What follows is a longread essay by Dariusz Karlowicz that appeared in his award-winning Polish-language collection entitled The End of Constantine’s Dream. This is the second and last part of that essay, “Death as an Object of Faith: Meditations for Holy Saturday.” You can read the first part here.
The following translation is my own published with the author’s permission.
To Live Facing Death
In the essay “Death and the After-Life” Max Scheler wrote that contemporary people “Do not face death in their lives. Our awareness of the intuition that death is something certain for us is forced out of the sphere of personal consciousness by our way of life and the types of activities we take up, and all that remains is knowledge in the form of a judgment that one will die… Contemporary man contradicts the core and essence of death.”
By concentrating upon the fact that death, in a certain sense, is an object of faith Scheler highlights how one of the hallmarks of our times is a particular erosion of this faith. Is this really the case? It is easy to agree with the assertion that knowledge of someone else’s death does not straightforwardly lead to consciousness of one’s own impending death. The death of others does not automatically lead to the conclusion that we ourselves will die. The deep sense of our uniqueness, or fear of annihilation, weakens the persuasive value of induction so that it appears to not apply to our specific case. As a certain British philosopher puts it with a fair amount of macabre pedantry, the judgment that “all men are mortal” technically is beyond the bounds of experience. But even if things were otherwise our instinct to push this thought out of our everyday horizon of awareness would constitute an unchangeable component of our thinking. Could it be that the continued paradoxicality of the postulate of preparing for death is the best proof of the power and immutability of the phenomenon known as disbelief in death?
It is difficult not to admit a further devolution from the stance predominant in Scheler’s time. The culture that Scheler condemned for hiding death was replaced by one that devalues death. The epoch of convalescents being secretly scooted away through the hallways of the Mann’s Berghof sanatorium has passed irrevocably. Today death is ubiquitous. The growing number of corpses that pepper news and entertainment shows is the best proof for my thesis. However, this does not mean we now live facing death. No, we’ve only invented a more effective form of neutralizing death. Through becoming ubiquitous death loses its reality. Another symbol of the new disappearance of death is the fact that most computer games give each player several lives to waste. The corpses pile high. After all, everybody gets at least three lives; if they lose them they can start over. But if things go well they can earn bonus lives! Death has about as much weight here as the click of a mouse. What’s more, virtual corpses and real corpses appear upon the same screen. There is no death. It has become banal.
The expulsion of death from our consciousness was supposed to liberate us from the fear of fears—from the fear of death. The forgetting was supposed to open up a new epoch of happiness in which life would finally regain the tastes and colors that were lost in the grayness of fear. In actuality it lost its weight and meaning. Why? What went wrong? The calculation seemed reasonable. Why does life without the horizon of death seem so unbearably flat? What was our mistake? How did we lose both the resurrection and death by wanting resurrection without death?
Let’s attempt to answer the following question: What does it mean to live in the face of death? Why is it that, according to Plato, the Stoics, and the Church Fathers, only such a perspective gives life value? “[Live] as though under daily expectation of death,” we read in The Life of St. Anthony. What does this calling mean? It was said of the residents of Arkagas that they lived as if they would die tomorrow, while they built their houses as if they were going to live forever. Perhaps it is impossible to build anything without living with the thought of dying the next day? According to the ancients, and their later pupils, life takes on color and weight only when we understand how important every moment is (after all, our moments are counted), only with such awareness will we understand there is never enough time for moral or intellectual inattention. Only then it is possible to sharply distinguish between what matters from what is indifferent. There’s no time for kidding around. By living as if they are going to die tomorrow, the early Christians reasoned, we understand what weight is attached to our greatest work: love. You cannot wait until tomorrow with love. You must hurry and not build up love in a provisional way. This discovery can only be made upon the foundation of the hardest truth that’s been given to us, the truth that we’ll die. Only this imposes spiritual discipline and forces us to turn projects into actual work. Every philosopher who takes this task will take up his task in the appropriate manner (Phaedo 61). This is what the greatest philosophers thought of these matters. I’m not talking about a philosophy that’s content with wandering about. What I mean is a philosophy that strives to lead us toward concrete perfection and happiness. I’m thinking of the philosophy that transforms and converts, which was once called the medicine of the soul, training for death, and a process of likening ourselves to God.
