Special Edition: A Meditation on Mortality

Hello friends, and welcome to this special edition of Thinking with the Church. We did not drop an episode last week, because my EP and I were traveling on some unexpected and basically unpleasant business, so this week we are bringing out two episodes: this special edition, and the regularly-scheduled Episode 4, which will follow this edition shortly.

This special edition is essentially an extended philosophical meditation on death.

My mother, Maudie Altieri, passed away two Sundays ago, on January 22nd, 2017, and my wife’s grandmother, Caterina Pezzi, followed my mother out of time and into eternity two days later.

Both women received the Sacraments of Holy Mother Church, and died surrounded by family. The prayers of countless friends have been, and continue to be a buoy and a consolation to us all, especially the Masses offered for the intentions of our dear departed ones.

That we have been in such great need of buoying and consolation, even in the face of what can only be described as the happiest of circumstances in which any Christian – indeed any person – could pass from this life, is testimony to the violence of death itself: the all-powerful Creator and Lord of all there is has made us to live, and yet we die. Not even the sure promise of resurrection and the confidence that faith in Christ’s victory over death will bring us to life everlasting can alter by one iota the terrible and unnatural character of the separation of the soul from the body.

Our Blessed Lady carried the Beatific Vision in her womb: her unspeakably intimate knowledge of God’s inexorable design for victory over death itself, so far from shielding her from grief, so multiplied her pain as to make her Mother of Sorrows, for she knew at what price that victory is bought.

Our Lord was the Beatific Vision unto Himself in His Human and Divine Natures hypostatically joined: yet He wept real tears at the death of His dear friend, Lazarus, though He was presently to raise His friend from the dead: and Our Blessed Lord sweat blood at the thought of His own death when it was imminent, and though He knew it would be death to sin, begged His Father to take the cup of His lot from Him.

Some of you might object that this turn of mine to Sacred Scripture and the data of our Holy Faith therein contained should constitute a prescinding from philosophy: not so, for the events are a dramatization – in the word’s etymological sense – of the quintessentially human experience of our own condition; they reveal us to ourselves, and they reveal to us the real danger we are in, of losing friendship with the source and author of our being, and the promise of a hope that does not disappoint, which is in God’s power to give us if we will receive it.

I know the women, whose passing occasions these considerations, lived and died in just that hope, and though they were sorry to leave us, that they were more glad to go to Him.

This knowledge consoles, but it does not comfort.

In this time of bereavement, my thoughts continue to return to St. Augustine of Hippo, the great Bishop and Doctor of the Church, whose Confessions have played – and continue to play – a foundational role in my whole understanding of the faith we confess and the world in which we are called to live and confess it.

Great are you, O Lord, and immensely praiseworthy: great is your virtue, and of your wisdom there is no reckoning. And mankind wants to praise you, as a portion of your creation, even mankind carrying around with himself his mortality, going about with the testimony of his sin and with the evidence that you resist the proud: even so, man desires to praise you, as he is part of your creation. You excite him, that he might delight to praise you, for you made us unto yourself and our heart is restless, until it should rest in you.

Magnus es, domine, et laudabilis valde: magna virtus tua, et sapientiae tuae non est numerus. Et laudare te vult homo, aliqua portio creaturae tuae, et homo circumferens mortalitem suam, circumferens testimonium peccati sui et testimonium, quia superbis resistis: et tamen laudare te vult homo, aliqua portio creaturae tuae. Tu excitas, ut laudare te delectet, quia fecisti nos ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum, donec requiescat in te. – Augustine, Confessions I.i.

We carry our mortality about with us.

Everywhere we go, the evidence of our sin is with us, and the price of it: Martin Heidegger describes this state as one of being-toward-death, though ever since I first studied Heidegger – under the influence and tutelage of the Augustinian scholar and philosopher, Archbishop Craig John-Neumann de Paulo – I have found Heidegger’s insistence on death as essentially non-relational to be utterly at odds with a candid application of Heidegger’s own Dasein analitik – an analytic my mentor, de Paulo, proved in his doctoral dissertation to be a “secularization” of Augustine’s own existential analytic.

