Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Death, our sister

Fr. Tischner begins the 23rd conversation with Jacek Żakowski, entitled 'Death', with a quote from St. Francis of Assisi: "Death is our sister". The catechism speaks of human death, and the stance of a Christian towards death. "The Book of Genesis speaks of death coming to this world as a punishment for original sin. Punishment is not revenge. Where there's revenge, there's no hope. But where there is punishment, there is hope that after the punishment, there is release, there is liberation," he says.

Żakowski asks whether for a believing person, death is not a successive trial to be undergone, a curtain to pass through, a liberation from the various burdens in this vale of tears. "Do you not see a paradox in this Christian conundrum? On the one hand, a promise, hope of eternal life, on the other, the fear of dying and the sorrow of those who remain?"

"You see this conundrum in Christ's attitude. Reading the Gospel, you can see the paradox, the contrast. On the one hand, the vision - the promise - of ascension, and on the other, Christ's great attachment to life. The words 'life' is spoken by Him most often; He brought us the word of life, he gave us the food of life... We know from the Gospel that three times he brought dead people back to life," says Fr. Tischner.

"As if our presence here on earth was of such value that it had to be protected even with miracles?" asks Żakowski. Fr. Tischner replies: "It's as though Christ physically could not stand the sight of death. On the other hand, He continually thought about death; thoughts of death accompanied him continually. There is the notion that Christ knew that He lived at the cost of the innocent children that Herod had slain at the time of His birth. The vision of the death of those innocents must have accompanied him continually. It must have formed His consciousness as a man." "Żakowski continues: "Certainly not even Christ did not think that the innocents were deprived of the hardship of earthly life, that they could go straight to eternity, not suffering heavy trials. He thought that they had paid the price of His coming to earth, that something had been taken from them." "Yes," replies Fr. Tischner. "He felt sorry that - although they had something more magnificent - they had indeed have something taken from them."

"As He approached His death, Christ lets us know of His terror, His human fear of dying. This was particularly strong in the Garden of Gethsemane. The thought that if possible 'take this chalice from me', though 'let not my will, but Thy will be done" Again, we have a hierarchy of values, 'Thy will' and death. If it is possible, let death not be," says Fr. Tischner.

"And who, compared to Him, could have that same certainty, that behind curtain, something truely exists?" asks Żakowski.

Fr. Tischner explains that Christ had the problem of turning what is a human curse into something that could be a liberation; changing the nature of death. Philosophers have written much about death, says Fr. Tischner. He mentions the German philosopher Edmund Husserl, "an outstanding thinker," among whose archives Fr. Tischner came across his analysis of death. "The sense of it was that death is only a phenomenon, an illusion... Husserl says that there's something in us that allows us to transform death into the illusion of death. He believed this right up to his death. To the last moment, he was writing, analysing his experiences. He'd write on whatever came to hand... he finally reached the point at which he lost the strength to write, so he said: 'Sister, I see a great light - please note this down.' The nun went for paper, when she returned, he was dead. To the last moment he was a researcher and teacher."

Another philosopher that Fr. Tischner mentions is Heidegger, a pupil of Husserl's "who had a different vision of death, which he describes in musical terms, as the final chord in the music of our lives." As our lives approach their fulfilment, that final chord, which is always within us, mute, maturing, awaiting. "Death is the fruit of life; it builds within us, it builds us and we build ourselves thanks to the awareness of that final chord," explains Fr. Tischner.

Żakowski says: "You speak at those we live reconciled with death. Everyone has the awareness that in the end we die. Yet stronger that the banal awareness of the end is fear."

Fr. Tischner replies: "That fear causes us to give our death a particular significance. Death is a moment, and yet its meaning must last. People seek significance for their death - to die for their country, for instance, to give their death sense. The fear surrounding death is uncertainty, the deepest loneliness, it is something you experience alone - and at the same time we attempt to give death a significance, there's more to the episode of one's passing than it appears."

Fr. Tischner discusses the notion of dying in time - not prolonging one's existence. "Having done in life all that there was to do, death can be seen a complement to life, a completion. Hemingway, when he felt he had nothing left to say, quit." "It's said of Hemingway that it was fear - fear of being left useless, fruitless, that prompted him," says Żakowski. "Yes," replies Fr. Tischner. "For some, life becomes so unbearable that only death offers a release from the burdens of life, of illness, for intolerable pain."

"But do they not fear being immaterial, without a body?" asks Żakowski. "A person is unable to imagine continuing without a human body, not knowing where one's going?" Fr. Tischner replies: "It is outside our imagination. Kierkegaarde speaks of 'fear and trembling'. Do you know what trembles? the body trembles. This was Christ's problem. I think he solved the problem on the cross. The catechism says that revelation occurs not through words alone, but through deeds. What Christ did is also for us a book of revelations. Death on the cross was particularly cruel; it was devised to break the spirit of rebellious slaves, causing them to die in a way so atrociously cruel, to be seen to lose face, so the face of a rebel became the face of someone defeated."

He continues: "It was different with Christ. Something extraordinary happened. He is broken; full of woe: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?' But then comes an act of unshakeable faith: 'Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.' The words 'why have you forsaken me?' is Christ becoming human, God incarnate. Only then - as a man - dying alone, ready, abandoning his individuality - He says ' into your hands I commit my spirit'. And His death redeems. Redeems mankind". [Sayings of Jesus on the cross]

"Then, St. Paul says: 'We all die in Christ' Who knows how this happens? I think that human nature undergoes transformation. What was meant to be mankind's curse becomes a gate of life. From 'why have you forsaken me?' to 'into your hands I commit my spirit'. Hope overcomes death. Onto the other side of life we pass as children of hope," concludes Fr. Tischner.

This time last year:
First bike ride to work of the year

This time three years ago:
Poland's trains ran faster before the war

This time four years ago:
Winter in spring: surely this must be the last snow?

This time five years ago:
Surely THIS must be the last snow?

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