Mary, a creature answers Fiat to the Divine Will.

The dogma of the Immaculate Conception wilted and killed the false optimism of the inevitable and necessary progress of man without God. Humbled in his Darwinian-Marxian-Millian pride, modern man saw his doctrine of progress evaporate. The interval between the Napoleonic and Franco-Prussian Wars was fifty-five years; the interval between the FrancoPrussian War and World War I was forty-three years; the interval between World Wars I and II, twenty-one years. Fifty-five, forty-three, twenty-one, and a Korean War five years after World War II is hardly progress. Man finally saw that he was not naturally good. Once having boasted that he came from the beast, he now found himself to be acting as a beast.

Then came the reaction. The Optimistic Man who boasted of his immaculate conception now became the Pessimistic Man who could see within himself nothing but a bundle of libidinous, dark, cavernous drives. As in the definition of the Immaculate Conception, the Church had to remind the world that perfection is not biologically inevitable, so now in the definition of the Assumption, it has to give hope to the creature of despair. Modern despair is the effect of a disappointed hedonism and centers principally around Sex and Death. To these two ideas, which preoccupy the modern mind, the Assumption is indirectly related.

The primacy of Sex is to a great extent due to Sigmund Freud, whose basic principle in his own words is:

“Human actions and customs derive from sexual impulses, and fundamentally, human wishes are unsatisfied sexual desires. Consciously or unconsciously, we all wish to unite with our mothers and kill our fathers, as Oedipus did unless we are female, in which case we wish to unite with our fathers and murder our mothers.”

The other major concern of modern thought is Death. The beautiful philosophy of being is reduced to Dasein [Being somewhere], which is only in-der-Welt-sein [A being-in-the-world]. There is no freedom, no spirit, and no personality. Freedom is for death. Liberty is contingency threatened with complete destruction. The future is nothing but a projection of death. The aim of existence is to look death in the eye.

Jean-Paul Sartre passes from a phenomenology of sexuality to that which he calls “nausea,” or a brazen confrontation of nothingness, toward which existence tends. Nothing precedes man; nothing follows man. Whatever is opposite him is a negation of his ego, and therefore nothingness. God created the world out of nothingness; Sartre creates nothingness out of the world and the despairing human heart. “Man is a useless passion.”

Agnosticism and Pride were the twin errors the Church had to meet in the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception; now it is the despair resulting from Sex and Death it has to meet in this hour. When the Agnostics of the last century came in contact with the world and its three libidos, they became libertines. But when pleasure diminished and made hungry where most it satisfied, the agnostics, who had be come libertines by attaching themselves to the world, now began in disgust to withdraw themselves from the world and became philosophers of Existentialism.

Philosophers like Sartre, and Heidegger, and others are born of a detachment from the world, not as the Christian ascetic, because he loves God, but because they are disgusted with the world. They become contemplatives, not to enjoy God, but to wallow in their despair, to make a philosophy out of it, to be brazen about their boredom, and to make death the center of their destiny. The new contemplatives are in the monasteries of the jaded, which are built not along the waters of Siloe [A pool in the Tyropoean Valley, just outside the south wall of Jerusalem, where Jesus Christ gave sight to a man born blind.], but along the dark banks of the Styx.

These two basic ideas of modern thought, Sex and Death, are not unrelated. Freud himself hinted at the union of Eros and Thanatos. Sex brings death, first of all because in sex the other person is possessed, or annihilated, or ignored for the sake of pleasure. But this subjection implies a compression and a destruction of life for the sake of the Eros. Secondly, death is a shadow which is cast over sex. Sex seeks pleasure, but since it assumes that this life is all, every pleasure is seasoned not only with a diminishing return, but also with the thought that death will end pleasure forever. Eros is Thanatos. Sex is Death.

From a philosophical point of view, the Doctrine of the Assumption meets the Eros-Thanatos philosophy head on, by lifting humanity from the darkness of Sex and Death to the light of Love and Life. These are the two philosophical pillars on which rests the belief in the Assumption.

  1. Love. The Assumption affirms not Sex but Love. St. Thomas in his inquiry into the effects of love mentions ecstasy as one of them. In ecstasy one is “lifted out of his body,” an  experience which poets and authors and orators have felt in a mild form when in common parlance, “they were carried away by their subject.”On a higher level, the spiritual phenomenon of levitation is due to such an intense love of God that saints are literally lifted off the earth. Love, like fire, burns upward, since it is basically desire. It seeks to become more and more united with the object that is loved. Our sensate experiences are familiar with the earthly law of gravitation which draws material bodies to the earth. But in addition to terrestrial gravitation, there is a law of spiritual gravitation, which increases as we get closer to God. This “pull” on our hearts by the Spirit of God is always present, and it is only our refusing wills and the weakness of our bodies as a result of sin which keep us earth-bound. Some souls become impatient with the restraining body; St. Paul asks to be delivered from its prison house.If God exerts a gravitational pull on all souls, given the intense love of Our Lord for His Blessed Mother which descended, and the intense love of Mary for Her Lord which ascended, there is created a suspicion that love at this stage would be so great as “to pull the body with it.” Given further an immunity from original sin, there would not be in the Body of Our Lady the dichotomy, tension, and opposition that exists in us between body and soul. If the distant moon moves all the surging tides of earth, then the love of Mary for Jesus and the love of Jesus for Mary should result in such an ecstasy as “to lift her out of this world.”

    Love in its nature is an Ascension in Christ and an Assumption in Mary. So closely are Love and the Assumption related that a few years ago the writer, when instructing a Chinese lady, found that the one truth in Christianity which  was easiest for her to believe was the Assumption. She personally knew a saintly soul who lived on a mat in the woods, whom thousands of people visited to receive her blessing. One day, according to the belief of all who knew the saint, she was “assumed” into heaven. The explanation the convert from Confucianism gave was: “Her love was so great that her body followed her soul.” One thing is certain: the Assumption is easy to understand if one loves God deeply, but it is hard to understand if one loves not.

    Plato in his Symposium, reflecting the Grecian view of the elevation of love, says that love of the flesh should lead to love of the spirit. The true meaning of love is that it leads to God. Once the earthly love has fulfilled its task, it disappears, as the symbol gives way to reality. The Assumption is not the killing of the Eros, but its transfiguration through Agape. It does not say that love in a body is wrong, but it does hold that it can be so right, when it is Godward, that the beauty of the body itself is enhanced.

    Our Age of Carnality which loves the Body Beautiful is lifted out of its despair, born of the Electra and Oedipus incests, to a Body that is Beautiful because it is a Temple of God, a Gate through which the Word of Heaven passed to earth, a Tower of Ivory up which climbed Divine Love to kiss upon the lips of His Mother a Mystic Rose.

    With one stroke of an infallible dogmatic pen, the Church lifts the sacredness of love out of sex without denying the role of the body in love. Here is one body that reflects in its uncounted hues the creative love of God. To a world that worships the body, the Church now says: “There are two bodies in heaven, one the glorified human nature of Jesus, the other the assumed human nature of Mary. Love is the secret of the Ascension of one and of the Assumption of the other, for Love craves unity with its Beloved. The Son returns to the Father in the unity of Divine Nature; and Mary returns to Jesus in the unity of human nature. Her nuptial flight is the event to which our whole generation moves.”

  2. Life. Life is the second philosophical pillar on which the Assumption rests. Life is unitive; death is divisive. Goodness is the food of life, as evil is the food of death. Errant sex impulses are the symbol of the body’s division from God as a result of original sin. Death is the last stroke of that division. Wherever there is sin, there is multiplicity: the Devil says, “My name is Legion; there are many of us.” (Mark 5:9)But life is immanent activity. The higher the life, the more immanent is the activity, says St. Thomas. The plant drops its fruit from a tree, the animal drops its kind for a separate existence, but the spiritual mind of man begets the fruit of a thought which remains united to the mind, although distinct from it. Hence intelligence and life are intimately related. Da mihi intellectum et vivam.[ Give me understanding, that I may live] God is perfect life because of perfect inner intellectual activity. There is no extrinsicism, no dependence, no necessary outgoing on the part of God.Since the imperfection of life comes from remoteness to the source of life and because of sin, it follows that the creature who is preserved from original sin is immune from that psychological division which sin begets.

    The Immaculate Conception guarantees a highly integrated and unified life. The purity of such a life is threefold: a physical purity which is integrity of body; a mental purity without any desire for a division of love, which love of creatures apart from God would imply; and finally, a psychological purity which is immunity from the uprising of concupiscence, the sign and  symbol of our weakness and diversity. This triple purity is the essence of the most highly unified creature whom this world has ever seen.

    Added to this intense life in Mary, which is free from the division caused by sin, there is still a higher degree of life because of her Divine Motherhood. Through her portals Eternity became young and appeared as a Child; through her, as to another Moses, not the tables of the Law, but the Logos was given and written on her own heart; through her, not a manna which men eat and die, but the Eucharist descends, which if a man eats, he will never die. But if those who commune with the Bread of Life never die, then what shall we say of her who was the first living Ciborium [A chalice-like vessel used to contain the Blessed Sacrament.] of that Eucharist, and who on Christmas day opened it at the communion rail of Bethelehem to say to Wise Men and Shepherds: “Behold the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world”?

    Here there is not just a life free from the division which brings death, but a life united with Eternal Life. Shall she, as the garden in which grew the lily of divine sinlessness and the red rose of the passion of redemption, be delivered over to the weeds and be forgotten by the Heavenly Gardener? Would not one communion preserved in grace through life ensure a heavenly immortality? Then shall not she, in whose womb was celebrated the nuptials of eternity and time, be more of eternity than time? As she carried Him for nine months, there was fulfilled in another way the law of life: “And they shall be two in one flesh”

    No grown men and women would like to see the home in which they were reared subjected to the violent destruction of a bomb, even though they no longer lived in it. Neither would Omnipotence, Who tabernacled Himself within Mary, consent to see His fleshly home subjected to the dissolution of the tomb. If grown men love to go back to their homes when they reach the fullness of life, and become more conscious of the debt they owe their mothers, then shall not Divine Life go back in search of His living cradle and take that “flesh-girt paradise” to Heaven with Him, there to be “gardenered by the Adam new”?

    In this Doctrine of the Assumption, the Church meets the despair of the world in a second way. It affirms the beauty of life as against death. When wars, sex, and sin multiply the discords of men, and death threatens on every side, the Church bids us lift up our hearts to the life that has the immortality of the Life which nourished it. Feuerbach said that a man is what he eats. He was more right than he knew. Eat the food of earth, and one dies; eat the Eucharist, and one lives eternally. She, who is the mother of the Eucharist, escapes the decomposition of death.

    The Assumption challenges the nothingness of the Mortician philosophers in a new way. The greatest task of the spiritual leaders today is to save mankind from despair, into which Sex and Fear of Death have cast it. The world that used to say, “Why worry about the next world, when we live in this one?” has finally learned the hard way that, by not thinking about the next life, one cannot even enjoy this life.

    When optimism completely breaks down and becomes pessimism, the Church holds forth the promise of hope. Threatened as we are by war on all sides, with death about to be rained from the sky by Promethean fires, the Church defines a Truth that has Life at its center. Like a kindly mother whose sons are going off to war, she strokes our heads and says: “You will come back alive, as Mary came back again after walking down the valley of Death.” As the world fears defeat by death, the Church sings the defeat of death. Is not this the harbinger of a better world, as the refrain of life rings out amidst the clamors of the philosophers of death?