Our desire for life everlasting is what, in the state of our confusion due to the Fall, drives us to sin. It is also, and at the same time, that desire, which impels us to conversion:

Because of a perverse will was eager longing (libido) made; and eager longing indulged became custom; and custom not resisted became necessity. By which links, as it were, joined together (for which reason I call it a chain), did a hard bondage hold me enthralled. But that new will which had begun to develop in me, freely to worship You, and to want to enjoy You, O God, the only sure enjoyment, was yet unable to overcome my former willfulness, made strong by long indulgence. Thus, did my two wills, the one old and the other new, the one carnal, the other spiritual, contend within me; and by their discord they dissipated my soul.

Quippe voluntate perversa facta est libido, et dum servitur libidini, facta est consuetudo, et dum consuetudini non resistur, facta est necessitas. Quibus quasi ansulis sibimet innexis unde catenam appellavi tenebat me obstrictum dura servitus. Voluntas autem nova, quae mihi esse coeperat, ut te gratis colere fruique te vellem, Deus, sola certa iucunditas, nondum erat idonea ad superandam priorem vetustate roberatam. Ita duae voluntates meae, una vetus, alia nova, illa carnalis, illa spiritalis, confilgebant inter se, atque discordando dissipabant animam meam. – Augustine, Confessions VIII.v.

Death drives us from our true selves: its experience is incommunicable; its immanence drives us to delight in – and to make, or try to make – the world the “smiling place” it is:

Let every one of us, brothers and sisters, look deeply into himself, let him weigh himself, let him prove himself in all of his deeds, in his good works, which he had done with charity, not expecting temporal retribution, but the promise of God alone, the face of God. Indeed, nothing that God promises is anything worth, without God Himself. God would not wholly satisfy me, unless He should promise me God Himself. What is the whole earth? What is the whole sea? What is the whole sky? What are all the stars? What is the sun? What is the moon? What is the host of angels? I thisrts for the Creator of all these: I starve for Him, I thirst for Him, to Him I say: “In You is the font of life.” Then He says to me: “I am that bread, which came down from heaven.” Let my pilgrimage hunger and thirst, that it might be satiated by my presence [before Him]. The world smiles with many things: beautiful, strong, various; more beautiful is the One who made them; more powerful and brighter is the One, who made them; more suave is the One, who made them. I shall be satiated when your glory is made manifest. Faith, therefore, which works by love, if it is in you, then already do you pertain to the predestined, the called, the justified: let it therefore grow in you. Faith therefore, which works by love, cannot be without hope. When, however, we shall arrive, will there yet be faith? Shall it be said to us: “Believe!” – but it were useless, for we shall see Him, we shall contemplate Him. Most beloved, we are sons and daughters of God, and what we shall be then has not yet appeared. For so long as it shall not have appeared, there shall be faith. We are sons and daughters of God: predestined, called, justified; we are sons and daughters of God, and what we shall be has not yet appeared. Faith is therefore the manner [of our being] until what we shall be should appear. We know that we shall be like unto Him. Shall it be [so] because we shall [then] believe? No. Why therefore? Because then we shall see Him as He is.

Unusquisque ergo, fratres mei, inspiciat se intus, appendat se, probet se in omnibus factis suis, bonis operibus suis, quae faciat cum caritate, non exspectans retributionem temporalem, sed promissum Dei, faciem Dei. Non enim quidquid tibi Deus promittit, valet aliquid praeter ipsum Deum. Omnino me non satiaret Deus, nisi promitteret mihi se ipsum Deum. Quid est tota terra? Quid est totum mare? Quid est totum caelum? Quid sunt omnia sidera? Quid sol? Quid luna? Quid exercitus angelorum? Omnium istorum Creatorem sitio: ipsum esurio, ipsum sitio, ipsi dico: Quoniam apud te est fons vitae. Qui mihi dicit: Ego sum panis qui de caelo descendi. Esuriat et sitiat peregrinatio mea, ut satietur praesentia mea. Arridet mundus multis rebus, pulchris, fortibus, variis: pulchrior est ille qui fecit, fortior et clarior ille qui fecit, suavior ille est qui fecit. Satiabor, cum manifestabitur gloria tua. Fides ergo quae per dilectionem operatur si est in vobis, iam pertinetis ad praedestinatos, vocatos, iustificatos: ergo crescat in vobis. Fides enim quae per dilectionem operatur, sine spe esse non potest. Cum autem venerimus, iam erit ibi fides? Dicetur nobis: Crede? Non utique. Videbimus eum, contemplabimur eum. Dilectissimi, filii Dei sumus, et nondum apparuit quod erimus. Quia nondum apparuit, ideo fides. Filii Dei sumus, praedestinati, vocati, iustificati; filii Dei sumus, et nondum apparuit quod erimus. Modo ergo fides, antequam appareat quod erimus. Scimus quod cum apparuerit, similes ei erimus. Numquid quia credimus? Non. Quare ergo? Quoniam videbimus eum sicuti est. Augustine – Sermon 158,7

Death is the ultimate expression of our alienation from ourselves and from our fellows: nevertheless, in Baptism, not even death can any longer separate us from the source of our being; and being united to their source, our selves are not destroyed in dying.

