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Facing the final innings

 

The unexpected death of the Australian cricket great, Shane Warne, at 52 years of age provoked a universal reaction of shock and surprise in Australia (and beyond). Senator Kimberly Kitching’s recent death at the same age was similarly surprising, especially to Australia’s political class.

While we have been (barely) coping with a pandemic and natural disasters, where deaths are an unfortunate reality, the death from natural causes of a larger-than-life figure like Warnean ordinary-bloke-cum-sporting-legend, an ever-present companion to Australian audiences, and seemly untouchable — has really brought home the fragility of life. It has drastically reminded us of our mortality: that we don’t live forever, despite the glossy images constantly put before us in the media.

Death should be treated with great sensitivity, especially with respect for the families in mourning (to whom I send my condolences and prayers). In making these comments, I do not seek to add to their burden but to express something of what people seem to be feeling. The public have been deeply moved by these deaths. It is important to understand what we may be grappling with.

In Western culture, we are usually removed from death. We do not usually experience or witness it directly, in contrast to those who live in non-Western or more traditional societies. We do much to avoid contemplating our mortality. Pop culture is filled with images of young and beautiful people. The elderly and aged barely feature. The achievement of the young, especially in sport, is glorified. Scientific research is conducted to stop the ageing process, while elder abuse and neglect are increasing problems.

As religious practice has declined in the West, death seems to be increasingly difficult to address and confront. Making sense of ageing, sickness and death is rarely attempted in public debate, especially as euthanasia has gained ascendency.

Despite this, death re-emerges to challenge us: is this all there is? What have we done with our lives? Where are we going as individuals and a community? What are we going to make of our lives? How can we make sense of death and contingency (if at all)?

Fundamental existential questions and yearnings continually re-emerge; ones that we often repress or divert with distraction. Blaise Pascal remarked that humans spend much of their lives on diversions and distractions that take them away from the essentials, because to look is often too hard. And he said this before mass advertising, consumerism, television, the internet and social media. Similarly, in his Lenten message for this year, Pope Francis discusses the temptations and addictions of digital media, which can lead us to focus on ourselves and turn away from genuine relationships.

 

'Death remains a mystery, one which challenges us to value life and take stock of its deepest meaning and purpose.'

 

The resistance to the Russian invasion in Ukraine, for example, has shown us something of what really matters in life, away from the distractions and diversions. The inspirational solidarity of the Ukrainian people in the face of overwhelming violence and death challenges us to ask: what would I/we fight and die for?

Many of us will, thankfully, not have to fight in war. Yet, we will have to face many personal struggles, whether physical or spiritual. The journey of life — for those privileged to live it — inevitably leads away from the seemingly limitless energy and promise of youth to windy and challenging paths. It is either a journey of growth and depth, or of stagnation and destruction. The journey is not linear but it tends to one of these pathways.

Saint Thomas Aquinas stated that humans tend to go after pleasure, wealth (possessions), power or glory (fame or status) to give their lives meaning and purpose. In fact, we go so far as to worship these values, that is, we put them at the centre of our lives and absolutise them. Yet, these values never make us happy or fulfilled. Instead, we are diminished. We don’t grow but become self-centred and self-focused.

Why do we inflict such pain on ourselves? We do this because we have infinite desires, which we don’t know how to satisfy. Unlike other animals, our instincts for physical survival do not satisfy us. We want to survive but we want more than just survival. Think of your own experience of the things and people you love. We don’t want those good things to ever end. We intensely want them to go on and on. In other words, we desire infinitely.

We want things that never end which will fulfill us completely. These things can be physical but tend to be spiritual, such as peace, joy, happiness, success, and love. Yet, we tend to look in the wrong places to satisfy these infinite desires, become overly attached to what cannot satisfy us and become unbalanced. So, we face a problem as creatures who desire infinitely: where can we find that infinite satisfaction that we desire at the core of our being?