    As Communism teaches that man has only a body, but not a soul, so the Church answers: “Then let us begin with a Body.” As the mystical body of the anti-Christ gathers around the tabernacle doors of the cadaver of Lenin, periodically filled with wax to give the illusion of immortality to those who deny immorality, the Mystical Body of Christ bids the despairing to gaze on the two most serious wounds earth ever received: the empty tomb of Christ and the empty tomb of Mary. In 1854 the Church spoke of the Soul in the Immaculate Conception. In 1950 its language was about the Body: the Mystical Body, the Eucharist, and the Assumption.

    With deft dogmatic strokes the Church is repeating Paul’s truth to another pagan age: “Your bodies are meant for the Lord.” There is nothing in a body to beget despair. Man is related to Nothingness, as the Philosophers of Decadentism teach, but only in his origin, not in his destiny.

    They put Nothingness as the end; the Church puts it at the beginning, for man was created ex nihilo.[ out of nothing] The modern man gets back to nothingness through despair; the Christian knows nothingness only through self-negation, which is humility. The more that the pagan “nothings” himself, the closer he gets to the hell of despair and suicide. The more the Christian “nothings” himself, the closer he gets to God. Mary went so deep down into Nothingness that she became exalted. Respexit humilitatem ancillae suae. [He has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden." (Luke 1:48)] And her exaltation was also her Assumption.

Coming back to the beginning … to Eros and Thanatos: Sex and Death, said Freud, are related. They are related in this sense: Eros as egotistic love leads to the death of the soul. But the world need not live under that curse. The Assumption gives Eros a new meaning. Love does lead to death. Where there is love, there is self-forgetfulness, and the maximum in self-forgetfulness is the surrender of life. “Greater love than this no man has, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) Our Lord’s love led to His death. Mary’s love led to her transfixion with seven swords. Greater love than this no woman has, that she stand beneath the Cross of her Son to share, in her own way, in the Redemption of the world.

Within three decades the definition of the Assumption will cure the pessimism and despair of the modern world. Freud, who did so much to develop this pessimism, took as his motto: “If I cannot move the Gods on high, I shall set all hell in an uproar” That uproar which he created will now be stilled by a Lady as powerful as an “army drawn up in battle array.” The age of the “body beautiful” will now become the age of the Assumption.

In Mary there is a triple transition. In the Annunciation we pass from the holiness of the Old Testament to the holiness of Christ. At Pentecost we pass from the holiness of the Historical Christ to the holiness of the Mystical Christ or His Body, which is the Church. Mary here receives the Spirit for a second time. The first overshadowing was to give birth to the Head of the Church; this second overshadowing is to give birth to His Body as she is in the midst of the Apostles abiding in prayer. The third transition is the Assumption, as she becomes the first human person to realize the historical destiny of the faithful as members of Christ’s Mystical Body, beyond time, beyond death, and beyond judgment.

Mary is always in the vanguard of humanity. She is compared to Wisdom, presiding at Creation; she is announced as the Woman who will conquer Satan, as the Virgin who will conceive. She becomes the first person since the Fall to have a unique and unrepeatable kind of union with God; she mothers the infant Christ in Bethlehem; she mothers the Mystical Christ at Jerusalem; and now, by her Assumption, she goes ahead like her Son to prepare a place for us. She participates in the glory of Her Son, reigns with Him, presides at His Side over the destinies of the Church in time, and intercedes for us, to Him, as He, in His turn, intercedes to the Heavenly Father.

Adam came before Eve chronologically. The new Adam, Christ, comes after the new Eve, Mary, chronologically, although existentially He preceded her as the Creator a creature. By stressing for the moment only the time element, Mary always seems to be the Advent of what is in store for man. She anticipates Christ for nine months, as she bears Heaven within her; she anticipates His Passion at Cana, and His Church at Pentecost. Now, in the last great Doctrine of the Assumption, she anticipates heavenly glory, and the definition comes at a time when men think of it least.

One wonders if this could not be the last of the great Truths of Mary to be defined by the Church, Anything else might seem to be an anticlimax after she is declared to be in heaven, body and soul. But actually there is one other truth left to be defined, and that is that she is the Mediatrix, under Her Son, of all graces. As St. Paul speaks of the Ascension of Our Lord as the prelude to His intercession for us, so we, fittingly,  should speak of the Assumption of Our Lady as a prelude to her intercession for us. First, the place, heaven; then, the function, intercession.

The nature of her role is not to call Her Son’s attention to some need, in an emergency unnoticed by Him, nor is it to “win” a difficult consent. Rather it is to unite herself to His compassionate Mercy and give a human voice to His Infinite Love.

The main ministry of Mary is to incline men’s hearts to obedience to the Will of Her Divine Son. Her last recorded words at Cana are still her words in the Assumption: “Do whatever He shall say to you.” Added to these is the Christian prayer written by Francis Thompson to the daughter of the ancient Eve:

The celestial traitress play,
And all mankind to bliss betray;
With sacrosanct cajoleries,
And starry treachery of your eyes,
Tempt us back to Paradise.


I Want To Burden My Loved Ones — Gilbert Meilaender

June 11, 2013
And for all this, nature is never spent: There lives the dearest freshness deep down things; And though the last light off the black West went Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs – Because the Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and with, ah! Bright wings Gerard Manley Hopkins

And for all this, nature is never spent:
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last light off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with, ah! Bright wings
Gerard Manley Hopkins

To live or to die? When the time comes, Gilbert Meilaender wants his fate in his family’s hands, not his own. From the October 1991 issue of First Things. He is on their editorial and advisory board. The VA keeps nagging me (as well they should) to fill out their form on “advance directives” and as someone who lives a sad and stupid all-alone-life the thought of becoming ill and eventually incompetent, surrounded by strangers who cannot interpret what I may have chosen for end of life care is something I have trouble contemplating. Yet why should that be? Christ surrendered himself to others in Gethsemane and why should a hospital be any different in a secular 21st century for those who have no one? The following offered me some ways to measure my conundrum.


Recently I was a speaker and panel member at a small educational workshop on “advance directives” sponsored by the ethics committee of our local hospital. The workshop was an opportunity to provide information about, and discuss the relative merits of, living wills and durable powers of attorney as different ways of trying to deal in advance with medical decisions that might have to be made for us after we have become incompetent. This is not the first such workshop for me, and I suppose it may not be the last. And I was struck, as I have been before, with the recurrence of a certain theme.

Many people come to such a workshop already quite knowledgeable about the topic to be discussed. They come less for information than for the opportunity to talk. Some earnestly desire the chance to converse about a troubling issue; a few just want to express themselves. In either case, however, it is remarkable how often they may say something like the following: “I’m afraid that if my children have to make decisions about my care, they won’t be able to handle the pressure. They’ll just argue with each other, and they’ll feel guilty, wondering whether they’re really doing what I would want. I don’t want to be a burden to them, and I will do whatever I can in advance to see that I’m not.” And after someone has spoken words to this effect, there will be a chorus of assent from the people who, evidently, share the speaker’s view.

Now, of course, we can in many ways understand and appreciate such a perspective. None of us wishes to imagine his children arguing together about who really knows best how he should be treated (or not treated). We hate to think that our children’s last thoughts of us would be interwoven with anger at each other, guilt for their uncertainty about how best to care for us, or even (perhaps) a secret wish that we’d get on with the dying and relieve them of this burden.

Nonetheless, as the workshop wore on, I found myself giving it only a part of my attention, because I couldn’t help musing on this recurring theme. Understandable as’ it surely is in many respects, there is, I am convinced, something wrong with it. I don’t know how to make the point other than a little too crassly — other than by saying that I want to be a burden to my loved ones. But, rightly understood, I think I do.

The first thought that occurred to me in my musings was not, I admit, the noblest: I have sweated in the hot sun teaching four children to catch and hit a ball, to swing a tennis racket and shoot a free throw. I have built blocks and played games I detest with and for my children. I have watched countless basketball games made up largely of bad passes, traveling violations, and shots that missed both rim and backboard. I have sat through years of piano recitals, band concerts, school programs — often on very busy nights or very hot, humid evenings in late spring.

I have stood in a steamy bathroom in the middle of the night with the hot shower running, trying to help a child with croup breathe more easily. I have run beside a bicycle, ready to catch a child who might fall while learning to ride. (This is, by the way, very hard!) I have spent hours finding perfectly decent (cheap) clothing in stores, only to have these choices rejected as somehow not exactly what we had in mind. I have used evenings to type in final form long stories — longer by far than necessary — that my children have written in response to school assignments. I have had to fight for the right to eat at Burger King rather than McDonald’s. Why should I not be a bit of a burden to these children in my dying?

This was not, I have already granted, the noblest thought, but it was the first. And, of course, it overlooks a great deal — above all, that I have taken great joy in these children and have not really resented much in the litany of burdens recited above. But still, there is here a serious point to be considered. Is this not in large measure what it means to belong to a family: to burden each other — and to find, almost miraculously, that others are willing, even happy, to carry such burdens?

Families would not have the significance they do for us if they did not, in fact, give us a claim upon each other. At least in this sphere of life we do not come together as autonomous individuals freely contracting with each other. We simply find ourselves thrown together and asked to share the burdens of life while learning to care for each other. We may often resent such claims on our time and energies. We did not, after all, consent to them. (Or, at least, if we want to speak of consent, it will have to be something like that old staple of social-contract theorists, tacit consent.)

It is, therefore, understandable that we sometimes chafe under these burdens. If, however, we also go on to reject them, we cease to live in the kind of moral community that deserves to be called a family. Here more than in any other sphere of life we are presented with unwanted and unexpected interruptions to our plans and projects. I do not like such interruptions any more than the next person; indeed, a little less, I rather suspect.

But it is still true that morality consists in large part in learning to deal with the unwanted and unexpected interruptions to our plans. I have tried, subject to my limits and weaknesses, to teach that lesson to my children. Perhaps I will teach it best when I am a burden to them in my dying.

This was my first thought. It led to a second. Perhaps it is a good thing, lest we be tempted to injustice, that the dying burden the living. Some years ago Robert Burt wrote a book about medical decision-making for incompetent patients. The book’s title was Taking Care of Strangers. Burt’s point, which carried a double entendre, was essentially this: Patients who are unable to make decisions for themselves are often in a state (e.g., severely demented, comatose) in which they become strangers to us. They make us uneasy, and we react with ambivalence. And to say, “I’ll take care of him” about such a patient may be a statement freighted with ambivalence.

Burt worries that, no matter how devoted our care, our uneasiness with a loved one who has become a stranger to us may prompt us to do less than we ought to sustain his life. (Nor, should we note, are physicians immune to such uneasiness.) It is, therefore, essential that we structure the medical decision-making situation in such a way that conversation is forced among the doctor, the medical caregivers, the patient’s family, and perhaps still others, such as pastor, priest, or rabbi. Advance directives, designed to eliminate the need for such extended conversation — lest it should burden loved ones — are, from this perspective, somewhat problematic. They may not force us to deal with our own ambivalence in “taking care of” a loved one who is now a burdensome stranger.

This does not mean that advance directives are entirely a bad idea. It does suggest, however, that a durable power of attorney for medical care — in which we simply name a proxy to make decisions in the event of our incompetence — is better than a living will in which we attempt to state the kinds of treatment we would or would not desire under a variety of medical circumstances.

