2 - UNPACKING THE VAGARIES OF DEATH
They are called: matryoshka dolls, but most English-speaking people just refer to them as ‘Russian’ dolls and are a hoot to unpack starting with the large outer doll and continuing until the last wee one is got to.
Fascinating that it is only the last one, the smallest one, which is solid. All the others are by necessity hollow so that they may contain each subsequent doll.
When I was a boy, clocks were made of moving parts, radios were filled with tubes and boys would be delighted when a clock was worn out or a radio failed because we could unpack same, discover the wonder of the heretofore hidden parts that made the thing work.
Of course, any boy’s sister was less than happy should we decide to take apart some doll of theirs to discover what made it go ‘mama’!
This need to unpack, to see, to figure out, to understand has remained with me my whole life and is the way I approach problems, the reason I have a passion for history, for art, architecture, politics, philosophy, religion, you name it.
I am old enough to have had great grandparents and uncles and aunts rooted in the latter part of the 19th century; grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles born before, during, immediately after the First World War and to, in a sense, through their stories, their presence in my life, unpack, even before reading texts about the period, the latter Victorian era, the stark, bloody reality of World War I, the crushing dislocation of the Great Depression.
20th century life prior to World War II was for me a profound education and a period about whose history and vagaries I still research, still seeking to see more clearly, learn more deeply, understand more compassionately.
World War II, during which I was born, and the decades since, have formed me not just by experience but again through written and oral histories, art, music, etc., remains, as actually does each day, a reality to be unpacked, seen, learned from, understood over and over.
For me the matryoshka doll of life is so huge I cannot shake it to hear the rattle of the last, the solid little doll yet to be discovered.
Perhaps she is Lady Death, only to be unpacked, seen, learned from, understood at the end of earthly life.
Like most people, I have experience of what I might call one on one death, that is some family member or friend who dies, is waked, has a memorial or funeral and is buried.
Anyone can scour the history of warfare and weapons and say this or that weapon enhanced our human capacity for slaughter and, of course, debate will be had over which of the weapons has proven the most lethal.
In the history of fraternal bloodletting, such as the American Civil War, with the invention of the Gatling gun, precursor of the machine gun, so lethal in World War One, through the development of gas as a weapon, also used in WWI, latterly the development of biological weapons and chemicals used with such evil by the Nazis in the death camps of the Holocaust, and the development of atomic and nuclear weapons, most recently in history the use of passenger planes, IEDS, trucks and cars as weapons, we human beings have chosen to be death’s accomplices.
One of my great uncles, who lived with us, was gassed in WWI and for him life, both physical and emotional, was a lingering process of dying. He did die in the late 1940s, when also my maternal grandmother died, then as we moved into the 1950s others died, including many peers through things like polio.
Both in my professional life before priesthood and since ordination, I continue to be confronted by the vagaries of the way Lady Death reaches out, sometimes snatching through violence in all its evil anger, sometimes more gently through illness or simple old age wearing out of the body – granted neither of these latter are necessarily without pain or intense struggle – and of course, the older I get the more attuned I become to her approaching footsteps!
Not just that bloody 20th century, but this one on the way to being bloodier still of such hatred and terrorism, of unhuman evils like abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, death is not anymore just a one on one but frequently on a scale that defies comprehension, that cannot be unpacked without pain – unless we literally are heartless.
Since much of the above is seen via tv or the internet, and if it is becoming ‘understandable’ terrorism is what some refer to as ‘the new normal’, then something is terribly wrong, like maybe we have lost our capacity for empathy because we know only victims or terrorists but have become incapable of seeing and knowing persons, that is other as one like myself.
I suspect there is within most, if not all human beings, an aspect of Cain: irrational jealousy and fear of other.
Every human being is one like myself, intimately my brother, my sister.
In our day, this irrationality is most visibly rooted in the extremist interpretation of those passages in the Koran which legitimize the murder of so-called non-believers.