Most people across time have drawn on God and religion to answer this question. However even for those with faith, facing death, especially a difficult or violent one, is one of life’s greatest challenges, provoking anxiety and avoidance. There’s also people of religion and no religious faith who accept death as part of life.

Regardless, death remains a mystery, one which challenges us to value life and take stock of its deepest meaning and purpose. Fundamentally, it tests us to give up the pretence of egotistical control of life as none of us has any power over our ultimate destiny and existence. This reality of life and death has humbled and challenged humanity across time to look beyond itself, into the confounding and wonderful mystery that is our existence, as many of us are still doing.

 

Joel HodgeJoel Hodge is a lecturer in theology at the Australian Catholic University and a Jesuit novice. 

Main image:  (Darrian Traynor / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Joel Hodge, Mortality, Death, Shane Warne, Fulfilment

 

 

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Existing comments

Is death really increasingly difficult to address and confront as religious practice has declined? Could it not be argued that belief in an afterlife is also evidence of a failure, nay refusal, to address and confront the reality of death? Victorian era cemeteries are full of inscriptions of denial, especially on the graves of infants and children.


Ginger Meggs | 17 March 2022  

As far as I am aware, Shane Warne, a likeable, knockabout sort of bloke, died of perfectly normal causes on a holiday in Thailand. It was a normal holiday. Kimberley Kitching had preexisting medical conditions and the rude world of factional Labor politics had not been kind to her. I see death as a river we are all going to have to face and cross at some stage. What lies on the other side? All the Great World Religions tell us something and they differ widely. Even within Christianity, there are some differences. The Orthodox still have a detailed explanation of what we face. You can read it in the writings of Blessed Seraphim Rose. Western Medieval Europe had it neatly summed up in that wonderful mystery play 'Everyman'. I think the writer had it spot on. Our Western Medieval ancestors had a life that was often nasty, brutish and short. Yet they raised songs of praise in stone to God like Chartres. If you visit some of the wonderful Romanesque churches in the little towns and villages of France you will see what a society which believed can do. Simple faith, not necessarily heavily intellectual. Simple piety. Benevolence.


Edward Fido | 17 March 2022  

I’m not sure that we are meant in this life to be thinking too much about impending death. We are reminded of our vulnerability when someone we love, or someone we know, or someone we know of, dies. Living and surviving takes up a great deal of our thinking and striving. Some people die through violence and their lives are ended in a cruel and heartbreaking way. Some die suddenly due to an accident or health issue. Any death is a cause for sadness and reflection. The people they loved and who loved them are left with ongoing pain and grief. I pray for lots of things but I don’t pray for a happy death.


Pam | 17 March 2022  

Joel we all hope for a long and happy life. But God is no respecter of age. When you see children die of cancer at age 7 you ask: How can God let this happen?
Despite the genuine prayers of millions of Jews, he was not around for Auschwitz or Belson. When thousands were murdered by the Nazis in Ukraine, God didn't seem to intervene.
No he left intervention and retribution to the collective conscience of the Allies.
We genuinely mourn our sporting heroes like Warne and Marsh because they gave us a deep sense of pride in our nation.
The dilemma of death.
Revelation 21:4

"And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the
former things are passed away."


Francis Armstrong | 18 March 2022  

Five years old, this is death I am told
School day dreadful way
Our Front Room, 'her hour is soon'
Say goodbye, to day she may die
Ash grey face, white pillowcase
Cold sweat, gaunt stare matted hair
White sheet folded neat
Aunt Edna, my mother adjusting cover
Steel bucket spew more than a few
Eye met eye I now felt shy
Struggling head raised from bed
Smile of sorrow, no tomorrow
Dropped jaw, no teeth, drawn cheek
The sight of death, you cannot forget
Nod of head, goodbye I said
Home from school, locked Front Room
Sob and groan she was not alone
Polished coffin, brass cross, sense of loss
Lid shut tight, Grammar out of sight
No despair we offer a pray
Full Street stood quite discreet
Granddads agonising cry, last goodbye
We will meet again at heaven’s gate
But now we must wait
Many prays down the years, but never tears
Jelly and Sunday tea this I still see

kevin your brother
In Christ


Kevin Walters | 18 March 2022  
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Very graphic and very true.
No matter what the age of the person, death itself is traumatic.
I was with my mother a few weeks back when she died, though I must say after 2.5 years in a Nun's nursing home in Camberwell, it was a blessed release.