At this point in my life, for example, I would surely turn over to my wife my power of attorney. In doing so I simply announce to medical caregivers: “Here is the person with whom you must converse when the day comes that you cannot talk with me about my medical care.” I myself do not particularly like the recently fashionable attempts to combine the two forms of advance directives by naming a proxy and giving that proxy as much detail as possible about what we would want done.

That move — though, again, it will be seen as an attempt to avoid burdening the loved one who must make such decisions — may not, in any case, accomplish our aim. What it commits us to is an endless, futile search to determine what a now-incompetent person would wish. Still more important, it is one last-ditch attempt to bypass the interdependence of human life, by which we simply do and should constitute a burden to those who love us.

I hope, therefore, that I will have the good sense to empower my wife, while she is able, to make such decisions for me — though I know full well that we do not always agree about what is the best care in end-of-life circumstances. That disagreement doesn’t bother me at all. As long as she avoids the futile question, “What would he have wanted?” and contents herself with the (difficult enough) question, “What is best for him now?” I will have no quarrel with her.

Moreover, this approach is, I think, less likely to encourage her to make the moral mistake of asking, “Is his life a benefit to him (i.e., a life worth living)?” and more likely to encourage her to ask, “What can we do to benefit the life he still has?” No doubt this will be a burden to her. No doubt she will bear the burden better than I would. No doubt it will be only the last in a long history of burdens she has borne for me. But then, mystery and continuous miracle that it is, she loves me. And because she does, I must of course be a burden to her.

The dignity of the human person means at least this: A human being is a person possessed of a dignity we are obliged to respect at every point of development, debilitation, or decline by virtue of being created in the image and likeness of God. Endowed with the spiritual principle of the soul, and — however healthy or impaired — with reason, and with free will, the destiny of the person who acts in accord with moral conscience in obedience to the truth is nothing less than eternal union with God. This is the dignity of the human person that is to be respected, defended, and indeed revered.
Fr. Richard John Neuhaus

There is the ever-larger arsenal of psychoactive drugs that modify behavior, as well as attention, memory, cognition, emotion, mood, personality, and the most intimate aspects of our inner life. As Leon Kass of the President’s Council regularly reminds us, it is not George Orwell’s 1984 but Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World that has turned out to be prophetic. Why live a life of struggle, inquiry, anxiety, and all that accompanies human creativity when you can take your dose of soma and feel happy? Psychopharmaceutical manipulation is the perfect accompaniment to the unending flood of self-help books published under the generic title of Be the Wonderful Person that You Are, many of them authored, sad to say, by putatively Christian preachers.

Science is acquiring the ability to screen out unwanted gene combinations in pre-implantation embryos and may be able to manipulate genetic germ-lines, thus fulfilling Lewis’ nightmare of a manufactured humanity in control of the would-be controllers. We modify the human genome to increase resistance to disease, optimize height and weight, augment muscle strength, extend the lifespan, sharpen the senses, boost intelligence, and, more generally, create more satisfactory human beings. At what point does “enhancement” result in a different understanding of what it means to be human and, needless to say, our intolerance of those who, by our heightened standards, are subhuman?

Years ago, Christopher Lasch wrote that the reason we no longer have freak shows at county fairs is not because we are more sensitive and compassionate but because we have created, or aspire to create, a world that has no place for freaks. I regularly pass on the way to work the New York center for cerebral palsy. It is both touching and inspiring to see caretakers gently helping hundreds of children — their eyes rolling, limbs flailing, and grunting speech — getting in and out of the buses that transport them to the center. Prenatal testing and the unlimited abortion license will make sure that there is not another generation to burden us with the need for such caring.

To be sure, there is much in the promise of biotechnological progress that would seem to be morally unproblematic and an unqualified good. But the dark side of such alleged progress is already upon us and is gaining momentum. In his essay in Human Dignity and Bioethics, the estimable Gilbert Meilaender makes a convincing case that the resources for warding off the dark side and providing moral guidance in defense of human dignity depends on the religious traditions that provide a comprehensive account of what it means to be human.

Which returns us to Holy Week and a humanity worth dying for. The psalmist asks, “What is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him?” And in these coming days of Holy Week, we ask, What is man that you died for him? At a particular moment in time, outside the gates of Jerusalem, the God-man Jesus Christ is nailed to the cross, and it is true to say that God is dead. For a time, the light that came into the world was extinguished, followed by resurrection — not as a happy ending but as a new beginning. The whole world beginning anew in resurrection glory and the promise of the oncoming Kingdom of God.

Against the many faces of the dark side, including the dubious promises of biotechnological progress, we are able to say — sometimes defiantly, always gratefully — with Gerard Manley Hopkins:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God . . .
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
and all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
and wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell; the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent:
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last light off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with, ah! Bright wings.

Man remains: the caretaker and cantor of the universe. In the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God has invested himself in the human project. Therefore it cannot, it cannot finally, fail.
Fr. Richard John Neuhaus


Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard – Thomas Gray

May 24, 2013
Musical, eloquent, moral, the "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" is not only a beautiful poem in its own right, but opens a network of cultural pathways. It connects the reader to English history and to European literature: Dante, Milton, the classical writers. Its ideas about society and education are deeply relevant today. The first stanza is often memorized: not only a visual masterpiece, it has an impressive array of sound-effects. In fact, there is a striking quantity of alliteration stowed away in the whole poem's tidy, iambic portmanteau. It's particularly audible in the first four lines, where the mournful, vowel-heavy sounds of the cattle lowing and the bell's tolling are grounded by the earthier throb of tired, heavy, mud-caked footfall

Musical, eloquent, moral, the “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is not only a beautiful poem in its own right, but opens a network of cultural pathways. It connects the reader to English history and to European literature: Dante, Milton, the classical writers. Its ideas about society and education are deeply relevant today. The first stanza is often memorized: not only a visual masterpiece, it has an impressive array of sound-effects. In fact, there is a striking quantity of alliteration stowed away in the whole poem’s tidy, iambic portmanteau. It’s particularly audible in the first four lines, where the mournful, vowel-heavy sounds of the cattle lowing and the bell’s tolling are grounded by the earthier throb of tired, heavy, mud-caked footfall

Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard’ was a poem of uncommon power on grief and the afterlife.


The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;

Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tower
The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such, as wandering near her secret bower,
Molest her ancient solitary reign.

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

The breezy call of incense-breathing morn,
The swallow twittering from the straw-built shed,
The cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.

For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire’s return,
Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.

Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their team afield!
How bowed the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile,
The short and simple annals of the poor.

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the fault,
If Memory o’er their tomb no trophies raise,
Where through the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault
The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.

Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flattery soothe the dull cold ear of Death?

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands that the rod of empire might have swayed,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll;
Chill Penury repressed their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.

The applause of listening senates to command,
The threats of pain and ruin to despise,
To scatter plenty o’er a smiling land,
And read their history in a nation’s eyes,

Their lot forbade: nor circumscribed alone
Their growing virtues, but their crimes confined;
Forbade to wade through slaughter to a throne,
And shut the gates of mercy on mankind,

The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide,
To quench the blushes of ingenuous shame,
Or heap the shrine of Luxury and Pride
With incense kindled at the Muse’s flame.

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learned to stray;
Along the cool sequestered vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

Yet even these bones from insult to protect
Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture decked,
Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.

Their name, their years, spelt by the unlettered muse,
The place of fame and elegy supply:
And many a holy text around she strews,
That teach the rustic moralist to die.

For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,
This pleasing anxious being e’er resigned,
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
Nor cast one longing lingering look behind?

On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
Ev’n from the tomb the voice of nature cries,
Ev’n in our ashes live their wonted fires.

For thee, who mindful of the unhonoured dead
Dost in these lines their artless tale relate;
If chance, by lonely Contemplation led,
Some kindred spirit shall inquire thy fate,

Haply some hoary-headed swain may say,
“Oft have we seen him at the peep of dawn
Brushing with hasty steps the dews away
To meet the sun upon the upland lawn.

“There at the foot of yonder nodding beech
That wreathes its old fantastic roots so high,
His listless length at noontide would he stretch,
And pore upon the brook that babbles by.

“Hard by yon wood, now smiling as in scorn,
Muttering his wayward fancies he would rove,
Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn,
Or crazed with care, or crossed in hopeless love.

“One morn I missed him on the customed hill,
Along the heath and near his favourite tree;
Another came; nor yet beside the rill,
Nor up the lawn, nor at the wood was he;

“The next with dirges due in sad array
Slow through the church-way path we saw him borne.
Approach and read (for thou can’st read) the lay,
Graved on the stone beneath yon aged thorn.”

The Epitaph

Here rests his head upon the lap of earth
A youth to fortune and to fame unknown.
Fair Science frowned not on his humble birth,
And Melancholy marked him for her own.

Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere,
Heaven did a recompense as largely send:
He gave to Misery all he had, a tear,
He gained from Heaven (’twas all he wished) a friend.

No farther seek his merits to disclose,
Or draw his frailties from their dread abode,
(There they alike in trembling hope repose)
The bosom of his Father and his God.



Meditation on Mortality — John J. Miller

 Mr. Miller is director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College and national correspondent for National Review. This essay was featured in the WSJ recently.

Shortly afterAbraham Lincoln secured the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, a reporter traveled to Springfield, Ill., to learn about the candidate’s background. In an interview, Lincoln said his early life could be condensed into a single phrase: “the short and simple annals of the poor.”

The words didn’t belong to Lincoln, but rather to the 18th-century English poet Thomas Gray, and they came from “Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard.” Lincoln almost certainly had encountered Gray’s “Elegy” as a boy, possibly by one of those hearth fires in his family’s log cabin.

There was a time when most educated people would have recognized Lincoln’s reference: “Gray’s Elegy,” wrote Leslie Stephen (the father of Virginia Woolf), “includes more familiar phrases than any poem of equal length in the language.” Its 32 stanzas burst with celebrated passages: “The Curfew tolls the knell of parting day”; “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen”; “Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife”; and so on. Robert L. Mack, Gray’s definitive biographer, has observed that a recent edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations draws from 15 stanzas and reproduces 13 of them whole.

Gray was born the day after Christmas in 1716. He was one of a dozen children, but only he survived childhood. As a boy, he attended Eton College, and later he would write “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College,” a poem that is the source of what may be his best-known phrase of all: “where ignorance is bliss / ‘Tis folly to be wise.” Another poem, the amusing “Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes,” apparently recounts a true story involving an unfortunate feline owned by Gray’s close friend Horace Walpole, a politician and writer.

For Gray, poems were the product of long, careful and hard work — and he often had trouble finishing what he started. In 1750, however, he sent a complete version of his “Elegy” to Walpole: “You will, I hope, look upon it in light of a thing with an end to it; a merit that most of my writings have wanted.” He appears to have fiddled with the elegy for at least four years and possibly as many as eight.

It begins with a description of a rural cemetery in darkness, turning to the fates of the people who lie six feet below. Do their ranks include “some mute inglorious Milton”? The poem goes on to ponder the pain of grief, the challenge of commemoration and the mystery of what lies beyond this life.

As a meditation on human mortality, its theme is one of the most common in literature. Yet the poem possesses uncommon power. When Walpole received his copy, he seems to have recognized its merits at once. He behaved as a publicist, distributing the poem throughout London. It struck at a popular moment for “graveyard poetry,” which mixed themes of death, gloom and Christian belief, prefiguring the coming Gothic movement. (Walpole, in fact, wrote what is widely regarded as the first Gothic novel, “The Castle of Otranto,” published in 1764.)

