The National Catholic Review
Image

François de La Rochefoucauld, a 16th-century French aristocrat, made a name for himself by writing tough-minded epigrams that he called maxims. In one of these philosophical wisecracks he noted: “Death and the sun are not to be looked at steadily.” All the same, there are some people who think often of death, even though it can’t be continuously looked in the eye. And of course most people think of death at least from time to time. In the last century, that first group included two very different men. Joseph Columba Marmion (1858-1923), half Irish and half French, was the abbot of the Benedictine monastery at Maredsous in Belgium. He was also the author of books on the spiritual life--Christ the Life of the Soul was the best known--that were translated into 10 languages.

Since the abbot was portly, an irreverent wit said readers found his photograph reassuring, because they judged he would not confront them with a fierce asceticism like that of St. Peter of Alcantara, who ate practically nothing.

But although he did not have the figure of a scarecrow, Dom Marmion was venerated as a holy man during his lifetime and was beatified by Pope John Paul II on Sept. 3, 2000. On one occasion during his last illness, the abbot remarked, “I can tell you that for years past an hour has not gone by without my thinking of death.”

André Gide, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1947, was as unlike Dom Marmion as a Cole Porter ballad is unlike plain chant. In 1924, however, when Gide was 56 and still had 25 more years to live, he made a remark about death that sounded like Marmion’s, although it surely reflected a different set of experiences: “There’s not a day, there’s hardly an hour nowadays, when I don’t think of my death. Not in a romantic way, mark you. Not at all: I feel that I’m faced with something evident.

Death was evident on a cataclysmic scale last Dec. 26, when a tsunami killed approximately 220,000 people in Southeast Asia and left thousands homeless. On Jan. 7 The Wall Street Journal reported that the Catholic bishop of Trincomalee-Batticaloa in Sri Lanka, the Most Rev. Joseph Kingsley Swampillai, was asked how a loving God could have allowed this calamity. He replied: “The disaster has shaken my faith.” A few days earlier, Pope John Paul II had remarked circumspectly that the tsunami had indeed posed for believers “the most difficult and painful of tests.”

For Christians the celebration of Easter is a reminder that these tests can be passed and that faith can be shaken without being toppled. It may be argued that the deepest division within the human family is between those who believe that death means the annihilation of personal consciousness and those who believe it marks the continuation of life in another and unimaginable form.

Nevertheless, even saints have known the assault of darkness. In the summer of 1897, Thérèse Martin (known today as St. Thérèse), a 24-year-old nun in the Carmelite convent of Lisieux, France, was dying of consumption. Her physical suffering was intense as her lungs crumbled away, but her “great trial,” she said, was the way her mind seemed to have forced upon it “the reasonings of the worst materialists”--the thought that there is no heaven, no life after death.

But despite these temptations, Thérèse said, she was at peace in the depths of her soul. “Because I am in great peace,” she told one of the nuns, “I am happy.”

The natural shrinking from dying is one thing, wrote St. Augustine, and the deepest persuasion of faith is another. Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth by his death, and only by his death, won eternal life for the human family. By the power of the Resurrection, thinking about death has been transformed from thinking about an end to thinking about a beginning.

John W. Donohue, S.J., is an associate editor of America.

Recently in Of Many Things