Tuesday, November 3, 2009

It Is Appointed For Men (Part 1)

I am not going to scare you to death with this article, but we must learn to accept that there are things which are not pleasant to ponder. Death is an inescapable reality in our life regardless of who we are and so it is profitable for us to reflect upon this subject from a Christian perspective. In his book The Afterlife, Fr. Federico Suarez discusses this topic at great length and provides us with a deep insight.

Some truths are not very enticing to reflect on and their recollection usually makes us decidedly uncomfortable. And yet in a strangely paradoxical way, or, better still, in a way that is rather more than just obviously paradoxical, the Church seems to possess some kind of propensity for frequently urging those very truths for our consideration.

I am referring to three of those four truths traditionally called “The Last Things,” the subject of what is known as eschatology: death, judgment, and hell. The fourth truth – heaven – though as much a truth as the other three, does not provoke the same allergic reaction as do these others.

Since some decades back and up to our present times, these truths have, it seems, slowly been consigned to oblivion, Circumstances of diverse characteristics have brought about such a state of affairs, but I do not intend to enumerate them here now. What is indisputable is that hardly anyone nowadays ever speaks about these truths. Most certainly, they are not pleasant topics to talk about. They are obviously not popular. In general, men do not seem to be too interested in knowing more about them. Somehow the teaching of these truths has been interrupted: someone has enclosed them in parenthetical brackets. And it is possible and even very probable that those who introduced such a parenthesis harbored the illusion that people who have strayed away from the Church would the more easily be able to return to her fold if these truths were allowed discreetly to fade into obscurity. Also, if we try to keep man’s attention away from them, who knows? Maybe even non-believers might be attracted to the Church. Perhaps there are some who have come to think that without such gloomy realities – death, judgment, and hell – the Catholic Church would project a much-improved image. Maybe it would become more youthful and even more dynamic? Would not such an image be attractively enhanced if the Catholic Church would refrain from exhibiting such gloomy and inhibiting visions of punishment and death, and instead present a panorama of inspiring programs with goals that are more appealing to men, with objectives that more immediately concern them?

Well, we cannot but admit that death, judgment, and hell are not exactly pleasant topics to consider. They are agreeable neither to the listener nor to the preacher. They are equally disconcerting for the one and for the other. And the Church knows this perfectly well. Yet in spite of them, these truths continue to occupy a firm place among the teachings of the Church. Throughout the centuries, she has not refrained from recalling them to us. I presume that there are many reasons to warrant such an insistence. At the moment, though, I would like to refer to only two of them. First, it is because such truths as death, judgment, heaven, and hell reflect realities that we will all one day inevitably encounter. And since the Church is our mother, she frequently reminds us of these realities, so that we may be sufficiently prepared to face them when the moment comes. She is under the weightiest obligation to teach us the truth: she should, therefore, not deceive us by hiding part of it from us simply because it may seem too somber, too inconvenient, or too exasperating for us to accept. Second, it is because such truths are useful for us that we may live our lives the right way here on earth. They provide us with light and perspective that enable us to journey through life like people in control (and not like slaves), who can confront reality, head-on, and who dominate events rather than allow themselves to be swept along by them.

Any exposition on the last things should logically begin with an explanation of death, since this truth is the door that leads us to the others. Chronologically, it is the first of them to take place – only after death can the other truths become reality for a man. And the first thing that we can affirm about death is its inevitability. In fact, I don’t think there is anyone who looks upon death as something that must necessarily happen to everyone else except himself. On the contrary, we all know that we are bound to die. We are so sure of this that it is impossible to find a man in his right mind who thinks that he is not capable of dying, that he is immortal. What we are most certain of in this stage of our existence is that no one ever leaves it alive.

And yet, though we are very certain about dying, there are a number of other things about death that we can never be sure of. Certainly, we are all convinced that we shall one day die, but no one knows when this will happen, where it will take place, and how he shall meet his end. It could happen any day now and in any place whatsoever. We can never know in what circumstances it will happen to us and what the experience will be like when it comes. No one who has ever been through what has been called “the trance of death” can be of assistance to us with information about what our death will be like. First, because death is an absolutely personal experience that is unique to each individual and untransferable. And also because no one who has gone through this “trance” has ever emerged alive from the experience. Neither can our observations about the deaths of other men give us much information about our own death since we can never know whether our own death when it comes will be caused by similar circumstances and whether it will trigger anything like the same reactions in ourselves.