Yet Gray’s “Elegy” also rose above the ghetto of a genre, expressing universal ideas in lines that worked their way into collective memory. Samuel Johnson didn’t care for most of Gray’s poetry, but even he confessed an admiration for the elegy, praising its “images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo.”

In 1759, on the night before the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City, British Gen. James Wolfe either recited the poem or listened to it read aloud (accounts vary). “I would rather have been the author of that piece than beat the French tomorrow,” he is reported to have said. Wolfe defeated the French the next day, but he famously perished in the effort, providing a testament to what may be the central truth of Gray’s “Elegy”: “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”

It might be said that Gray’s path of glory started at a grave — and very possibly one occupied by his aunt, Mary Antrobus. She died as Gray composed the elegy and was entombed in the churchyard of St. Giles, in the village of Stoke Poges, west of London. Gray attended church services there with his mother, and they would have routinely walked by his aunt’s final resting place, in an activity that may have provided Gray with the determination to finish his poem.

Fans of the James Bond movies have caught a glimpse of the churchyard in the opening moments of “For Your Eyes Only.” Bond, played by Roger Moore, lays roses by his wife’s burial plot, in a scene filmed on the grounds that Gray immortalized. It looks a bit different from its appearance in Gray’s life. In 1924, the locals tore down the owl-haunted, “ivy-mantled” tower, fearing its imminent collapse.

Another grave lies there too: the one belonging to Gray himself. “On some fond breast the parting soul relies, / Some pious drops the closing eye requires,” he wrote in the elegy. Yet when he died in 1771, few people attended his funeral. As a lifelong bachelor, he had no wife or children to mourn him, and most of his friends didn’t even know he had passed. Walpole learned of Gray’s death from a newspaper.

His gravesite marker is modest. For a poet, however, Gray left behind the best kind of epitaph — one etched into a literary heritage.


The “Intermediate State” Between Death and Resurrection – Benedict XVI

April 18, 2013
The disciple who is to become the type of all faithful discipleship rests on the bosom of Jesus. The Christian, in his faith and love, finds shelter on the breast of Jesus and so, in the end, on the breast of the Father. "I am the resurrection": what these words mean emerges here from a new angle.

The disciple who is to become the type of all faithful discipleship rests on the bosom of Jesus. The Christian, in his faith and love, finds shelter on the breast of Jesus and so, in the end, on the breast of the Father. “I am the resurrection”: what these words mean emerges here from a new angle.

Taken from his 1988 classic, Eschatology, which remains a leading text on the “last things” — heaven and hell, purgatory and judgment, death and the immortality of the soul.


If the “Last Day” is not to be identified with the moment of individual death but is accepted as what it really is, the shared ending of all history, then the question naturally arises as to what happens “in-between.” In Catholic theology, as that received its systematic form in the high Middle Ages, this question received its answer in terms of the immortality of the soul.

To Luther, such a solution was unacceptable. For him it was a result of the infiltration of faith by philosophy. Yet his own enquiry into the matter produced an ambiguous report. In great majority, the relevant texts of Luther take up the biblical term for death, “sleep,” seeing in it a description of the content of the intermediate state. The soul sleeps in the peace of Christ. It is awakened, along with the body, on the last day.

Elsewhere one finds Luther in a different state of mind, for instance in his comments on the story of Lazarus. There he remarks that the distinction between body and soul whereby hitherto people had tried to explain Lazarus’ life “in the bosom of Abraham” was ein Dreck, “a load of rubbish.” As he explains: “We must say, totus Abraham, the whole man, is to live….”

The impression one takes away from this is that Luther’s concern was not so much with the denial of the life of the dead, but with an attack on the body-soul distinction. Luther does not succeed in replacing that distinction by any clear or even recognizable new conception. In our survey of the status quaestionis, we discovered that recent theology rules out an “intermediate state.” By doing so, it gives systematic expression to a point of view first developed by Luther.

1.  Early Judaism
What does the Bible have to say? In the light of our investigation into the ideas of the New Testament about the resurrection we can already make one fairly general statement. To posit an interruption of life between death and the end of the world would not be in accord with Scripture. In fact, the texts permit a much more precise set of assertions than this, as the exemplary work of P. Hoffmann in particular has shown in careful detail.

The first point to notice is that both the primitive community and St. Paul belonged with the Jewish tradition of their time, just as had Jesus himself. Naturally, they situated themselves vis-a-vis the internal debate within that tradition by reference to the fundamental criterion found in Jesus’ own image of God. This produced in time a gradual transformation of the preexisting tradition, by way of its thorough-going assimilation to the demands of Christology. Our first task, therefore, is to get acquainted with the data of intertestamental Judaism — a complicated affair for which I must rely on Hoffmann’s study.

Let us look at some characteristic documents. The book of Enoch in its Ethiopian recension, datable to c. 150 B.C., offers in its twenty-second chapter an account of the abode of the spirits or souls of the departed. Here the ancient idea of Sheol, earlier taken as the realm of shadow-life, receives more articulated and differentiated description. Its “space” is characterized in greater detail. The world in which the dead are kept until the final judgment is no longer located simply in the earth’s interior, but, more specifically, in the West, the land of the setting sun, in a mountain where it occupies four different regions (pictured as caves). The just and the unjust are now separated.

The unjust await the judgment in darkness whereas the just, among whom the martyrs occupy a special position, dwell in light, being assembled around a life-giving spring of water. We already get a glimpse of how such “early Jewish” notions lived on in unbroken fashion in the early Church. The memento of the departed in the Roman Canon (now the “First Eucharistic Prayer”) prays that God may grant to those who have died marked with the sign of faith and now “sleep the sleep of peace” a place of light, “fresh water” (refrigerium) and repose.

The prayer thus identifies the three conditions which inhabitants of the Mediterranean world consider the proper expression of all good living. Patently, the idea coincides in all respects with the destiny of the just as described in Enoch.

A further stage of development can be observed in the Fourth Book of Ezra, written somewhere around the year 100 A.D. Here too the dead dwell in various “chambers,” their “souls” the bearers of a continuing life. As in Enoch, the just have already entered upon their reward. But whereas the author of Enoch defers the start of the punishment of sinners until the final judgment, in Ezra the pains of the Godless begin in the intermediate state, with the result that at a number of points their position seems to be that of a definitive Hell.

In Rabbinic Judaism, the dividing line between two kinds of human destiny is even more consistently observed. From the moment of judgment, which follows immediately upon death, two paths open up. One leads into the paradise garden of Eden, conceived either as lying in the East or as preserved in heaven. The other goes to the alley of Gehenna, the place of damnation.

But, besides the idea of paradise, the destiny of the just is represented by other images and motifs as well. Thus we hear of the “treasury of souls,” of waiting “beneath the throne of God,” and of the just — and especially martyrs — being received into Abraham’s bosom. Here again the continuity between Jewish and early Christian conceptions is striking. The idea of paradise, the image of the bosom of Abraham;’ the thought of the tarrying of souls beneath the throne of God: all these are present in the New Testament tradition.

But before we turn to the New Testament itself, something should be said about the writings bequeathed to us from Qumran. So long as the community represented under this name, the Essenes, were known only from Josephus, scholars were obliged to regard them as belonging to the Hellenizing strand within early Judaism, at any rate where our question in this present section was concerned. Josephus had summed up their views in the following words:

For their doctrine is this: that bodies are corruptible, and that the matter they are made of is not permanent; but that the souls are immortal, and continue forever, and that they come out of the most subtile air, and are united to their bodies as to prisons, into which they are drawn by a certain natural enticements but that when they are set free from the bands of the flesh, they then, as released from a long bondage, rejoice and mount upward.

But with the discovery of the original Qumran manuscripts, our image of the Covenanters has necessarily undergone revision. As K. Schubert, in his study of the Dead Sea community, commented on the text just cited:

In all probability, this description is nothing more than a concession by Josephus to his Greek readership…. The Essenes were not a Hellenistic-syncretistic group, but a Jewish apocalyptic movement.

However, we are dealing here with ideas of the afterlife conceived in markedly material terms, so much so that this same writer can say that the Essenes of Qumran “believed in a continuation of bodiliness, even though they accepted the passing-away of their bodies in the first instance. To this extent, Josephus’ description is perhaps not too far removed from the truth. He too ascribes to the sect a materialist understanding of the soul of the kind common in Stoic philosophy.

This shows how complex in this period the reciprocal interpenetration of the Hellenistic and Jewish worlds could be. The much favored dichotomy between “Greek” and “Hebrew” simply does not stand up to historical examination. The discussion of the Qumran texts also indicates that the mere maintaining of strictly material notions about the life to come does not in itself guarantee fidelity to the spiritual inheritance of the Old Testament. The heart of that option which entered history in Abraham’s faith cannot be grasped without finer differentiation than this. In this perspective, a number of contemporary contributions seem to belong to a continuing “Essene” tradition, in that the issue of materiality has overshadowed every other consideration.

2.  The New Testament
It should be clear by now that the New Testament belongs to that Jewish world whose fundamental contours have been sketched in the preceding section. As a general methodological assumption, it is legitimate to suppose that Jesus and the earliest Church shared Israel’s faith in its (then) contemporary form. The acceptance of Jesus’ awareness of his own mission simply gave to this faith a new center, a nucleus by whose power the individual elements of the tradition were step by step transformed: first and foremost, the concept of God, but then following it, and in a graduated order of urgency, all the rest.

The Synoptic tradition preserved two sayings of Jesus the topic of the “intermediate state.” These are Luke 16:19-31 and Luke 23, 43, and they were briefly touched above. So far as the first, the story of Lazarus, is concerned, we may admit that the parable’s doctrinal content lies its moral, a warning against the dangers of wealth, rather than in the descriptions of Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom and Dives in Hell.

And yet, manifestly, the teller of the parable does regard these evocations of the afterlife as appropriate images of the real future of man. In this, the text clearly testifies to the fact that the earliest Christianity shared in the faith of contemporary Judaism about the beyond. So much we can say without even entering into the (quite independent) question of whether in the parable we are overhearing the ipsissima vox of Jesus himself.

Something along the same lines must be said about the second text, the dialogue of the Crucified with the good thief. Here too the Jewish background is palpable. Paradise is the place where the Messiah, concealed, awaits his hour, and whither he will return. But it is in this selfsame text that we begin to see the Christian transformation of the inherited Jewish tradition at work. That destiny reserved by Jewish tradition to the martyrs and the privileged “righteous ones” is now promised by the Condemned Man on the Cross to a fellow condemnee.

He possesses the authority to open wide the doors of paradise to the lost. His word is the key which unlocks them. And so the phrase “with me” takes on a transformative significance. It means that paradise is no longer seen as a place standing in permanent readiness for occupation and which happens to contain the Messiah along with a lot of other people. Instead, paradise opens in Jesus. It depends on his person. Joachim Jeremias was right, therefore, to find a connection between the prayer of the good thief and the petition of the dying Stephen: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

With impressive unanimity, the New Testament presents the communion with Christ after death as the specifically Christian view of the inter-mediate state.