Have we totally forgotten that one of the Church’s important tasks is reminding us about death? Nowadays it’s more likely we’ll hear a memento mori from an insurance agent than a modern preacher (the apostles of the fear of fear don’t much like drastic topics). No wonder Holy Saturday appears to be one long pause in the drama of Holy Week. But the Church cannot run away from the final things without running away from people and God. The cross cannot be foolishness and a scandal to the Church itself. I believe that the blessedness of Saturday depends upon the possibility of regaining consciousness of death. It is a time for spiritual exercises, which in antiquity were call meditatio mortis. In a certain sense the cross constitutes a revelation of death. By proclaiming the truth about the resurrection the Chruch with all its might stands against disbelief in death. Christ’s descent into the abyss is simultaneously a truth about breaking the reign of death and the truth about its inescapability. Accepting the hypothesis of one’s own death, the enlivening of the difficult faith in the fact that we will die is one of the key stages of spiritual development. Without this faith the fundamental presupposition that gives our life its gravity becomes inoperative, the presupposition that takes us out of a state of moral flightiness by placing us at a crossroads where one path leads toward a difficult hope in resurrection, whereas the other path leads to numerous strategies of philosophical despair. By not descending into hell one can neither leave it, nor remain in it. Resurrection (and despair) are inaccessible to those who repress death from the light of their consciousness. In order to believe that God was resurrected, one must first believe that He died. Christian philosophy is born on Holy Saturday out of the grave. Its starting point is the consciousness of death, its content is the rational calculation of the bet against nothingness. The deepest sense of Saturday reveals itself only when despair becomes palpable and the triumph of death becomes obvious. Only those who listen to the silence of Holy Saturday will understand the painful, seemingly hopeless difficulty of Christian faith and the boundless joy of Sunday. This is the mystery of transformation and resurrection. The seed must die in order to live.
The dawn of the resurrection marks out the definitive boundary between knowledge and faith. Even though it is much easier to believe in the resurrection than in death, there is no doubt that in the light of reason death deserves faith more than does the resurrection. On its own strength reason is only able to accept the truth about death. It will never leave the boundaries set by Holy Saturday. From the perspective of human knowledge the entombment is the last event of Holy Week—the ultimate ending is meaningless suffering and a meaningless death. You cannot get any further without the help of faith. However, by accepting the truth about death, reason becomes its prisoner. As La Rochefoucauld wrote, “Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily.” This is why there is such a temptation to disbelieve in death, to push it out of the field of consciously held facts. It has so much power over us. When faced with the choice of a perspective of nothingness or an abdication of reason people most frequently choose the latter—the escape into an unreasonable illusion that allows them to avert their eyes from death (living as if it were possible to achieve bodily immortality). Let’s be honest, such a remedy is a flight from reason. This situation can only be overcome by faith. Plato understood this well. He closed his considerations of philosophy as training for death with an eschatological myth. Only faith allows reason to persevere in the fact of death, therefore, paradoxically, only faith gives one an opportunity to live reasonably. This does not change the fact that the certainty of the resurrection is a certainty of faith not knowledge. “So we are always courageous, although we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:6-7). While preventing reason from contradicting itself by protecting it from the temptation of irrationalism faith does not violate reason’s independence. The autonomy of reason plus reason itself is preserved. This obviously does not mean that escaping from the alternatives (nothingness or an unreasonable illusion) is the only reason for accepting faith.
Reason does not whistle in the dark, but dreaming about irrefutable proofs of the resurrection should be thrown overboard without unnecessary discussion. Does this mean that when faced with the choice of nothingness, irrationalism, and the hope of faith there are no reasons in the last analysis? Actually, the reasons behind such a choice are the witnesses, saints, and martyrs. According to Church tradition they are the ones who bring the good tidings about the resurrection thereby bridging the chasm between faith and reason. In the language of ancient philosophy witness constitutes a kind of proof-demonstration of nature in a state of perfection. In the language of religion they are a demonstration of death and resurrection, a recapitulation of the history of Holy Week.
It is sacred history that repeats itself before our very eyes.
You might have noticed Christ’s genitalia highlighted in the featured images I’ve used for these last two posts. Today it’s a big knot, yesterday you saw a finger pointing toward the area.
You weren’t seeing things (or you actually were); there is a Renaissance/dogmatic reason for this.