To complete this first stage of our reflections on death, we can go on to look at one more fact about it that we are equally sure of. We find it solemnly expressed in the Epistle to the Hebrews: “It is appointed unto men to die once” (Heb 9:27) Thus, each man’s death is an absolutely unique event. This means that we live out our lives on earth once, and that is it. In other words, regardless of whatever value or content we might give to our existence here on earth, regardless of whatever significance we might give to our exit from it, this life, our life here on earth, appears as a once-and-for-all opportunity. It is unrepeatable. Consequently, it is final. Early in our reflections on death, therefore, we have stumbled upon three certainties concerning it: it will most certainly happen to us; it without doubt happens only once; and we have not the faintest idea when or how it will come upon us. We might now wonder whether an awareness of these certainties is going to be beneficial to us in some way. And we could provide our own answers. Yes, absolutely speaking, it is clearly beneficial for man to be aware of such certainties and it is well for us to have foreknowledge of them. Yet, relatively speaking, the knowledge may be useful to some people but useless to others, depending on the attitude they adopt towards death and the consequences for their conduct that may derive from such an attitude. This is what I will try to explain now.

Suppose we begin reflecting on the transitoriness of this life here on earth, as an immediate conclusion that we might come to as a result of considering those three certainties about death. Man is a pilgrim here on earth: he is a wayfarer. This life is no more than a place of transit where we cannot stay very long. Life is like a road to be traversed: we do not detain ourselves along the path of our journey to build a permanent abode. We keep moving on. It is a road for covering the miles and not for lingering on. This sense of impermanence, of precariousness, can provide different reactions in men depending on whether or not they permit themselves to believe in a “hereafter,” in life after death. Some men do believe in an eternal life, another life after this one. Others, on the contrary, choose to consider death as the conclusive reality: death extinguishes life, they maintain, as if it were the flame of a candle, dissolving man’s being into nothingness.

For those who consider death as the ultimate reality beyond which there is nothing more, life and death become equally meaningless considered as realities. They continue being real but without meaning. This attitude is best described in the Book of Wisdom, written, as you may know, several centuries before the coming of Christ: For the reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves, “Short and sorrowful is our life, and there is no remedy when a man comes to his end, and no one has been known to return from Hades. Because we were born by mere chance, and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been; because the breath in our nostrils is smoke, and reason is a spark kindled by the beating of our hearts. When it is extinguished, the body will return to ashes, and the spirit will dissolve like empty air. Our name will be forgotten in time, and no one will remember our works; our life will pass away like the traces of a cloud, and be scattered like mist that is dispersed by the rays of the sun and overcome by, its heat. For our allotted time is the passing of a shadow, and there is no return from our death, because it is sealed up and no one turns back. (Wis 2:1-5)

Through the eyes of an atheist, of one who says he does not believe in God, death is viewed as nothing more than just that, the end of life, darkness, senselessness, a blank, nothingness. And through the very same unbelieving eyes and with the very same light, life itself becomes nothing more than “traces of a cloud,” “a mist that is chased by the rays of the sun and overcome by its heat,” hardly “the passing of a shadow.” If everything must have a stop, if everything is annihilated and nothing of anything remains at all, then what meaning could we possibly give to existence, to the world, and to man himself? Could love and suffering conceivably have any meaning at all for us? Would there be any meaning in pain? In joy? Would man’s endeavors be worth anything? His striving for survival? His attempts to become someone or to achieve something? The endeavors of entire generations to attain knowledge? Would such expenditure of energy make any sense at all? In the final analysis, would we have any reason to work? To struggle to dominate nature and to overcome sickness? The only possible motive would be to obtain the greatest possible pleasure for ourselves during the few years of our life here on earth. Well, with such a way of thinking we could justify any amount of egoism, and even an egocentricity brutal in the extreme. If everything ends with death, then this is the only logical attitude to adopt: “Let us eat and drink now for tomorrow we die.” Thus, to the extent that faith and hope in an afterlife diminishes and disappears, the world runs the danger of being cruelly transformed, metamorphosed into a jungle, and life itself into a fight to the death for the acquisition of the greatest personal satisfaction possible. This is a logical consequence: if absolutely everything is resolved into nothingness, then man has nothing intelligible left to do but to maximize the advantages he can obtain during his lifetime. He may use any means whatsoever to maximize his private gain. He may do whatever he pleases, since there is nothing that could serve him as the foundation for a set of norms by which to guide his behavior. Yet, of course, this happens to man only when he refuses to think; once he begins to use his intellect, all sorts of questions arise that show up such profitable hedonism as self-contradictory. And they are questions that clamorously make demand for an answer.