Even so, in death we are not ourselves: we may not be disembodied without being destroyed – and so what death reveals to us is that we shall not be so sundered in ourselves forever – though for so long as we are, we are somehow still waiting for ourselves – our true selves – though one great step closer to them than we are now. “Verily I say unto thee this day: thou shalt be with me in Paradise.”

Each of us – if we are counted among the living – will be not only restored, but changed utterly and in an instant: though we may enjoy the Beatific Vision even before the Resurrection, even so, the full restoration of the human family to perfect friendship with God must await the Second Coming and the establishment of the celestial Jerusalem. Herein lies the social dimension of death: the passing of each human life out of this world diminishes the whole human race, and each of its members; though we feel more keenly the passing of those members, who were closest to us, the passing of each and every one wounds and weakens our community.

This is the meaning – or part of it, at any rate – of Donne’s line in his 17th Meditation:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

There are lines at the end of Norman Maclean’s novella, A River Runs Through It, which have helped me get under or get through the matter, though in ways and for reasons that only now begin to become clear to me, however clear they seemed before:

Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise. Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.

It is worthwhile to note that, in the technical parlance of the paranormal, haunting is done by mute ghosts. The waters – can they be other than the waters of Baptism? – are those by which the author of the lines is bound to the words: the waters haunt him, which is to say they offer mute witness to the weave of time and eternity in which he is – in which we are – now suspended, out of which the words reach and under which they are buried, even beneath the basement of time.

In any case, it was my mother who taught me to fish when I was a boy: to love being on the water and attuned to the rhythms in the riot of creation, in the pregnant quiet at the break of day.

Her passing transforms the persistence of her presence into an ineluctable awareness of her absence: vague talk of her spirit being with us simply will not do; nor will invocations of eternal memory, though there is nothing wrong with those per se; the point is that even Pagans could boast as much, and even more: “I have built a monument more lasting than bronze … I shall not wholly die, and the greater part of me shall escape Libitina. (Exegi monumentum aere perennius … Non omnis moriar multaque pars mei vitabit Libitinam[.] – Horace, Ode 3.30 1, 6-7)”

Horace’s Ode is dripping with sarcasm. Our consolation is not nearly so cheap:

Praised be You, my Lord,
Through our Sister Bodily Death,
From whom no living man can escape.

Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those whom death will
Find in Your most holy will,
For the second death shall do them no harm.

Praise and bless my Lord,
And give Him thanks
And serve Him with great humility.

When Our Lord comes again in judgment – and He is coming, and with Him a great and terrible wrath – His coming will break the world: it will shatter the universe and all that is in it, into pebbles.

It will not be His judgment, however, which blasts creation into dust; it will be His glory; as quiet and meek as was His first coming into the world, in a hovel, in a manger, in a hamlet, so great will be the glory of His second coming, that the world shall break at it.

Creation shall not have strength to withstand the coming into it of the Creator a second time, and all shall be undone:

Dies irae, dies illa,
solvet saeculum in favilla,
teste David cum Sibylla.

Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. –
Isaiah 40:4-5

Some of us – my hope and the hope of the Church for each and every one of us is that we be counted among these – shall find that we have been carrying this glory inside of us (unbeknownst to the world, and even unbeknownst to us), and so shall be caught up in it, suddenly ourselves for the very first time, even as all that is and all that ever has been shudders and is wasted in an instant.

Some of us are very blessed, indeed, for we have been fed on this Uncreated Glory in secret: body, blood, soul, divinity, hidden under the species of bread and wine, though real and substantial in their presence. He shall make all things new. We wait in joyful hope.

altieri002Maudie Turner Altieri 2/14/1947 – 1/22/2017
Requiescat in pace

3 thoughts on “Special Edition: A Meditation on Mortality

  1. Pingback: Special: Eight Days of Easter | Thinking with the Church

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