Heaven, not Harvard

Students this time of year often begin working on saint reports, studying the likes of Sts. Theresa, Rita, and Michael, among many others. The recent beatification of Bl. Carlo Acutis reminds us that individuals of this title. In the Catholic realm of heroes and heroines, saints are often misunderstood as an untouchable league of perfection of uncompromising virtue and valor; they’re not. They serve as imperfect models of perfect grace which should serve as a teaching moment to build habits of excellence. In turn, our goal as educators and parents is to prepare our youth for their ultimate reward: heaven.

At the same time some are working on these saint reports, others are drafting their response to the perennial academic dilemma and proverbial gateway to higher education: the college essay. You are subtly asked to be creative but not verbose; erudite but not simplistic; proud but not boastful; and all the while, be sure to tell the truth. Our societal push for students to get great grades to attend great schools so that they can have a great career feels like it starts earlier and earlier in life. Sure, values and morals are important to teach but high test scores are the real benchmark of one’s worthiness, right? Competitiveness may be its own virtue in American society, but the real struggle is within ourselves.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against being a high achiever; after all, I am one. And striving for moral and academic excellence are certainly not mutually exclusive goals. But the artificial pressure put on children to be scholars before saints can risk putting the emphasis on the wrong syll-A-ble. Higher rates of anxiety, depression, and social alienation speak to this changing landscape. We need more people to strive for moral excellence but not confuse it with some ethereal plane of perfection.

Encourage children to major in relationships with a minor in friendship; build community with their peers; and be able to model better choices in a world that lacks models of virtue. In doing so, we will witness greater authenticity as a natural outgrowth of taking ownership for one’s actions. Getting into Harvard is easy compared to all that.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

Proud of Death

When my dad died three years ago, I knew he would not be forgotten but I did wonder where he was. Despite my background in theology, I was at a loss as to how my life would be impacted by his absence. A deeply religious man, he was an imperfect model of grace, guided by virtues he lived more often than spoke about. The “Fall Triduum” of Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day confronts our thinking about death, loss, and new life; it is the religious and cultural trifecta of seasons, death, and judgment. John Donne’s (d. 1631) famous sonnet “Death, be not proud” frames this difficult topic in a more hopeful light:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

The way we process losing someone in our lives is as complicated as it is transcendent insofar as we confront our own existential grasp of what it means to no longer be. While we may undergo the classic five stages of grief outlined by the great psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (d. 2004), we are nevertheless faced with a much deeper crisis of identity. The Protestant theologian Paul Tillich (d. 1965) aptly titled one of his books “The Courage to Be.” In it he examined how human nature is faced with a true moral dilemma: how do we face the threat of nothingness? How do we define ourselves in the face of no longer being? Tillich contended that this threat can either define us or paralyze our way of thinking about what it means to be human. Our personal and collective identity as members of the human race is more than a singular memory or experience; it is the totality of creation anticipating its final call to go beyond a life plagued by war, disease, and conflict.

By choosing to title this entry “Proud of Death,” I am not making some morbid assertion but rather hoping to raise awareness about the gift of life and the gift of memory. Perhaps it would be better to say, “be proud of death no longer having power over us.” This is the challenge of the cross and resurrection: to witness that death no longer reigns over us and that new life awaits us. Perhaps Donne and Tillich are arguing along similar lines that death itself remains a reality but its grasp and power (and hold on shaping who we are as individuals made in the likeness of God) no longer applies. It is a dimension of who we will become but it does not have the last word; our family and friends who have passed already know this all too well. By holding up our loved ones in prayer we do keep them alive. The emotions we experience are testimony to this and the mantle we are charged to take up is one of remembrance and hope.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!