Death: this is the key to the whole mystery, to the entire puzzle. It is a reality that requires an explanation, that needs to be explained. It has to be integrated with the life of man and of the world, so as to provide the universe with a minimum of coherence. Otherwise, it would have been vain for man to have been provided with an intellect. We know that death has a purpose because God has told us so. Through divine revelation, we know more about death than we could possibly have learned through observation and through our natural power of reasoning, although it by itself can tell us much. But when divine revelation is rejected or thrown aside and forgotten, then death becomes for many, as it is described in the Book of Wisdom, a useless absurdity, meaningless, and empty. When faced with the utter pointlessness of death, the only way to escape the crushing effects of its immense vacuity would be to refuse point-blank to think, to fall into a state of stupor, to become somehow anesthetized against its prospect.

And there are many ways of attaining this state of stupefaction. For our so-called democratic western civilizations, the process usually followed consists in keeping oneself continuously occupied in the pursuit of material well-being, the more energetically sought after, the better. Such activity is usually accompanied by the search for a way to pretend not to see what we have no wish to see, because of the distaste it produces, there being simply no pleasure in its contemplation. At times such pretensions border on the ridiculous, like the expensively soothing burial practices savagely satirized by Evelyn Waugh in The Loved One. On the other hand, the countries which used to belong to the eastern bloc, the former Marxist states, espousing as they do a more philosophical materialism, have followed a quite different stupefying process. They achieve a similar effect by dedicating all their efforts to the “historically determined” struggle against the capitalist oppressor, supposedly for the benefit of the working classes, until the imaginary final utopia of a classless society will be attained. In both cases, due on the one hand to an ignorance about reality and on the other to a refusal to accept it as it truly is, man has provided himself with a theory that serves as a tranquilizer. He has not solved the problem at all, but at least he no longer feels the need to think further about it. In end, however, no matter how stylishly and ingeniously we devise our theoretical alternatives to avoid confronting a problem, a problem ignored or side stepped can never be transformed into a problem solved. We may choose to ignore reality, but, in spite of our choosing, things continue to be what they really are. And everything that refers to the meaning of life and death continues being what it truly is. We either know it or we ignore it. We know it when we accept divine revelation and through faith acquire truths which to an appreciable extent the human intellect alone is capable of acquiring through its own power. We ignore the intellect as well when we dispense with revelation. No theory can every change reality.

The Church is greatly concerned with keeping us vividly aware of the transitory character of this life. It is vital for us to refrain from deceiving ourselves about this. Guided by a solid common sense, St. Teresa of Avila rightfully characterized as things of “little weight,” all that accumulation of objects and concentration on activities that paradoxically enslave us and attract the attention of not a few Christians impeding them from seeing those things that are permanent and consequently possess a value that is the reverse of the ephemeral. St. Teresa could not help but spot, with shrewd and piercing clarity, the lack of significant firmness in what is provisional, the scant entity of what is fleeting, the tenuous substance of what is temporary. She once wrote that “all these things are as light as air and lack weight, such that they are carried away by the wind, because even if they have meant much to us, what is it of them that we retain?” And let us admit it, we have all experienced the very temporary character of any delight derived from a good once it has been possessed. Such transitoriness keeps us from enjoying that good to the fullest. It seems that the evanescence of any pleasure permeates it with dissatisfaction and disillusion.

(to be continued...)

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