Here is the dawning realization that Jesus himself is paradise, light, fresh water, the secure peace toward which human longing and hope are directed. Perhaps we may remind ourselves in this connection of the new use of the image of “bosom” which we find in John’s Gospel. Jesus does not come from the bosom of Abraham, but from that of the Father himself.” The disciple who is to become the type of all faithful discipleship rests on the bosom of Jesus. The Christian, in his faith and love, finds shelter on the breast of Jesus and so, in the end, on the breast of the Father. “I am the resurrection”: what these words mean emerges here from a new angle.


The Immortality of the Soul and the Resurrection of the Dead – Benedict XVI

April 16, 2013
In the long run, theology and preaching cannot tolerate such a quirky theological patchwork, full of logical leaps and ruptures. As quickly as possible we should bid farewell to this way of thinking which deprives Christian proclamation of an appropriate discourse and thus cancels its own claim to be taken seriously as a form of Christian understanding. Victor-Louis Mottez (13 February 1809 – 7 June 1897) was a French fresco painter, painter and portraitist. His “Resurrection of the Dead” was painted in 1870.

In the long run, theology and preaching cannot tolerate such a quirky theological patchwork, full of logical leaps and ruptures. As quickly as possible we should bid farewell to this way of thinking which deprives Christian proclamation of an appropriate discourse and thus cancels its own claim to be taken seriously as a form of Christian understanding. Victor-Louis Mottez (13 February 1809 – 7 June 1897) was a French fresco painter, painter and portraitist. His “Resurrection of the Dead” was painted in 1870.

Benedict XVI begins his consideration of the issue with a survey of recent literature on the issue. This and the following posts are taken from his 1988 book Eschatology, which remains a leading text on the “last things” — heaven and hell, purgatory and judgment, death and the immortality of the soul.


The State Of The Question
In the last few decades, a basic question has arisen about the immortality of the soul and resurrection. The ensuing discussion has increasingly transformed the panorama of theology and devotion. Oscar Cullmann put it cursorily, it dramatically:

If today one asks an average Christian, no matter whether Protestant or Catholic, whether intellectually inclined or not, what the New Testament teaches about the destiny of the individual human being after death, in almost every case one will receive the answer, ‘The immortality of the soul’. In this form, this opinion is one of the greatest misunderstandings of Christianity there can be.
Oscar Cullmann, Unsterblichkeit der Seele oder Auferstehung gische Literature Zeitung

Today, few would venture to offer the answer that was earlier a matter of course, since the idea that this answer was based upon a misunderstanding has spread with astonishing speed among the congregations of Christendom. How ever, no new answer of any concreteness has taken its place. The way to this change of attitudes was paved by two men: the Protestant theologians Carl Stange (1870­1959) and Adolf Schlatter (1852-1938), to some extent aided and abetted by Paul Althaus whose eschatology was first published in 1922.

Appealing to the Bible and to Luther, these men rejected as Platonic dualism the notion of a separation of body and soul in death such as the doctrine of the immortality of the soul presupposes. The only truly biblical doctrine is that which holds that when man dies “he perishes, body and soul.” Only in this fashion can one, preserve the idea of death as a judgment, of which Scripture speaks in such unmistakable accents.

The proper Christian thing, therefore, is to speak, not of the soul’s immortality, but of the resurrection of the complete human being and of that alone. The piety currently surrounding death, impregnated as it is with an eschatology of going to heaven must be eliminated in favor of the only true form of Christian hope: expectation of the Last Day. In 1950, which had meanwhile gained so much ground. He pointed out that the Bible was perfectly familiar with the “dualistic scheme.” It too knew not only the expectation of the Last Day, but a form of individual hope for heaven. Althaus also tried to show that the same was true for Luther. And so he reformulated his position in the following words:

Christian eschatology must not fight against immortality as such. The scandal which in recent times we have frequently given by this fight is not the skandalon that the Gospel speaks of.
P. Althaus, Retraktionen zur Eschatologie

Though the discussion which followed Althaus’ article produced a broad consensus in his favor, his retractions had no impact on the continuing debate as a whole. The idea that to speak of the soul is unbiblical was accepted to such an extent that even the new Roman Missal suppressed the term anima in its liturgy for the dead. It also disappeared from the ritual for burial.

How was it possible to overthrow so quickly a tradition firmly rooted since the age of the early Church and always considered central? In itself, the apparent evidence of the biblical data would surely not have sufficed. Essentially the potency of the new position stemmed from the parallel between, on the one hand, the allegedly biblical idea of the absolute indivisibility of man and, on the other, a modern anthropology, worked out on the basis of natural science, and identifying the human being with his or her body, without any remainder that might admit a soul distinct from that body. It may be conceded that the elimination of the immortality of the soul removes a possible source of conflict between faith and contemporary thought.

However, this scarcely saves the Bible, since the biblical view of things is even more remote by modern-day standards. Acceptance of the unity of the human being may be well and good but who, on the basis of the current tenets of the natural sciences, could imagine a resurrection of the body? That resurrection would presuppose a completely different kind of matter, a fundamentally transformed cosmos which lies completely outside of what we can conceive.

Again, the question of what, in this case, would happen to the dead person until the “end of time” cannot simply be pushed aside. Luther’s idea of the “sleep of the soul” certainly does not solve this problem. If there is no soul, and so no proper subject of such a “sleep,” who is this person that is going to be really raised? How can there be an identity between the human being who existed at some point in the past and the counterpart that has to be re-created from nothing? The irritated refusal of such questions as “philosophical” does not contribute to a more meaningful discussion.

In other words, it soon becomes obvious that pure Biblicism does not take us very far. One cannot get anywhere without “hermeneutics,” that is, without a rational rethinking of the biblical data which may itself go beyond these data in its language and its systematic linkage of ideas. If we leave aside those radical solutions which try to solve the problem by forbidding all “objectifying” statements and permitting only “existential” interpretations, we find ourselves confronted with a twofold attempt to take the matter further. This twofold attempt turns on a new concept of time, and a fresh understanding of the body.

The first set of ideas is related to the reflections we glanced at above in the context of the question of imminent expectation. There we saw that some writers tried to solve the problem of the imminently expected Kingdom by noting that the end of time is itself no longer time. It is not a date which happens to come extremely late in the calendar but rather non-time, something which, since it is outside of time, is equally close to every time.

This idea was easily combined with the notion that death itself leads out of time into the timeless. In Catholic circles, these suggestions received some support in the discussion about the dogma of Mary’s assumption into glory. The scandal attaching to the assertion that a human being, Mary, has already risen in the body was a challenge to rethink more generally the relation between death and time as well as to reflect on the nature of human corporeality.

If it is possible to regard the Marian dogma as offering a model of human destiny at large, then two problems at once evaporate. On the one hand, the ecumenical and speculative scandal of the dogma disappears, while on the other the dogma itself helps to correct the traditional view of immortality and resurrection in favor of a picture at once more biblical and more modern. Although this new approach received no very clear or consistent elaboration, it became generally accepted that time should be considered a form of bodily existence.

Death signifies leaving time for eternity with its single “today.” Here the problem of the “intermediate state” between death and resurrection turns out to be a problem only in seeming. The “between” exists only in our perspective. In reality, the “end of time” is timeless. The person who dies steps into the presence of the Last Day and of judgment, the Lord’s resurrection and parousia. As one author put it, “The resurrection can thus be situated in death and not the ‘Last Day’.” Meanwhile, the view that resurrection takes place at the moment of death has gained such widespread acceptance that it is even incorporated, with some qualifications, into the Dutch Catechism, where we read:

Existence after death is already something like the resurrection of the new body.

This means that what the dogma of the assumption tells us about Mary is true of every human being. Owing to the timelessness which reigns beyond death, every death is an entering into the new heaven and the new earth, the parousia and the resurrection.

And here two questions suggest themselves. First, is this not merely a camouflaged return to the doctrine of immortality on philosophically somewhat more adventurous  presuppositions? Resurrection is now being claimed for the person still lying on his deathbed or on the journey to his grave. The indivisibility of man and his boundness to the body, even when dead, suddenly to play no further role, even though it was the point of departure of this whole construction. Indeed, the Dutch Catechism asserts:

Our Lord means that there is something of man, that v most properly himself, which can be saved after death. This ‘something’ is not the body which is left behind.”

G. Greshake formulates the claim even more incisively:

Matter as such (as atom, molecule, organ …) cannot be perfected … This being so, then if human freedom is finalized in death, the body, the world and the history of this freedom are permanently preserved in the definitive concrete form which that freedom has taken.

Such ideas may be meaningful. The only question is by what right one still speaks of “corporeality” if all connection with matter is explicitly denied and matter left with a share in the final perfection only insofar as it was “an ecstatic aspect of the human act of freedom.”

Be this as it may, in this model the body is in fact left to death, while at the same time an afterlife of the human being is asserted. Just why the concept of the soul is still disowned now ceases to be intelligible. What we have here is a covert assumption of the continuing authentic reality of the person in separation from his or her body. The idea of the soul meant to convey nothing other than this. In this amalgam of notions of corporeality and soulhood we have a strange mishmash of ideas which can hardly count as a definitive solution of our problem.

The second component in the characteristic modern approach to the idea of death and immortality is the philosophy of time and of history which constitutes its true lever. Are we really confronted with a choice between the stark, exclusive alternatives of physical time on the one hand, and, on the other, a timelessness to be identified with eternity itself? Is it even logically possible to conceive of man, whose existence is achieved decisively in the temporal, being transposed into sheer eternity?

And in any case, can an eternity which has a beginning be eternity at all? Is it not necessarily non-eternal, and so temporal, precisely because it had a beginning? Yet how can one deny that the resurrection of a human being has a beginning, namely, after death? If, coerced by the logic of the position, one chose to deny this, then surely one would have to suppose that man has always existed in the risen state, in an eternity without beginning.

But this view would abolish all serious anthropology. It would fall, in fact, into a caricature of that Platonism which is supposed to be its principal enemy. G. Lohfink, an advocate of the thesis that resurrection is already achieved in death, has noticed these difficulties. He tries to deal with them by invoking the mediaeval concept of the aevum, an attempt to describe a special mode of time proper to spiritual creatures on the basis of an analysis of angelic existence.

Lohfink sees that death leads not into pure timelessness but into a new kind of time proper to created spirits. The purpose of his argument is primarily to give a defensible sense to biblical imminent expectation which he takes to be the central theme of the message of Jesus. His concern is not with the body-soul problematic from which such speculation emerged but with the necessity, at least as he reads the Gospels, of a discourse that would throw light on the permanent temporal closeness of the Parousia.

Such imminence is feasible, according to Lohfink, if the human person may be said to enter through death into the peculiar time of spirits and so into the fulfillment of history. The idea of the aevum thus becomes the hermeneutically respectable way of saying that the parousia and resurrection take place for each person in the moment of death. Imminent expectation can now be identified with the expectation of death itself, and so warranted for everybody.

… we have now seen that a reflective concept of time, which eschews the naive assumption that time in the beyond is commensurable with earthly time, necessarily leads to our locating the last things — and not simply those concerning the individual, but the end of the world itself — in the moment of death. The last things have thereby become infinitely close to us. Every human being lives in the ‘last age’….”
Greshake & Lohfink, Naherwartung-Augerstehung-Unsterblichkeit

This proposal for a differentiated concept of time entails genuine progress. Yet the queries listed above are in no way rendered redundant by it. Looking more closely, one discovers that this concept of the aevum has simply been added on, in somewhat external fashion, to a predetermined conceptual construct. The point of this construct is the claim that on the other side of death history is already complete. The end of history is ever waiting for the one who dies.

