by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA 2023 Teacher of Peace
November seems an appropriate month, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, to reflect on death. The lovely autumn days are quickly turning wintry; daylight saving ends and darkness lengthens noticeably every 24 hours. Some people unfortunately find this ending time especially difficult. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is not uncommon. [And for many of us the end of the baseball season completes the picture of a “dying” year.]
However, November should not be a time of hopelessness. The winter solstice will come next
month, springtime is inevitable [and baseball’s pitchers and catchers will begin preparing for the new season before we know it.]
This little and a bit superficial reflection can be a metaphor for the liturgical season in November. This week we celebrated All Saints and All Souls days and faced head on the reality of death – that of those who have gone before us and our own. During the month we shall continue to give thanks for what St. Paul called “that cloud of witnesses” who have inspired us with lives well lived and who continue present with us in the wonderful Catholic teaching, the Communion of Saints.
This time is necessary to recognize and celebrate what our faith tells us – that death is not the final word nor the last chapter in human experience. God is the God of life and we are destined to live in total bliss with this, the One Who Is for all eternity. To put it in familiar Christian terms, resurrection and life everlasting are a reality.
Our octogenarian Pope Francis, typically, offers a wealth of reflections on death. They are all the more relevant coming from someone living now in the twilight of his own earthly life. What is more they reveal something of this man which is not often acknowledged – he is a mystic: “a person who seeks by contemplation and self-surrender to obtain unity, absorption into the Divine.” Francis’ life has been lived in deep unity with the Incomprehensible Mystery we speak of as God. But like every true mystic, his thoughts are often difficult to comprehend and need continued probing. We have in them so much to consider in this month of the Holy Souls.
- “The question of death is really a question about life. It is death that allows life to remain alive.”
- “Death kills our illusion of omnipotence and teaches us to engage with the mystery of life.”
- “The very oblivion of death is also its beginning.”
- “The one who forgets death begins to wither and die… has already begun to die.”
- “If death is not to have the last word, it is because we have learned to die for one another.”
- “Keeping the question of death open is perhaps the greatest human responsibility towards the question of life.”
In today’s terms the prescient words of the Holy Father as long ago as 2015 apply to many areas of the world: “Let us think of the absurd ‘normality’ with which, at certain moments and in certain places, events adding to the horror of death are provoked by the hatred and indifference of other human beings. May the Lord keep us from being accustomed to this.”
Israel and Palestine come immediately to mind. On both sides of this seemingly unsolvable and endless conflict the “horror of death” is calculated in mind-numbing numbers. They represent enormous and continuing loss of individual lives – particularly of children – and heartbreaking consequences for their families and friends who for the moment themselves are living in mortal fear.
In an editorial this week, Nicholas Kristof put this thought of Pope Francis in stark terms. “…[I]n decades of on-the-ground reporting in the Middle East, the [current] mutual dehumanization is the most savage I’ve ever seen…”
The inevitable danger is that gradually, as this horror wages on, the world will become accustomed to it.
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace and the 2023 Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.