In their book INSIDE ISLAM, Daniel Ali and Robert Spencer, referencing both the Koran and Hadith, note that: “When the Muslim declares that Islam is a religion of peace, he is either ignorant of the Koran or is extending this ‘peace’ only to those within the Muslim community…”[p.122].
Islamists for centuries have spilled the blood of both their Muslim brothers and sisters who do not agree with their 7th century understanding of human beings and life, hating those who do not ‘believe’ as they do – such belief should not be confused with faith – their hatred as well resulting in the spilling of the blood of non-Muslims.
When, not that long after 9/11, accompanied by a New York firefighter friend, I stood on the edge of that massive pit-tomb, it was at first difficult to remember the towers, which I had visited on previous trips to New York.
More difficult was trying to unpack and comprehend the intensity of the hatred, the murderous evil which slaughtered so many innocents there and at the Pentagon.
Only the courageous first responders entering the towers and the passengers on flight 93 were the real martyrs that day.
The terrorists were, and Islamists since that day who just recently slaughtered many in Manchester and London, are delusional if they think they are martyrs.
Real martyrdom as taught by Jesus is the reality of laying down my life for love of, to save another [Jn.15:13].
“The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts…… In our generation when men continue to be afflicted by acute hardships and anxieties arising from the ravages of war or the threat of it, the whole human family faces an hour of supreme crisis in its advance toward maturity. Moving gradually together and everywhere more conscious already of its unity, this family cannot accomplish its task of constructing for all men everywhere a world more genuinely human unless each person devotes himself to the cause of peace with renewed vigor…… the Council wishes passionately to summon Christians to cooperate, under the help of Christ the author of peace, with all men in securing among themselves a peace based on justice and love and in setting up the instruments of peace…….unless enmities and hatred are put away and firm, honest agreements concerning world peace are reached in the future, humanity, which already is in the middle of a grave crisis, even though it is endowed with remarkable knowledge, will perhaps be brought to that dismal hour in which it will experience no peace other than the dreadful peace of death….”[ cf. Gaudium et Spes, The Church in the Modern World, Vatican Council.: paras. 1, 77, 82]
In his book A SONG FOR NAGASAKI, telling the life story of Takashi Nagai, a survivor of the atomic bomb, Fr. Paul Glynn, quotes this from Nagai: “We are inheritors of Adam’s sin…of Cain’s sin. He killed his brother. Yes, we have forgotten we are God’s children. We have turned to idols and forgotten love. Hating one another, killing one another, joyfully killing one another! [p.189]
There is truth and comfort to be found in the Church’s teaching on death: “Because of Christ, Christian death has a positive meaning: "For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain." "The saying is sure: if we have died with him, we will also live with him. What is essentially new about Christian death is this: through Baptism, the Christian has already "died with Christ" sacramentally, in order to live a new life; and if we die in Christ's grace, physical death completes this "dying with Christ" and so completes our incorporation into him in his redeeming act….the Christian can experience a desire for death like St. Paul's: "My desire is to depart and be with Christ. “ He can transform his own death into an act of obedience and love towards the Father, after the example of Christ: My earthly desire has been crucified; . . . there is living water in me, water that murmurs and says within me: Come to the Father. I want to see God and, in order to see him, I must die. I am not dying; I am entering life. The Christian vision of death receives privileged expression in the liturgy of the Church: Lord, for your faithful people life is changed, not ended. When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven. Death is the end of man's earthly pilgrimage, of the time of grace and mercy which God offers him so as to work out his earthly life in keeping with the divine plan, and to decide his ultimate destiny. When "the single course of our earthly life" is completed, we shall not return to other earthly lives: "It is appointed for men to die once." There is no "reincarnation" after death.” [cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 1010-1014]
It was common when I was a boy, and a family member died, for the body to be laid out in the open coffin and waked in the home. A black wreath would hang on the front door of the house, or flat in the tenement building. When the day of the funeral arrived, we would walk behind the hearse to the Church. Black vestments were worn and, in the Jansenistic atmosphere of the times before Vatican II little was heard about mercy and resurrection, a lot about the urgency to pray for the soul of the deceased as the assumption was – if you were lucky! – everyone ended up in purgatory!