But this is just what can hardly be reconciled with the continuation of history. History is viewed as simultaneously completed and still continuing. What remains unexplained is the relationship between, on the one hand, the ever new beginnings of human life in history, both present and future, and, on the other, the state of fulfillment not only of the individual but of the historical process itself, a state said to be already realized in the world beyond death.

The idea of the aevum is helpful when we are considering the condition of the individual person who enters into perfection while remaining a creature of time. In this domain the concept has a precise meaning. But it says nothing at all which could justify the statement that history as a whole, from whatever point of view, can be seen as already fulfilled.

It is odd that an exegete should appeal in support of this speculation to the “primitive Christian view” for which, in the case of Jesus, “resurrection from the dead follows immediately upon death,” a view which supposedly supplies the “real model of Christian eschatology” which the early Church somehow forgot to apply more widely.” For, to begin with, one can hardly ignore the fact that the message of resurrection “on the third day” posits a clear interim period between the death of the Lord and his rising again. And, more importantly, it is evident that early Christian proclamation never identified the destiny of those who die before the Parousia with the quite special event of the resurrection of Jesus.

That special event depended on Jesus’ unique and irreducible position in the history of salvation. Moreover, there are two respects in which one must bring the charge that all this is a case of aggravated Platonism. First, in such models the body is definitively excluded from the hope for salvation. Secondly the concept of the aevum as here employed hypostatises history in a way which only falls short of Plato’s doctrine of the Ideas by virtue of its logical inconsistencies

Perhaps we have lingered overlong on these theses. That seemed necessary because at the present time they have been almost universally received into the general theological consciousness. Such a consensus, it should now be clear, rests on an extremely fragile foundation.

In the long run, theology and preaching cannot tolerate such a quirky theological patchwork, full of logical leaps and ruptures. As quickly as possible we should bid farewell to this way of thinking which deprives Christian proclamation of an appropriate discourse and thus cancels its own claim to be taken seriously as a form of Christian understanding.


Birches — By Robert Frost

March 8, 2013
It is absurd to think that the only way to tell if a poem is lasting is to wait and see if it lasts. The right reader of a good poem can tell the moment it strikes him that he has taken an immortal wound—that he will never get over it.

It is absurd to think that the only way to tell if a poem is lasting is to wait and see if it lasts. The right reader of a good poem can tell the moment it strikes him that he has taken an immortal wound—that he will never get over it.

I love this poem: the wisdom of an older man who transforms memory and faces death informed by his life. And who is to say he didn’t go by climbing a birch tree, climbing black branches up a snow-white trunk toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more and dipped its top and set him down again, touching the smiling face of a loving God. God bless us all.


When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.

But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.

Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:

You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.

But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.

One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer.

He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.

It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.

I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.


A Catholic Anthropology vs. “Death with Dignity” – Derek Jeter

February 25, 2013

Death_of_Dignity_ColorWe live in a secular world that pulses at times with debates over euthanasia and “physician assisted suicide.” Accompanying social movements in favor of these options sometimes wrap themselves in the slogan “death with dignity,” one of those phrases that would seem to be brook no opposition.

Who would deny dignity to the dying, after all. Yes, you sir, you Catholic bastard! Your leader died hanging off a Roman Cross and you can’t generate the simple human compassion to let a fellow human end their own life of suffering. We’ll give you the pills, all you need is a little apple sauce, for Christ’s sake. That’s right, mix them right up and I’ll prop Granny up so she can have her last meal. You see, it’s a Eucharist of sorts. Can’t you see that, you blind ignorant fool. Hitchens was right, you religious are the bane of modernity.

So here we are again, the target of a mass movement with another powerful social message boiled into a catchy slogan that elides over some real critical Catholic anthropological issues that affect the human community. Give that gentleman with the “Death with Dignity” sign a seat next the lady with “A Woman’s Right to Choose” placard and that young couple distributing those “Equality of Marriage” pamphlets, if you would be so kind.

So why can’t we end life purposefully when it no longer seems worth its cost in suffering? Why not use some extrinsic standard as away to calculate a life’s worth? What’s so wrong with that?

The value of life is measured based on the quality of experiences it supports, its pains and pleasures, the degree to which it promises “happiness,” “contentment,” “well-being” and so forth. But the implications of this calculation are clear. Life constitutes a platform for various kinds of experiences, both desirable and otherwise. Hence, it is a relative good in relation to the experiences it both makes possible and imposes. In Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II criticizes this very sort of relativization, to which he attached the lapidary [vocab: Marked by conciseness, precision, or refinement of expression] phrase “culture of death.”
David Crawford, The Gospel Of Life And The Integrity Of Death

It’s not all relativization, however. Hand in hand with that is the absolutizing of life that manifests itself in obsessive attempts to prevent suffering and death, whatever the ethical cost and by whatever technical means. If doctors are sometimes asked to take positive steps to help end life, they are also sometimes asked to take every measure, however extraordinary, to maintain it. Think of the travails of the legendary Karen Ann Quinlan.

The relativizing and absolutizing tendencies therefore go hand in hand. From this point of view, the relativizing side is predominant with respect to life itself. Only the underlying experiences life supports are conceived of as absolute goods or evils. Hence, life and health are to be managed as instrumental goods by means of medical science and technology, and the same impulse that leads to the indefinite extension of life underlies the desire to manage death by means of clinically procured suicide.
David Crawford, The Gospel Of Life And The Integrity Of Death

The key phrase in the previous paragraph is to “manage death.” That’s what our good modern secular biotechnicians are after, not doctors pursuing wisdom but managers of medical science and technology instruments taking every measure, oblivious to any and all ethical consequences however extraordinary the measure, to maintain life.

 “These practices turn death into an object of production. By becoming a product, death is supposed to vanish as a question mark about the nature of being human, a more-than-technological enquiry. The issue of euthanasia is becoming increasingly important because people wish to avoid death as something which happens to me, and replace it with a technical cessation of function…” Ratzinger goes on to say that this “dehumanizing” of death results in the dehumanizing of life: “When human sickness and dying are reduced to the level of technological activity, so is man himself.
[Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life]

When life and health are to managed as instrumental goods by means of medical science and technology, what appears to be the same impulse manifests itself in two separate actions: the first that leads to the indefinite extension of life underlies the desire of the second to manage death by means of clinically procured suicide. Scratch one, tickle the other – it’s all the same. The same nitwits who watched Karen Ann Quinlan waste away on feeding tubes and breathing machines would want to slip her an apple sauce desert laced with a high dose of barbiturates.

The Catholic Impulse
So what is the Church’s teaching on these matters? What is the wisdom of her finest minds? What does DJ say? Ah, but I repeat myself…

The impulse to dominate life and death departs radically from the idea of life as a gift and death as perhaps its most defining moment. It departs from the primordial wisdom contained in the thought we are “given” birth. That we are given birth stands for the larger proposition that our radical and continuing ontological dependency means that life can only follow the structure and logic of its original giftedness in every moment right up to the last

The same logic governs death. Even if “life is tantamount to some form of activity,” “death is, by contrast, pure passivity, the `night, in which no one can work’ (John 9:4),” as Robert Spaemann puts it. This is why physician assisted suicide, as the name implies, cannot be an act of death but only an act of killing. Spaemann continues, “since we are aware of death and can suffer death in a conscious anticipation, we are able to transform the pure suffering into an actus humanus.” ['Robert Spaemann, Death -- Suicide -- Euthanasia]What can be a human act, then, is preparation for death, which can be a primary shaping force for life.
David Crawford, The Gospel Of Life And The Integrity Of Death

The above begins to inform us of the true meaning of compassion. Passion has long been taken over by its erotic meanings and lost its underlying truth of suffering, as in “the passion of the Christ.”  Evangelium Vitae makes the argument that authentic compassion — as the word itself implies — means a “suffering with,” rather than the elimination of suffering at whatever ethical or moral cost.

Genuine compassion can never be reduced to what alleviates suffering, nor to the sentiments that come from such acts. True compassion is an education in dying for both the sufferer and the one who gives compassion for that suffering. “She is sleeping. Why don’t you go back and get some sleep?” “No, I want to be here when she wakes up.” Death with dignity is a death in Christ, accompanied by acts of compassion, not the uninformed feverish activities of managers of medical science and technology.

Now before we get much further here I know I will have to deal with one of those managers asking how a good Catholic death of the middle ages is in anyway different from a good Catholic death in the 21st century. The answer is no different at all in many ways although the previous ages gave us many more deaths that could have been prevented and deaths that may have been much more painful. I am not against alleviating pain and suffering. I am against suspending the dying process and controlling it so that it does not progress naturally.

Some in the Death with Dignity crowd seek to dispel the notion that self-destruction in such circumstances is an act of despair. They try to spin it as an act of transcendence, a radical act of freedom:

It is a question of refusing to submit to the diminished capacity and dignity that come with suffering, illness and dying. It is the refusal, the No that is important here. The act of will itself therefore seems to be the only possible point of transcendence. This final (and yes, desperate) assertion of the subject belies a more primitive impulse than the desire to escape from unbearable suffering. It manifests the yearning in the face of seeming helplessness to take life — by seizing control of death — into one’s own hands.

From this odd point of view — if this point of transcendence can be understood as an ersatz surmounting of death — the absolutizing tendency reemerges…. Both the idea of self-destruction as self-preservation and the technical pursuit of deathlessness are ploys to achieve forgetfulness. The terror nevertheless remains because at some point death must be faced. Paradoxically, then, the effect of these movements is to increase terror while all the time making it difficult to think very seriously about either life or death.
David Crawford, The Gospel Of Life And The Integrity Of Death

So what is thinking more seriously about life and death? Obviously in the secular world this kind of thinking hasn’t taken place and to begin it by viewing the life and death of Jesus would probably be the proverbial non-starter. Or would it? Circumstances seem to provoke a willingness to listen to Jesus. Flying a plane into a building where thousands are working is one I can think of.

Our life and the goodness of life is not a set of experiences we can use to justify the extension of life by any and all means possible. One of the reasons I can say this is because claiming “Life is a good” because it supports a set of experiences, however desirable, cannot possibly account for the fullness of life’s goodness however. This is because we cannot think of our lives as merely a set of experiences.

Like every other earthly organism, life for the human constitutes a constant struggle to remain in existence but man is at the same time, different from the rest of cosmic reality. If all organisms possess a “nature” that encloses their “growth, maturity, decline, and death,” it is not the same for man. His existence is “not the unfolding and fulfillment of `nature,’ but the enactment of a `history.” [Romano Guardini, The Last Things: Concerning Death Purification after Death, Resurrection,Judgment, and Eternity] Organisms cannot be said to have a history, yet the human person’s life is only intelligible as such. Aristotle reminds us of the ironic saying that we should count no one happy so long as he is still living.