Francis Armstrong | 24 March 2022  

Thanks Joel, I agree it’s important to face our final innings and you have made some important points.

We are all going to die and it can happen at any age. It’s hard to face the reality of this in our death and grief denying culture where conversations are avoided and death is something we see on TV but rarely connect with on a daily basis in real life. Unlike earlier generations when most people died at home.

In my experience it’s just as important to also prepare for dying and the practical, medical and existential issues that arise as health declines. The distinction between dying, death and grief makes it easier to explore pathways when reading, reflecting and searching in other ways as preparation for the end of life.


Freya Parker | 19 March 2022  

How strange that days after publishing there are no comments.
This maybe speaks to the western concept of not speaking of death.
Many Indigenous cultures speak of and celebrate death, returning to Mother Earth.
Maybe as Christians we need to speak of and celebrate the great gift we have in death through Christ.


Jan Wright | 20 March 2022  

‘….humans tend to go after…glory (fame or status) to give their lives meaning and purpose’

It can be argued that people go after meaning and purpose to give their lives meaning and purpose, the most common way to do this being to have children. The raising of children is the default meaning and purpose not only because it is close to a social instinct which humans fall into doing when the time comes without having to think too much about it, but because raising them is universally and unreservedly regarded as a social good that is also a burden. Once you’re having children, you don’t really need to ask yourself whether that is all there is. It isn’t, but the effort required to spend two decades of your life to bringing up humans who will turn out to be decent and useful serves as a certificate of exemption from racking your mind too much for other raisons détre.

Perhaps that’s why celibacy is regarded as a higher station than marriage. The leaders of the Church are required to be single so they can’t opt out of searching for the higher fruits of meaning and purpose on the philosophical tree to bestow upon those who haven’t the time to climb the tree, given that they don’t have to take slow walks in the park painstakingly pointing out things to a pre-literate infant or any of the other time-sapping things to do with child rearing.

‘Glory’ isn’t easy to define but the many examples of its use seem to suggest that the object that is referred to as glorious contains some kind of distinction. Perhaps glory shouldn’t just be exampled by fame and status but by a life which distinguishes itself by containing elements of having been lived with meaning and purpose.

This would seem to accord with Aquinas who holds that the purpose of life is to know God but there are many modes of transport to get there.


roy chen yee | 20 March 2022  

Have we really needed these two deaths - tragic as they are - to remind us of the ‘fragility of life’ or of our ‘mortality’? I question Joel’s premise that ‘in Western culture, we are (un)usually removed from death’. Sure, youth thinks, and has always thought, itself immortal (think Spitfire pilots), but is there anyone in their, say, 50s who has not experienced the unexpected death of a child, parent, spouse, sibling or close friend? And where is the evidence that ‘as religious practice has declined… death seems to be increasingly difficult to address’? I’m of an age now where I often attend funerals and I certainly don’t see the secular versions any less valid at ‘confronting death’ than the religious. If Joel believes that animals want no more than the satisfaction of their ‘instincts for survival’, he’s never had a real dog. Perhaps we should ask why religion so often gets its knickers in a knot about death and its inevitability.


Ginger Meggs | 20 March 2022  
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‘Perhaps we should ask why religion so often gets its knickers in a knot about death and its inevitability.’

So life is lived morally. All religions have some notion that misbehaving in this life has consequences in an afterlife or a new cycle of earthly life.

The world has been religious for so long that atheism, a johnny-come-lately, is just coasting on the psychology of peace with death set up over millennia in the human psyche by one form or another of belief in an afterlife that will be good if your life here has been good.

