A Clean, Gray Light
Last week I had the honor of saying the Prayers for the Commendation of the Dying over the body of a good friend. His wife had arranged for a hospital bed to be set up in the pleasant living room of their house and a clean, gray light shone through their picture window.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.
Everything depends on whether we believe in the reality of that light, as Pope Francis says in Fratelli Tutti, and whether we believe that that light is eternal. Everything depends on whether we believe a body is just a body, death just death.
If we believe in nothing but matter, all we can do is consume. If we believe in nothing but the body, the body becomes disposable. If we believe in nothing but profit and gain, the person is no longer a person but a commodity:
A kind of ‘deconstructionism,’ [the pope says] whereby human freedom claims to create everything starting from zero, is making headway in today’s culture. The one thing it leaves in its wake is the drive to limitless consumption and expressions of empty individualism.
According to this logic, my friend was only important when he was important, when he was a distinguished scientist and academic, doing research and bringing in money and publishing papers in prestigious journals. He was nothing at all as he slowly lost his mind and then faded away. He was just a burden—as an unborn child is a burden, as the poor are a burden, as the foreign are a burden:
Some parts of our human family, it appears, can be readily sacrificed for the sake of others considered worthy of a carefree existence. Ultimately, persons are no longer seen as a paramount value to be cared for and respected, especially when they are poor and disabled, not yet useful—like the unborn—or no longer needed—like the elderly.
Our many political and social and economic problems require political and social and economic solutions, but if we see them as just political, just economic, even the best intended approaches lead to reductionism and despair. Even the problem of racism can’t be solved if we think that race is the central thing and the most important thing rather than a symptom of something far deeper.
As Christians we make a radically different assumption. We believe in the light. We believe in the fundamental dignity of the human person as created in the image of likeness of God, of all people and ultimately of all things, rocks and trees and birds and all the animals, because all the created world is created, is made, out of a wasteful and profligate love, out of tenderness and play, out of a hugely creative impulse, the creative impulse of God, his whim, his joy, and this impulse is eternal. It never ends. It’s the living water. It’s eternal life—and not just later, in heaven, but here and now.
The spiritual stature of a person’s life is measured by love, the pope says, which in the end remains the criterion for the definitive decision about a human life’s worth or lack thereof. This is the simple and radical logic of Christian faith. Everything flows from it. Social friendship and universal fraternity necessarily call for an acknowledgment of the worth of every human person, always and everywhere:
If each individual is of such great worth, it must be stated clearly and firmly that the mere fact that people are born in places with fewer resources or less development does not justify the fact that they are living with less dignity.
I would put the stress on the word “necessarily” and the “if/then” structure of these sentences. If we call ourselves Christians, and we demonize migrants or the homeless or Muslims or Democrats or Republicans, then we are simply being inconsistent. We are simply not being Christians. To be a Christian, we must, necessarily, begin with the assumption of dignity. The assumption of worth. The assumption of value. Then love follows, logically, inexorably, however hard that love is to carry out—love not as a feeling but as an action.
But not just a logic. Not just an action.
Because there is feeling, too, now and then, there is experience, there is this light we know and feel in this life, too, the clean, gray light coming the window of that pleasant living room where my friend’s body lay, quiet, at peace.
And from where his soul had risen, from where his spirit had been raised up and is now forever bathed in that light and that goodness and that love, the light that shines in all of us, all of us, however darkened or obscured. All of us.