No wonder between the last snows of winter and the heavy frosts of summer’s end, families frequently went to the cemetery to put fresh flowers, light a votive candle at the grave. Yes, often too a picnic would follow right there at the grave. This was more than a grieving process, it was also a profound understanding, if missing from the funeral sermon, the deceased was not definitively dead, only the body had ceased breathing. The loved one remained with us – hopefully out of purgatory after all those months!
One of the favourite places for my peers and I to adventure during the halcyon weeks of break from school between June’s warmth and September’s chill, was along the docks and in the sheds of the waterfront.
Combined with the newsreels of Saturday matinees, and the ‘dps’ [displaced people] arriving by steamer from Europe, those were the days when I first saw the tattooed numbers on the arms of real people, some not much older than myself.
To this day I have a visceral aversion to tattoos, finding the current trend of almost total body tattooing, a disproportionate number of the tattoos symbolic of death and evil, sad.
There is a deep connection between the loss of the awareness of my intrinsic dignity as a child of God and this inking of my body to what? Be seen, known?
In the seminary, I would attend a powerful lecture by a Rabbi, child of holocaust survivors, on the theological, the faith challenges many faced because of that horror.
Many years before that I attended an art exhibit of almost childlike memory paintings by men and women who had lived through the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Combined with what fighting in war did to members of family: my father, uncles, along with the newsreels of the war and the death-camps, meeting survivors, I have been deeply anti-war.
Perhaps it appears a paradox then that I am deeply respectful of, proud of, our military and police.
The stark truth is that we need both police and military, otherwise society will become a place where unhindered the weak will be preyed upon, indeed be fodder for, perpetrators of all forms of evil.
So long as there is a criminal element in society, the evil of terrorism, men and women willing to put their lives on the line for our protection are as needed as the Angels who protect us in spiritual warfare.
There are many other examples of the stark reality and vagaries of death I could write about, however the following two stand out above all others: the death of one of my sisters and the death of the unknown man.
I had started my second year in the seminary when the call came from my father that my sister was dying and I had better arrange to see her.
The rector of the seminary gave permission.
Of my four sisters, she was the one I was closet too. She was a wife and mother of two young sons.
When I arrived at the hospital there was intense grief.
We were keeping vigil with her and I offered to take the post midnight time so her husband and the rest of the family could rest. Her two boys, at her request, who had last seen their mother before she entered the hospital and looked to them as she always had, because they were so young, were kept away.
She wanted their last memory of her to be the one where they chatted and she held them with love.
Once I was alone with her, she had slipped into a coma, I had a rather cantankerous few minutes of interior prayer because I was the oldest of her brothers and from this could neither protect nor save her, so I threw down a gauntlet before God, saying if He cared at all for her or for me, and since it was my birthday He could prove it with the one gift I cared about: “End her suffering!”
She opened her eyes, squeezed my hand, smiled and died with a peaceful expression.
Many years before I entered the seminary I was on the graveyard shift and the homicide squad put the word around that everyone on the shift should try and find time to stop by the morgue and see if they could help identify a body, a body of a young man, perhaps less than twenty-five years old.
He had been found in the river, beaten, tortured, teeth and finger tips removed.
This was in the days before DNA when often dental records and fingertips would be relied upon to make an ID.
It was around two in the morning when I, at the time an atheistic-hedonist, could go to the morgue.
Looking down at what had once been a human being – someone’s son, brother, perhaps even father or lover – I had no idea what his identity may have been.
Suddenly deep within my being, or so it seemed, I felt almost more than heard: “At your first Mass you will remember him.”
I couldn’t get out of the morgue fast enough and even though still on duty, stopped at the nearest bar and had a couple of stiff drinks.
Some fifteen years later, concelebrating with my bishop, my fellow ordinands and priests of our diocese, I remembered that young man and prayed for his soul.
Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? [I Cor. 15:55]