‘If Joel believes that animals want no more than the satisfaction of their ‘instincts for survival’, he’s never had a real dog.’

Three days or so after death in a locked room with your dog, your dog will have you for lunch. It’s just a different way from now as to how it has its lunch. Incidentally, in your assertion of something higher than instinct in your dog, aren’t you being quasi-religious? An evolutionist would say that your dog is a bag of better tricks devised by Evolution over time to help it suck in a human protector. Tilting its head as it looks at you with open jaw and a tongue hanging out the side isn’t a goofy smile to it but for some reason, your brain thinks it’s a goofy smile. Anyway, the train left the station a long time ago with biologists, both godbotherers and not, coming up with terms such as symbiosis, parasitism, saprophytism (your dog after three days with the former you in a locked room), epiphytism, commensalism (your dog after three days with the former you in a locked room) and mutualism (your dog and you now).


roy chen yee | 22 March 2022  

Do I take it Roy that you too, like Joel, have never had a 'real dog'? If that's the case, I'm truly sorry for you because you have missed out on the opportunity to experience a caring and rewarding relationship out of which you may have gained a deeper understanding of the way in which all life is connected and co-dependent. And you would never have had to concern yourself with all those '-ism' words ! :-)


Ginger Meggs | 23 March 2022  

That "death seems to be increasingly difficult to address" in our society today would seem to be evident in the widening demand for and recourse to euthanasia, Ginger. The Christian religion encourages people facing death to unite their suffering with those of Christ for the salvation of the world. It also encourages our supportive presence and journeying with the dying.


John RD | 23 March 2022  

Resort to euthanasia can hardly be a response to the fear of death per se John ! You might well argue that it reflects a desire to avoid the pain and discomfort associated with dying, and I think that’s what you mean. Your reference to suffering is interesting because a number of religions seem to make a virtue out of suffering. Some of it is voluntary (think hermits, sati, self flagellation, stones in shoes and uncomfortable clothing generally) which has all sounded pretty self-centred to me rather than heroic or virtuous, and it seems to have gone out of fashion. You’re example, though, is about involuntary sufferings, which you would urge the dying person to associate with the sufferings of Christ. I accept that this is the sincere practice of some (many?) people but I wonder about its origins. If you had the chance to relieve or cure that suffering you would presumably jump at the opportunity? That suggests to me that making something positive out of the suffering is a fall-back option when you can't alleviate the suffering. Those who choose euthanasia are simply seeking to alleviate the suffering. What have I missed?


Ginger Meggs | 23 March 2022  

Memento mori (Be mindful of death) used to be a Medieval and Early Renaissance catchphrase. In the conditions of those times: war; plagues; famine; hard, back breaking labour and rudimentary medicine, people did not have to be reminded of their mortality. These days we seem to hope to live healthily for a very long time. There's nothing wrong with this, but life won't last forever. The Sufis have a catchphrase: 'Die before you die'. They mean squaring your account with the Almighty before you pass on. A good conscience helps you sleep soundly and peacefully at night. I would recommend it. Settle your account now. That was Jesus' incredibly simple message. How do you do that? The example of those who have gone before and who, to use an old phrase 'died in the Lord' may be the key. I think the orthodox Medieval Christian Mystics had it right. Their later successors, like Ignatius of Loyola, systematised their experience in the hope it might help others. I have no simple 'one size fits all' recommendation. Salvation - because that's what it is - is indeed The Pearl of Great Price. If you find it everything else will fit into place.


Edward Fido | 21 March 2022  
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Yes, Edward: a skull on the desk, a prie-dieu and a crucifix - common items in the studies of many Medieval and Early Renaissance scholars - were "memento mori " stimuli to examine all experiences "sub specie aeternitatis" - in the context of Christian faith, a liberating perspective from the burden of despair and temptation to nihilism imposed by life's tribulations such as plague and war. Advice for contemplating decisions in the now from the imaginative projection of one's death bed is a discernment counsel of Ignatius Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises.
And Joel: thanks for your stimulating and aptly Lenten reflection.


