on the condition of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. I joined his friends,
colleagues and acquaintances in prayer for God’s mercy on him.
This morning I thought about the times I interviewed him for my
former radio show, especially the unique discussion we had on Good
Friday, 2006. We talked about ‘why we call this day Good’, discussing
his book Death on a Friday Afternoon, and it was poignant and eloquent, as Neuhaus always was. In the book, he quotes philosopher Alfred North Whitehead as saying
that the only simplicity to be trusted is the simplicity
to be found on the far side of complexity. The only joy to be trusted
is the joy on the far side of a broken heart; the only life to be
trusted is the life on the far side of death.
I would learn a short time later that at the time I was thinking
this, and silently saying another prayer, Fr. Neuhaus passed away. Now
he knows that new life. He has long contemplated it.
Our lives are measured not by the lives of others, not
by our own ideals, not by what we think might reasonably be expected of
us, although by each of those measures we acknowledge failings enough.
Our lives are measured by who we are created and called to be, and the
measuring is done by the One who creates and calls.
He has been called home, an event in every life that Neuhaus also
contemplated long, and helped others regard it in a wholly different
way than we are accustomed to thinking about it. First Things wants readers to think about that today, as they appreciate what Neuhaus taught through his great body of thought.
We are born to die. Not that death is the purpose of our
being born, but we are born toward death, and in each of our lives the
work of dying is already underway. The work of dying well is, in
largest part, the work of living well. Most of us are at ease in
discussing what makes for a good life, but we typically become
tongue-tied and nervous when the discussion turns to a good death. As
children of a culture radically, even religiously, devoted to youth and
health, many find it incomprehensible, indeed offensive, that the word
“good” should in any way be associated with death. Death, it is
thought, is an unmitigated evil, the very antithesis of all that is
Death is to be warded off by exercise, by healthy habits, by medical
advances. What cannot be halted can be delayed, and what cannot forever
be delayed can be denied. But all our progress and all our protest
notwithstanding, the mortality rate holds steady at 100 percent.
Neuhaus says and writes frequently…”stay awhile, linger” at the Cross, with the event of death. And do not be afraid.
This is a lengthy and very personal article, this meditation First
Things shares with readers on this day of his passing, and I urge you
to find some time to linger with it, listen to what Neuhaus shares in
it, his earlier bout with near-death and all that his brilliant mind
and eloquent words recollect. He refers to the words and thoughts of
many great writers – and one tyrant – and he ends with a quote from my
There is nothing that remarkable in my story, except
that we are all unique in our living and dying. Early on in my illness
a friend gave me John Donne’s wondrous Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions. The Devotions
were written a year after Donne had almost died, and then lingered for
months by death’s door. He writes, “Though I may have seniors, others
may be elder than I, yet I have proceeded apace in a good university,
and gone a great way in a little time, by the furtherance of a vehement
fever.” So I too have been to a good university, and what I have
learned, what I have learned most importantly, is that, in living and
in dying, everything is ready now.
RJN….Requiescat in pace. Rest in peace.