My first thought when I saw in my e-mail one morning a few weeks ago that Sister Mary Bernadette had died: What would things be like at the Center now that she was gone?
I wasn’t wondering what they would be like for me when next I was in Richmond. When I was there in October for the latest SBC conference, Sister no longer recognized me. I saw then that my personal link to her, such as it was, was already broken.
If that was my first thought on learning of Sister’s death, I did almost immediately afterward think of myself. Sister and Brother were nonagenarians when they passed. I still have a ways to go before I’m that old, but I am nearer in years to the age they were than I am to any of the brothers and sisters who now populate the Center. If that bodes well for the Center’s continued development, it didn’t make Sister’s passing less poignant to me. To be explicit, what it did was make her death somewhat like that of a parent: a sign, like a voice saying “next,” that in the natural order of things it wouldn’t be terribly long before it was oneself stepping up to the turnstile.
That thought became the sharper when I finished reading my e-mail and connected to a news website. There I saw that the writer Christopher Hitchens had died.
Not simply was he actually younger than I am, he lived just a couple of blocks away. Though it was the case, I hadn’t even a nodding acquaintance with him, much less did I know him. I don’t remember ever even passing him in the street or seeing him in the neighborhood grocery store. At least I didn’t recognize him.
I write of him now because at Mass on the Sunday after he and Sister died, the priest began his homily with a reference to Hitchens’s demise. Observing that the writer was one of the foremost champions of today’s militant atheism, Monsignor shared what he told us was his first thought upon hearing of Hitchens’s death: “Now he knows he was wrong.”
I relate this because the remark was met by laughter from quite a number of my fellow parishioners. It was laughter whose sound I didn’t like. Why?
It is because there was in it an unmistakable element of certainty and even smugness that was not simply inappropriate but had no basis in reality. In reality, we may believe some things likely happen to a soul after death, but we do not know. As long as we are in this world our knowledge must be limited. Further, we can never look into the interior of another person as can God, but implicit in the laughter at Mass was the notion that we can. It was like saying, “Yeah! Hitchens is now getting what he deserves. That won’t happen to us because we know better.”
Brother Francis was apparently as holy a man as any I have ever been privileged to know, but after he died the M.I.C.M. brother chiefly responsible for his care in his last days, Brother Louis Marie, reported that shortly before the end he confided the fear that after he passed nobody would think to pray for him.
There was the proper Christian attitude in the face of death. Brother Francis understood the danger of our possibly esteeming too much the apparent holiness of someone.
The real point is we can be no more certain about what awaits anyone at all, including even a man who professes unbelief. The very fact he is as loud about it as was Hitchens could signify that in truth he is closer to belief than he cares to think. As a convert, I know something about resisting grace for a long time. (Having the Hound of Heaven at your heels can be fearsome, as Francis Thompson famously made clear.) Let’s not forget that even after writing Orthodoxy, it took fourteen more years before the great G.K.Chesterton finally came into the Church. No one, not even those at his bedside, can know for sure if Hitchens resisted until it was too late. God alone knows some things, and decides them. Let us know our place – our place and our duty: to pray first of all for the faithful departed, to be sure, but to give some thought to all of whose passing we hear.
Apart from its being an obligation in charity, perhaps we may also hope that if we do offer such prayers, we shall not be entirely forgotten when “next” means us.