John RD | 23 March 2022  

Some might say that just as there was great good to be found in the death of Christ, there is always some good to be found in all human death - perhaps the relief of suffering, the sobering wake up call that may change an ill-conceived life, the recognition of how fortunate one might really be and, God forgive me for saying it, the removal of some bastard/persecutor of his/her fellow human beings from the face of the earth.


john frawley | 22 March 2022  

Your comments (23/3) indicate that you understand my intent in connecting euthanasia with fear of death, Ginger. Offering one's sufferings with Christ is a traditional affirmation of the follower of Christ's baptismal incorporation into him and his redemptive mission. Voluntary union with Christ's suffering, in co-operation with grace, transforms suffering from a negative passivity to a salvific action that transcends the individual: suffering is invested with the meaning and merit of Christ, and is a response in faith to Christ's injunction to take up his cross, (cf. Mtt 16: 24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23), the mystery by which he effects the redemption of the world, celebrated in the Eucharist. In this light, suffering is not just, in Sartre's terms, "a futile passion"; rather, it's an encouragement in love, hope, and the eternal good of others.


John RD | 25 March 2022  

Joel, I was deeply touched by your reflection on the Death we all face. It heartened me that despite your joining the Jesuits you sidestepped the torment-driven Jansenist view of Life by invoking Inigo's memento mori moment.

A skull as a reminder of Death is a Gothic obscenity in terms of a contemporary spirituality of suffering, which, far from the exclusive experience of the imminently dying is better located as the pain that those left grieving instinctively feel. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross developed this appreciation in her deeply wise and comforting work.

Those who read Socrates (through Plato) and Jesus (through Mark, especially) know this. Socrates had incensed the magistracy by criticising worldly attachment before caring that they should be good, wise and just.

This advice outraged the status quo. Death wasn't his preoccupation; integrity was! Before he drank the hemlock he joked about his predicament (as More later did).

Jesus, we are told, settled his account in the Garden, and went willingly to the gibbet, having forsaken the chance to escape across Hebron Brook.

Instead of destructive, consuming rage, the Greats demonstrate a quiet receptive peace as they face death, forbidding us to mourn, thereby enabling us to celebrate life itself!


Michael Furtado | 03 April 2022  
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So you consider the experience of his passion was stoical and the words Jesus uttered from the cross were delivered with Socratic equanimity, MF?
As Isaiah's "suffering servant" and the Letter to the Hebrews' "high priest", he took upon himself the consequences of human fallenness, the burden of sin: in this, he was not liberating humanity from just an idea of the human condition, but from the very real and visceral effects of Original Sin to which we are all prone.
Acceptance of suffering does not necessarily imply apathy in response to it, any more than it implies masochism on the part of followers who offer their sufferings with him; his suffering was undertaken for the forgiveness and salvation of all. "Greater love than can no-one show. . ."


John RD | 08 April 2022  

Joel, It would provide an excellent balance to this article were you and David Halliday to surprise us on Good Friday with a piece on Rene Girard's mimetic theory as it applies to Scripture and your expertise.

My earnest recommendation is that you do this because so much Catholic spirituality is centred upon the violence of sacrifice and suffering. My view is that much of the bacchanalia of contemporary cultural excess springs from the 1960s dawning that what went prior was a rejection of Christ's injunction to 'live life to the full' (John, X: 10).

This suggestion relates to countering a Jansenist practice, still played out in many parts of the fundamentalist Catholic cosmos, in which some of the so-called faithful have themselves nailed to a cross.

Girard reasoned that the violence played out in so many aspects of contemporary culture, reflected in Lenten liturgies preceding Vatican II (e.g. 'Dies Irae'), wallows in the gore of blood-sacrifice that in some primitive minds is piously associated with Christ's Crucifixion.

The cock-eyed rationale for this is that such practices enable expiation for sin. In some respects these beliefs are played out in these columns, an unhealthy practice which the Church strenuously condemns.


Michael Furtado | 04 April 2022  

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