On ‘Coming Back’

Father James Schall with meditations for the living.

A few weeks ago, the word was that Father James V. Schall, S. J., was in his final days. At 91, that’s not too shocking. At the same time, the “retired,” storied Georgetown politics professor remains more productive than many of us.

So I sent him a few questions the other day about life and death, and he answered. It’s a mediation on everything — all of the things we really ought to be thinking about more. Death is inescapable. Why don’t we live more fully? Here’s a man who does.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: What is it like to have been on the brink of death and come back?

Fr. James V. Schall, S. J.: It turns out that I was not really at the brink of death, though I thought that I was. The agonizing problem was with a twisted colon, which was repaired by the operation. The doctors figured that I would pull through. On the other hand, when I asked in the hospital for no more extraordinary means, there was talk of infection and a second operation. At the time, I assumed that it was good-bye Schall to this world in a few days. I expected to be in hospice care, but that was not needed.

The “coming back” was sobering when I realized the impediments that are given to one’s mobility as a result of this type of operation. Not to be able just to get up and go someplace under one’s own power any time of day or night is an abiding penance. Leisurely walking has been a defining joy of my life. Many people, you really cannot help but notice, have it much worse than you. But that does not allow you to forget that it is you who must live with what you have left. And what you have left is still you. The famous question posed to everyone, of whether you would like to be someone else besides you, can be answered briefly — “No.”

Lopez: Did you feel a little like Lazarus? Like the resurrected Christ?

Fr. Schall: Well, both Lazarus and Christ were really dead. While I was in bad shape as I thought, once conscious I was quite sure the same old Schall was there, minus a few feet of intestine or whatever they take out.

Lazarus went on to die in this world, so his first sojourn in the world of death was brief compared to his second one. His coming back to life had a particular function or purpose in Christ’s teaching. Christ had power over life and death. This power could not be simply a human accomplishment of medicine, technology, or anything else. What we know about it depends on the testimony of the people who were there. They clearly knew he was dead, but Christ brought him back, much to their astonishment.

The rising of Lazarus immediately raised the question: Who is it who exercises such power? We are led to suspect that it was not just another human power. That was the point. Those present were faced with a fact and a logic. We need to recall in this context the story of Dives in hell. He wanted to send a message to his brothers about his situation so that they could avoid it. He is told that the gulf is too wide and that, even if a message did get to his brothers, they would not believe him. They already had Moses and the prophets. A direct message from the realm of the dead would not change their ways.

We think of the resurrection of Christ as the restoration of His life in its divine and human wholeness. We cannot really “feel” the way He did. What we can do, however, is to see that, once dead, what we long for is the restoration of our being following the reality of Christ’s own resurrection. We want what it is that constitutes what we ourselves are; we who pass into the eternal life that we have been promised in the resurrection of Christ.

I always like to recall Aristotle here. He was clear that we are not just bodies or just souls but one being in which all things are ultimately ordered to the end of knowing all that is. Aristotle did not pose any intimation of resurrection. He did give us the understanding of what it is that is resurrected if it happens in some as yet unknown order.

Lopez: Why do you think you keep keeping on? What is God trying to teach you? What might He be trying to teach the rest of us?”

Fr. Schall: What a quaint phrase — “keep keeping on!” Be danged if I know. If you find yourself living and breathing, it means that you keep on living the already extended life you began at your conception. In a wonder about which Chesterton often referred, we had nothing to do with our initial coming to be. All that we have, we have received. Our lives seem to be gifts that make us wonder about the giver.

What is God trying to teach you? The question does cause one to realize that something may well be left to learn. I did figure that I had said, and said often, all that I had to say in this world. I do not feel like Augustine, who, at the end of his life, spent some time retracting his errors. I do not mean that Schall had no errors to retract or even that it might not be good to point them out.

The notion that God is trying to teach us something is no doubt valid. He is trying to teach us who He is as seen in the ongoing stream of our life. In reading the newspapers of late, I was struck that the local papers no longer feature obituaries. They all have “life stories.” A long or brief account, usually with a photo, of each person who has died is given. We wonder what the Lord taught each of them and if they learned what He had in mind. Somehow, when you read these life stories, you get the feeling something is left out. And there is something left out. It is the judgment of each person’s life. We are not complete until we know our end.

In teaching one, all are taught. One of the saints, on confronting some great sin or evil, would say: “There but for the grace of God go I.” I think God does teach us this way. We learn not only from our own situation but from that of others. But our “life story” goes on until it ends. God intended that we all choose, by the way we live, to accept the eternal life for which He has created us and offered to us.

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