“So constitutive for [human] life is the possibility of not-being that its very being is essentially a hovering over this abyss, a skirting of its brink thus being itself has become a constant possibility rather than a given state, ever anew to be laid hold of in opposition to its ever-present contrary, not-being, which will inevitably engulf it in the end.”
Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology

Like history in general, personal history cannot possibly be “one damn thing after another” until the last thing. Form is necessary for a whole, and being a whole is necessary for personal history. The quest to manage life and death implies a rejection of this final and defining form. The endless ability to redo things or start again would guarantee this. In the end, technical deathlessness, were it actually possible, would drain life and action of their drama and importance rather than extend or heighten them. Horizontal deathlessness would therefore not in fact be human deathlessness. It would be more like death by ennui.
David Crawford, The Gospel Of Life And The Integrity Of Death

In the Catholic anthropology, man is called to a fullness of life which far exceeds the dimensions of his earthly existence, because it consists in sharing the very life of God:

The loftiness of this supernatural vocation reveals the greatness and the inestimable value of human life even in its temporal phase. Life in time, in fact, is the fundamental condition, the initial stage and an integral part of the entire unified process of human existence. It is a process which, unexpectedly and undeservedly, is enlightened by the promise and renewed by the gift of divine life, which will reach its full realization in eternity (cf. 1 John 3:1-2).

At the same time, it is precisely this supernatural calling which highlights the relative character of each individual’s earthly life. After all, life on earth is not an “ultimate” but a “penultimate” reality; even so, it remains a sacred reality entrusted to us, to be preserved with a sense of responsibility and brought to perfection in love and in the gift of ourselves to God and to our brothers and sisters.
Evangelium Vitae

As a Catholic, I demand a death that allows me to contribute to the history of my life. My death as part of my life in Christ.


Protected: Nobody Gets Too Much Heaven — Derek Jeter

February 18, 2013

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The Art of Dying Well – St. Robert Bellarmine

October 30, 2012

Bishop, Confessor and Doctor of the Church.

Bellarmine is a name that pushed its way into my consciousness as I listened to a series of lectures on Church history. Cardinal Francis George named him as the man who set up the juridical framework of the Church-as-State back in the 16th century that Vatican II sought to reassess when it looked to encounter the world in the 1960s. And there he was again in the Galileo controversy. And finally, as scholar and thinker of the faith, I liked the thin volume he left behind, “The Art of Dying Well.” Some reading selections here. It also makes a nice segue from Michelangelo’s The Deluge now that Hurricane Sandy might be bearing down upon us all.


The Most Important Of All Sciences
Being now free from Public business and enabled to attend to myself, when in my usual retreat I consider, what is the reason why so very few endeavor to learn the “Art of dying well,” (which all men ought to know,) I can find no other cause than that mentioned by the Wise man: “The perverse are hard to be corrected, and the number of fools is infinite.” (Ecclesiastes 1:15) For what folly can be imagined greater than to neglect that Art, on which depend our highest and eternal interests; whilst on the other hand we learn with great labor, and practice with no less ardor, other almost innumerable arts, in order either to preserve or to increase perishable things?

Now every one will admit, that the “Art of dying Well” is the most important of all sciences; at least every one who seriously reflects, how after death we shall have to give an account to God of everything we did, spoke, or thought of, during our whole life, even of every idle word; and that the devil being our accuser, our conscience a witness, and God the Judge, a sentence of happiness or misery everlasting awaits us. We daily see, how when judgment is expected to be given, even on affairs of the slightest consequence, the interested party enjoy no rest, but consult at one time the lawyers, at another the solicitors, now the judges, and then their friends or relations.

But in death when a “Cause” is pending before the Supreme Judge, connected with life or death eternal, often is the sinner compelled, when unprepared, oppressed by disease, and scarcely possessed of reason, to give an account of those things on which when in health, he had perhaps never once reflected. This is the reason why miserable mortals rush in crowds to hell; and as St. Peter saith, “If the just man shall scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?” (1Peter 4:1)

I have therefore considered it would be useful to exhort myself, in the first place, and then my Brethren, highly to esteem the “Art of dying Well.” And if there be any who, as yet, have not acquired this Art from other learned teachers, I trust they will not despise, at least those Precepts which I have endeavored to collect, from Holy Writ and the Ancient Fathers.

But before I treat of these Precepts, I think it useful to inquire into the nature of death; whether it is to be ranked among good or among evil things. Now if death be considered absolutely in itself, without doubt it must be called an evil, because that which is opposed to life we must admit cannot be good.

By The Envy Of The Devil
Moreover, as the Wise man saith: “God made not death, but by the envy of the devil, death came into the world.” (Wisdom 11:13-24) With these words St. Paul also agrees, when he saith: “Wherefore as by one man sin entered into this world, and by sin death: and so death passed upon all men in whom all have sinned.” Romans 5:12. If then God did not make death, certainly it cannot be good, because everything which God hath made is good, according to the words of Moses: “And God saw all things that he had made, and they were very good.”

But although death cannot be considered good in itself, yet the wisdom of God hath so seasoned it as it were, that from death many blessings arise. Hence David exclaims; “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints:” and the Church speaking of Christ saith: Who by His death hath destroyed our death, and by His resurrection hath regained life.” Now death that hath destroyed death and regained life, cannot but be very good: wherefore if every death cannot be called good, yet at least some may. Hence St. Ambrose did not hesitate to write a book entitled, “On the Advantages of Death;” in which treatise he clearly proves that death, although produced by sin, possesses its peculiar advantages.

An End To The Miseries Of This Life
There is also another reason which proves that death, although an evil in itself, can, by the grace of God, produce many blessings
. For, first, there is this great blessing, that death puts an end to the numerous miseries of this life. Job thus eloquently complains of the evils of this our present state: “Man born of a woman, living for a short time, is filled with many miseries. Who cometh forth like a flower and is destroyed, and fleeth as a shadow, and never continueth in the same state.” Job: 14:1

And Ecclesiastes saith: “I praised the dead rather than the living: and I judged him happier than them both, that is not yet born, nor hath seen the evils that are under the sun” (Ecclesiasticus 4: 2-3) likewise adds: “Great labor is created for all men, and a heavy yoke is upon the children of Adam, from the day of their coming out of their mother’s womb, until the day of their burial into the mother of all.” (Ecclesiasticus 40) The Apostle too complains of the miseries of this life: “Unhappy man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Epistle to Romans 7: 24.)

The Grace Of Christ
From these testimonies, therefore, of Holy Writ it is quite evident, that death possesses an advantage, in freeing us from the miseries of this life. But it also hath a still more excellent advantage, because it may become the gate from a prison to a Kingdom. This was revealed by our Lord to St. John the Evangelist, when for his faith he had been exiled into, the isle of Patmos: “And I heard a voice from heaven saying to me: Write, blessed are the dead who die in the Lord. From henceforth now, saith the spirit, that they may rest from their labors: for their works follow them.” (Apocalypse 14:13)

Truly “blessed” is the death of the saints, which by the command of the Heavenly King frees the soul from the prison of the flesh, and conducts her to a celestial Kingdom; where just souls sweetly rest after all their labors, and for the reward of their good works, receive a crown of glory. To the souls in purgatory also, death brings no slight benefit, for it delivers them from the fear of death, and makes them certain of possessing one day, eternal Happiness. Even to wicked men themselves, death seems to be of some advantage; for in freeing them from the body, it prevents the measure of their punishment from increasing.

On account of these excellent advantages, death to good men seems not horrible, but sweet; not terrible, but lovely. Hence St. Paul securely exclaims: “For to me, to live is Christ; and to die is gain having a desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ:” and his first Epistle to the Thessalonians, he saith: “We will not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning them that are asleep, that you be not sorrowful, even as others who have not hope” (4:12.)

There lived some time ago a certain holy lady, named Catherine Adorna, of Genoa; she was so inflamed with the love of Christ, that with the most ardent desires she wished to be “dissolved,” and to depart to her Beloved: hence, seized as it were with a love for death, she often praised it as most beautiful and most lovely, blaming it only for this that it fled from those who desired it, and was found by those who fled from it.

From these considerations then we may conclude, that death, as produced by sin, is an evil; but that, by the grace of Christ who condescended to suffer death for us, it hath become in many ways salutary, lovely, and to be desired.


The World Is a Narrow Bridge: THE FEAR OF DEATH Part II – Rabbi Kushner

May 11, 2012

A free man thinks of death least of all things, and his wisdom is a meditation of life, not of death.


Some people believe in life in heaven after death because it is the only thing that makes the troubles and tragedies of this life bearable. In the absence of any proof that there is no heaven, they cling to the faith that there must be. If God is all-powerful and loving, He should be both willing and able to provide a happy ending to our all-too-brief and frustrating lives on earth. If God could create life out of nothing, why can’t He restore a life that was already there?

Benjamin Franklin, shortly before his death, penned his own obituary: “The body of B. Franklin, printer, like the cover of an old book, its contents torn out…. But the work shall not be wholly lost, for it will, as he believed, appear once more in a new and more perfect edition, corrected and amended by the Author.”

I would like to believe it. It would be a source of immeasurable bliss to think that when I die, I would be reunited with my son and make up for all those years of being together that I was denied when he died at age fourteen. But that joyful possibility is one of the things that makes me skeptical about the notion of an afterlife. I learned early that the world is not designed to make me happy. Books and movies can be manipulated by their creators to have happy endings; real life doesn’t always work out that way.

More than that, I am uncomfortable with a faith system that posits a definition of God and then decides “what God has to do” in order to live up to their definition. It sounds a bit like saying, If the facts conflict with my theology, I would rather ignore the facts than question my theology.

My colleague Professor Neil Gillman, in his excellent study The Death of Death, points out something I had never noticed before. The last line of the Passover Seder, when Jews celebrate God’s redeeming of our ancestors from bondage in Egypt, describes God destroying the Angel of Death, as if anticipating a parallel between the Egyptian Exodus and a deliverance from the enslavement to mortality that limits us. We may no longer be slaves to Pharaoh, but our bodies are slaves to the Angel of Death, who will one day come to claim us. On Passover, we yearn to be freed from that limitation.

My family and I will continue to end our Seder meal with that image, but as we do so, I am chastened by Gillman’s cautionary words: “The surest way to trivialize any eschatological doctrine is to understand it as literal truth, as a prediction of events that will take place as they are described in some eventual future.” To me, the vision of God destroying Death offers not the promise of physically living again or of living forever but a poetic expression of confidence that there are some things about a person who links his or her life with God — deeds of kindness, medical breakthroughs, great works of art — that permit that person to outlive even his or her own death.

A reality check would remind us that our bodies decay and return to the earth, but so many of our after-death fantasies assume that we will still have bodies, probably because we can’t imagine what it would feel like to exist without them. I have always been drawn to the vision of the afterlife offered by Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher of the twelfth century. He posited that, after we die, the righteous are rewarded by having their disembodied souls spend eternity in the presence of God, and the wicked are punished by missing out on that reward. My only problem with that view is that it assumes a duality, an essential divide between body and soul, which is more of a Greek notion than a biblical one.

Let me then offer my own belief on the subject: We don’t have to be afraid of dying because it is not really death that scares us. We are afraid of not having lived. In my nearly fifty years as a clergyman, I have been at the bedside of many, many dying people, young and old, religious and freethinkers, successful in life and less successful. They taught me the profound truth that terminally ill people are not afraid of death. When you are very sick, when little by little your body stops being able to do the things it has always been able to do, death may be the only cure for what ails you. There are three things that terrify the very ill person more than the prospect of dying.

They are afraid of pain, they are afraid that people will abandon them while they are still alive, and they are afraid that they will die having wasted their lives, having never accomplished anything that will cause people to remember them when they are gone. For most people, the prospect of nullification, of having left no mark on the world, is more frightening than the prospect of not living forever. The real fear of dying, I am convinced, is the fear that we will leave this world with our tasks unfinished, and the best way, indeed the only way, to defeat death is to live fearlessly and purposefully.

