Death: Shade or Light

Author: Jean Guitton


Jean Guitton

"The idea of the infinite torments us..."

It is quite true that we can no more look death in the face than the sun at midday. And we may wonder if the reasonable animal is not depreciated among living creatures by the fact that intelligence makes him conceive what animals do not know: that he is mortal. Fortunately, we are never quite convinced of our mortality. In battles, the soldier's courage comes from the conviction that he is protected, immunized. I admire how old people readily accept the death of other old people, feeling immortal themselves. Even in grave illnesses, the patient, the man in the throes of death clutch at the slightest hope, always thinking that sigh will not be the last one. Another little moment of life! Some people have even claimed that if we took heed not to die, we should not die. Alas! a moment's inattention and we die. All this explains why doctors who approach the death of others every day are not frightened by it; it is their duty to prevent us from dying, or at least to help us to survive as long as possible. And they all excel in this art, which consists not only in treatment, but also in words. My father liked a caricature, which he quoted to me during his last illness, when I was trying to reassure him. The patient looks at the doctor and says to him: "If I have understood you rightly, Doctor, I'll die cured!" It is, in fact,the doctor's idea that operations are always successful, that remedies have always a favourable effect and that if patients die, it is "per accidens", or because of the fact that mortality is inherent in the ephemeral and that it is the condition of man—a transient being.

We ask the doctor not to rid us of mortality, (it is rather the priest we ask to strengthen our Faith and instill in us contempt for such adverse appearances) but, I was saying, to enable us to continue to live, to lengthen our days, to reduce our pain, if necessary to deceive us with hope, since hope for and against everything must be fostered in us: this hopeagainst hope that is often the secret of improbable cures. As long as the subject isnot dead (andhow can we define the really irreversible moment?), he may still be saved. For this reason the doctor must, in turn, make us accept death and give us again the hope of living. There exists, it is said, a death wish that sometimes makes us encourage what leads to death, the last refuge. This tendency is a morbid one.

Here are the doctor and the patient, face to face, one horizontal and the other upright. And they form a cross composed of suffering and knowledge. Or rather let us consider the surgeon who operates, supreme, on the body abandoned to him and who tomorrow may give me another heart, another brain, penetrating to these recesses of my loves and thoughts. What a right of intervention! To what alienation do I consent in the hope of prolonging this precarious and mortal breath of life?

If the patient is a Christian, if the doctor is a Christian, will the dialogue between doctor and patient be modified? Not at the experimental, technical, operative level, of course. What the patient asks for is competence, not faith. But on a more personal and intimate plane the conversation of two men of faith cannot be identical with that of two unbelievers. And by conversation I do not necessarily mean words. The words of the atheistic doctor are like the words of the doctor who believes: listening, technique, hope. But each one of our words stands out against a background of silence. And it is the silences of the believer and the silences of the unbeliever that are different. The doctor who believes does not need to speak, but there may shine in his eyes (where the inexpressible is hidden, the "arcana verba" of the Spirit of which St. Paul speaks) a certainty, a peace that goes far beyond mere resignation; he may shake hands in silence, he may smile with a smile of hope. All this reveals to the patient that they both communicate in the idea "that present sufferings cannot be compared with the glory". Or else in the idea that behind death and its loathsome mask there is life. Léon Bloy wrote to his friend Rollinat: Think of death a great deal, because our soul is not clouded over. To make death black is an undertaker's idea. Death is white, luminous, full of hope, because nothingness in the future does not exist... Death is a fair-haired virgin with lowered eyes, the inscrutable purity that the deepest poets have celebrated without knowing it, giving it the strange and esoteric name of love".

* * *

It is true, as psychoanalysts of our times confirm, that there is a connection between love and death; they are two ecstasies, one of which opens onto the infinite. But this infinite is hidden from us by the idea (an unthinkable one) of future nothingness.

For a philosopher nothingness is unthinkable, because one cannot deny being without starting from being which is undeniable. Suicides cannot annihilate themselves. Perhaps they would like to reach the plenitude of being without accepting its limitations? Therefore the death wish of which Freud has spoken and which is supposed to be hidden in the depths of our loves, especially if they are wild loves, is nothing but the opposite of a desire for complete and full life: what we call non-being, nothingness, is this lesser being, the relative, the evanescent, which leaves us unsatisfied and, sometimes, so rebellious.

The idea of the infinite torments us. Oh, death where is thy sting, where is thy victory?

Did God want death in his original plan for man? Here, I think it is necessary to distinguish between two aspects of mortality. If by death we mean the sudden passage, without corruption or agony, from time to eternal life—as the Catholics conceive it for the Blessed Virgin in her "assumption",—we may say that this passage from temporal life to eternal life was tied up with the creation of a temporal being called upon to share divine nature. If by death we mean the agony that precedes it, the anguish of dying always present at every moment of time, the decomposition of the body, we may wonder if such a condition, such a situation of mortality enveloped the creature in God's original plan. Faith tells us that corrupting death, death with its agony, is the consequence of a mysterious sin, right from the origin. But it also tells us that this condition of mortality, anguish, suffering and struggling was assumed by God made man, who gave the pain of death the highest splendour; since this "death of God" is the salvation of the world. Therefore, for a Christian, death is all imitation of Jesus Christ, "who died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures", and therefore a free act, all assent, a work of love.

If I descend from such heights after having dispelled darkness from death by means of faith, I ask myself in what state of mind I must prepare myself for this inevitable end. In a sense, one must think of it always. And in another sense one must never think of it. Louis Lavelle wrote: "He who carries out his daily toils well must always expect to see the casing, the mould break and the statue appear".

It might seem that the best way to "get ready to die" would be to withdraw from the world and fix our minds on the last hour. But this is not the solution of the wise man or the saint, as the wise man and the saint live for others and not to ensure their own safety. And just as, in a battle, if you see your companion fall, you must march on under fire in order that the battle may be a victory for everyone, —so the constant death of others and even the idea of our own death must not absorb us to the extent of diminishing the energy required by our duties.

Temporal life, in any case, consists in preparing a temporal future, for ourselves and for our children, for our heirs in the body or in the spirit. There is no life without plans, without hopes, without foundations, without system, even at the most advanced age! In a certain sense, it is advisable to deny that one may die, to behave as if one were immortal, or, according to the advice of Stanislas and Péguy to "continue to throw the ball to the hunter".

For it is necessary not to be taken by surprise. But it is a good thing to be interrupted. I say: interrupted half way through a long work, without being able to heave another sigh, without being able to end the sentence begun. The interruption of death, always unexpected to some extent, always unforeseen as regards its manner or its moment, gives our life its substantial poetry. Ruins fall, the matrix and the mould break. But the idea of our life appears!  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
17 April 1969, page 9

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