Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Lord: Chapter 22, “Death”

My dear old friend,*

There are some days when I think it would have been a lot easier to remain Protestant, the way you did. There’s so much about Catholicism so sharply at variance with the way we moderns think about things. I embrace the Catholic Church, though I admit this is a continual challenge. Many of my friends think I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid, that I’ve put my mind on ice, going in for “blind faith.”

Well, maybe they’re right, but in my experience what Catholicism demands is reason, the kind of reason exhibited by great Doctors of the Church like Augustine and Aquinas, the kind of reason Romano Guardini applies in The Lord.

No chapter in his book is more challenging than this one on death. Death: one of the two “certain” things, besides taxes. Death: the end of life, the yanking of the biological plug. Death: after which, nothing, absolutely nothing.

Many of us do what Guardini says: “relegate [death] to the farthest corner of the mind, crowding it to the very brink of the consciousness and behaving as though it were non-existent.” I did that for years.

When I was a child, I had the faith of a child, and I said to myself, As long as Jesus is who he says he is, everything will be fine. He promises me eternal life. He seems like a guy who will keep his promises.

By the time I was a teenager, and we were in school together, my thinking had changed. I remember distinctly walking by Dunbar Hall one fall day and thinking how good, how perfect my life was. (Life was pretty good at Exeter, let’s face it.) If only, I thought, if only I didn’t have to die. Everything really would be perfect, but—I had ceased thinking that there was any answer for death.

As I moved into my adult years, I began to relegate death to a corner of my mind where I didn’t have to look at it, except when tragedy struck. I behaved as though it were nonexistent.

Despite modernity and the reign of science, the Catholic Church continues to insist that Jesus has the answer for death. Jesus, writes Guardini, is “he who has been sent into the world to change death’s very essence in the eyes of God.” But what he’s talking about is much more than a fake fix, a palliative to be swallowed with eyes closed and nose pinched.

The Church teaches that death came into the world with Adam, because of man’s sinfulness, our sinfulness. And the overcoming of death—a literal possibility—is therefore had by overcoming sin. This is not a moralism, not a case of do this and don’t do that, and St. Peter will let you into heaven. It’s a statement about the nature of our fallen being and the possibility that we can be redeemed, saved, healed eternally.

“If only Jesus’ vitality were in us, we should not know death,” Guardini writes. “But that vital quality which in Jesus is not only indestructible, but intrinsic and creative, has been destroyed in us. Hence we die. Our death is not ‘tacked on’ to life, it is the direct outcome of the kind of life we live. In our dying a condition already present in our living asserts itself: a condition—as we see by contrast with Jesus, the full measure of man—which should not exist.”

How easy to dismiss all of this! How easy to accept that death really is the final answer! But there is at least something to chew on here: our life, our vitality, our very being is mortally wounded by sin, which began with Adam’s rejection—and so our rejection—of God.

Isn’t all this at least worth thinking about?

By the way, my friend, I’ve been in touch with our old school minister, “The Rev,” and he and I have been e-mailing back and forth about Guardini and ecumenism and stuff. He recommended that I read Marcus Borg’s book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, and I am doing so. I’ll probably have more to say about this book, which represents a prevalent strain of current Protestant thinking about Jesus. Therefore, of course, it is distinctly at variance with much of Guardini’s thinking.

In other words, Borg is an author with whom the modern mentality can feel completely at home. Which doesn’t mean that I agree with it!

Best always,

This series of posts continues here with chapter 23.

* This post continues a series of open letters to a former schoolmate about Romano Guardini’s book about Jesus, The Lord.

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