When it comes to the fear, of pain and of abandonment, the best thing that has happened in my lifetime has been the emergence of the hospice movement. I was recently invited to address a conference of hospice workers and volunteers, and I began by congratulating them on having changed the average American’s definition of a good death. Had you asked the average person a few years ago for his notion of a good death, he probably would have said “to go to sleep and not wake up,” echoing Woody Allen’s words, “I don’t mind dying; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Today, hospice has taught us to define a good death as one that sees us surrounded by family and loved ones, giving us the opportunity to say good-bye, to thank them for having cared for us and shared their lives with us, leaving no words unspoken that need to be spoken.

And hospice has persuaded doctors to let go, to forgo uncomfortable, invasive treatments that would only bring the patient a few more days or weeks of discomfort. Doctors no longer see assigning a patient to hospice as giving up or admitting defeat. As one doctor put it, when it comes to the terminally ill, medical care should usually involve more care and less medicine. American society has been slower, however, to recognize the need of the terminally ill for human companionship. Perhaps because we feel so inadequate to do anything helpful (“I never know what to say”), perhaps because it involves looking in the mirror and seeing a preview of our own mortality, we visit the terminally ill less often, we phone them less often, and we spend less time with them.

I remember a colleague of mine, an outstanding rabbi and pastor, who once confided to me, “I have a congregant whom I like a lot. He’s about my age, a good friend, an occasional tennis partner. He’s in the hospital with cancer and doesn’t have much time left. I know I ought to visit him, but for some reason I never get around to it.” I suggested, “Might it be because when you visit him, you see yourself one day in that situation and that’s scary?” David Kessler, author of The Needs of the Dying, has written, “We may never feel more alone than when we ourselves are dying.” Elsewhere, Kessler pictures the hospitalized terminally ill person saying, “You can talk to me, you can talk about me.: Just don’t talk without me, as if I weren’t here. I’m not dead yet.”

Recently, a close friend had to bury his ninety-seven-year-old aunt. He told me that when he visited her at the assisted-living facility where she spent her last years, the staff would comment on his frequent visits, telling him, “You have no idea how many people here go for weeks and months without a single visitor.”

I know from my own experience in hospitals and nursing homes that it is not pleasant visiting the seriously ill. We feel there is so little we can do for them. When we do bring ourselves to do it, we should realize that our presence, our caring enough to come, does a lot for the dying person. It may not extend her life, but it reassures her that people know that she is still very much alive. Kessler offers a beautiful image of what we can do when a loved one is dying. He suggests that we escort them to the door of death the way we would accompany a friend leaving on a journey to his or her gate at the airport. (Given today’s airport rules, we might think of accompanying them to the security transit point.)

But in case after case the dying have taught me that what frightened them more than pain or loneliness was the fear that they had wasted their lives, that they had used up their allotted time on earth keeping busy but never really having lived. Earlier, I cited the theory that the knowledge Adam and Eve acquired when they ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the knowledge that elevated them above the level of animals, was the knowledge that they would one day die, and I asked how that awareness of mortality could be called good and bad, as the Bible describes the fruit.

The answer may be that death is not good (except where it brings release from unbearable suffering), but the knowledge that we are destined to die can be good if it moves us to take our choices and preferences more seriously. If our time is limited, we realize that what we put off today, we may never get around to doing. It has been said that death, like birth, provides life with a temporal frame, a beginning and an end. Without them, there can be no middle. In the words of Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, who wrote so meaningfully on the subject, “It is the denial of death that is partially responsible for people living empty, purposeless lives; for when you live as if you’ll live forever, it becomes too easy to postpone the things you know you must do.”

Death does not negate the meaning of our lives. Death helps to define our lives. Remember, the word “define” means “to set boundaries.” Death marks the end of life in the same way that a period marks the end of a sentence. It doesn’t rob the sentence of meaning; it clarifies what the meaning of the sentence is. Your life is not meaningless just because it doesn’t go on forever. It is precisely because our lives do not go on forever that our choices and values have significance.

But what if we understand that we are mortal yet get the frightening feeling that we may be running out of time with a large part of our agenda unfinished? What if, as we grow older and notice changes in our health and vigor, as we read more obituary notices for people our age and younger, we find ourselves thinking less about life and more about the prospect of dying? To speak of death in the abstract, to speak of the inevitability of death for all mankind, is a philosophical-theological conversation. To confront the prospect of one’s own imminent death is an act of immense courage. My friend Forrest Church, a Unitarian minister in New York and author of a dozen books, recently sent me the manuscript of his next book. In an accompanying note, he told me that this book would be his last; he was dying of esophageal cancer. The book would be called Love and Death.

How does a man who has dealt with death professionally for years deal with the prospect of his own death? First, he overcomes the temptation to blame himself for contracting a fatal illness, not asking himself, “What did I do to deserve this?” whether in terms of unhealthy living or moral misbehavior. Too often, asking why either becomes an effort to find someone to blame or suggests that if we had never made any wrong choices in our lives, we might have lived forever. Church writes, “The hard truth is … we all die of something. Vegetarians die. Joggers die. Even people with low cholesterol die….However we may have lived, the ultimate culprit is not sin or squalor but life. Life draws death in its glorious train.”

Next, he realizes that his death will be a source of anguish for his family and friends, and it is his obligation to be aware of that even if he won’t be around to see it. He reaches out to them, articulating his fears so that they will feel free to express theirs, forgiving and seeking forgiveness. In that way, the loneliest thing any of us will ever do becomes just a bit less lonely.

And finally he draws comfort from his faith, not faith in a God of happy endings for good people and not faith in the certainty of a life in the hereafter but the faith that life is not meaningless just because it is not endless.Everyone suffers but not everyone despairs. Despair is a consequence of suffering only when affliction cuts us off from others. The same suffering that leads one person to lose all hope can as easily promote empathy, a felt appreciation for other people’s pain.” It can also lead us to take pleasure in savoring one’s time with loved ones, knowing it will be brief and therefore all the more precious.

Over the years, my appreciation of the books of Philip Roth has been enhanced by the realization that he and I are about the same age. I could identify with his characters, from the randy adolescents of Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy ‘s Complaint to the rueful middle-aged figure of Nathan Zuckerman.

When, in his most recent novels, I find heroes who are his (and my) age obsessed with the prospect of growing old and dying, I can’t help feeling that this reflects issues with which Roth himself is grappling, and it saddens me that a writer of Roth’s immense talent should be focusing on how little he has left rather than on how much. It bothers me because I recognize that same tendency in myself as I grow into my seventies and have to make allowances for physical and mental things I can no longer do as easily as I once did. It is the plaint of Ecclesiastes, who finds himself in old age thinking, I have striven to do so much and now I am running out of time and wondering what the point of it all was.

In contrast with this obsession with the gathering darkness, I am drawn to the attitude of the artist Marc Chagall, who just before his death at age ninety-seven completed his last painting entitled Towards Another Light, showing a young painter with wings (as if ready for flight) working at his easel and an angel descending from heaven to carry him off. I would like to see a person’s last years (including my own) guided by the words of Spinoza that appear in the epigraph to this post, “A free man thinks of death least of all things, and his wisdom is a meditation of life, not of death.”

The sin of Ecclesiastes — to focus too much on the fear of death, to see it as canceling out everything you have done in your lifetime — gives death more power than it deserves. Death is not the final word. Your life is the story; death is only punctuation. We sin against life and against everything that is holy and valuable in life if we let the fear of death rob us of our freedom to enjoy as much life as we are granted.

I read Roth’s novel Everyman shortly after it was published, not realizing at the time that Roth had taken the title from a well-known medieval morality play and modeled his leading character after the hero of the play, a man who is terrified at the prospect of dying and dismayed to learn that neither friends nor family nor worldly success can postpone his passage. Happily, there is evidence that many people do deal with growing old and approaching the end of life more like Chagall than like Roth’s protagonists. After Roth’s novel appeared, two social scientists wrote to The New York Times Book Review citing the results of their research on middle-class Americans in their seventies. They wrote, “Only a small minority `worry about oblivion.’ Most accept their lives, including illness, loss and their many past misdeeds, and purposefully engage with the present…. Some despair, but they tend to be the same people who were also despairing in young and middle adulthood…. We share this note lest too many aging Americans take permission from Roth to dwell in the past and fear the future rather than seize the present.”

My own experience endorses theirs. People are living longer, and most of them are no longer spending their last years watching television in an empty apartment and waiting for the end. More and more of them are finding useful, creative things to do, mentoring young people, organizing book clubs, and keeping themselves vital as they do so.

I have two specific suggestions for those people (and I include myself in their number) who realize that the years behind significantly outnumber the years ahead, and for those who may find themselves looking forward to death because they find their current lives unsatisfying. We have to cleanse our souls of accumulated bitterness, envy, and resentment. We have to get over our anger at people who may have hurt, cheated, or betrayed us, most of whom may be long dead themselves or long gone from our lives. I would say to people, Why do you insist on carrying that heavy baggage into whatever is waiting for you? Why are you giving those people such power over you, to define you as a loser, a bitter, jealous person? Let go and travel light.

And second, we have to be able to focus on one or two meaningful things in our lives that we can feel we did well. A life doesn’t have to be remarkable to be meaningful. If you were not that successful in business, if you never earned a lot of money, you can focus on the fact that you lived and worked with integrity, that you were a good neighbor and earned the respect of your coworkers. If as a mother you are disappointed at the way your children turned out, you can still take pride in your ability to go on loving them and caring about them despite your disappointment. Love them because of who you want to be, not just because of who you want them to be.

If you worry that no one cares about you now that you are old and failing, find times to surround yourself with friends and family to give you the message of how much they care and to celebrate with them what your life has been about. Many years ago, when I was a young rabbi preparing to officiate at my first funeral (and only the third one at which I had been present), an older colleague gave me a valuable piece of advice. He told me, “Every life is a unique story, one that has never happened before. Your task as a eulogizer is to find that unique dimension and build your eulogy around it, so that friends and family will have that to remember.”

When Thornton Wilder wrote his novel in an effort to make sense of the death of innocent people, he had them die when a bridge collapsed. Why did he have them die that way? Why not in a fire, an automobile accident, a plague, or at the hands of a violent murderer? Wilder may have been using the image of the fragile rope bridge over a chasm as a symbol of the precariousness of all of our lives. Whether we understand the bridge as carrying us to a better world or just taking us to tomorrow’s problems and possibilities, each of us every day is making his or her way across a shaky bridge, aware that something might happen to us at any moment but at the same time realizing that if all we can think about is the fear of falling, we will never get anywhere in our lives. Feel the fear but cross the bridge anyway.

Toward the end of the eighteenth century, one of the dominant personalities in the world of Eastern European Hasidic Judaism was a man named Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlay. He enchanted his followers with his enigmatic stories and sayings, many of which are pored over to this day by theologians and psychiatrists alike. One of his many sayings became a popular song in Israel several years ago at a particularly tense time in Israeli society. This whole world, he said, is nothing but a narrow bridge, and for those who would cross it, the most important thing is not to be afraid.

We too, the only creatures who live with the daily awareness of our mortality, may feel that we are called on to cross that narrow bridge every day of our lives. If we let ourselves be paralyzed by the fear of falling into the chasm, we will never get anywhere or achieve anything. It will be the fear of death, not the fact of death, that will rob our lives of meaning. For us, as for Rabbi Nachman’s disciples, the most important thing to remember is not to be afraid.


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