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Mommy, Should I Look Forward to Death?

April 22, AD 2014 9 Comments


While we were turning over the dirt in the flower beds so that our wild ferns could curl up out of the ground and grow, my daughter asked a question. “Mommy, should I look forward to death?” She’d read ahead to the last page of her religion book: “Perfect joy will be ours if we use this life to get ourselves ready for it. Heaven is our true home; earth is just our journey to find it.” Her question was reasonable. Shouldn’t we all look forward to perfect joy? But alas, child-like questions can be surprisingly profound. Stumped and somewhat horrified to hear my daughter talk about her own death, I stopped raking and thought about how to answer.

“We should love life so much that we hope for eternal life with God. Our life is kind of like that fern striving for a life beyond the surface. On our journey, we are supposed to grow in virtue.”

She understood that suicide is counter to loving life, but then she wanted to know about soldiers and martyrdom. “What if you do something knowing you will die? Is that suicide?”

“No, it’s the virtue of fortitude, bravery to death because you have hope in God for a life beyond this one.” Later I showed her a passage from Josef Pieper’s tract on the cardinal virtue of fortitude, a passage I’m still trying to grasp. He begins, “Fortitude presupposes vulnerability.” Because we are human, we have bodies, and because we have bodies, we are vulnerable to suffer injury.

Everything done to us against our will assaults us, whether the injury is spiritual or physical. The deepest injury is death; every courageous action is rooted in a readiness to die. Martyrdom is the essential root of Christian fortitude, and a person needs overflowing divine grace to endure such great suffering. (ST II-II, Q. 139, Art. 1) The Christian loves life, but is willing to sacrifice the temporal one for the greater good, or for the greatest good which is God. It’s a paradox. As St. John’s Gospel says, “Whoever loves his life will lose it.” We are made to love God, Life Itself, beyond our individual life.

“Like Jesus did.”

She at once understood, but had more questions. These questions dive into the mystery of the human being, our existence as bodies with souls, created but elevated, fallen but redeemed. I once thought that ending a discussion with mystery and paradox was a cop-out, but not now. Mystery is where truth lies. Teaching children to both confront and accept mystery, with an awareness that humans will never know everything, teaches them to strive for knowledge without acting like know-it-all’s, that a little more understanding is better than none. And it teaches them to see reality.

Hello, and thank you for reading. I am a wife, mother of seven, and joyful convert to Catholicism. I write from my office in a 100-year-old restored Adirondack mountain lodge. Read more about me here, with pictures. Find me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter. "Like" my Facebook page Science Was Born of Christianity to follow updates about my book. God bless you!

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  • WHB

    Wisdom, profound and compelling, Stacy. I don’t think I could have answered the question in such a truthful and sensitive way. It helped me too! And I am somewhat older than 10 years of age. :-)

  • Ben @ 2CM

    A Mystery is the opposite of a cop-out. It’s an invitation to the mind. It means there will always be water for the minds thirst.

  • David Peters

    What a wonderful way to answer your daughter’s question. The word I was thinking of as I was reading this was humility. Maybe when we confront and accept mystery it produces a heart of humility. God bless.

  • Bill S

    I don’t see why people can’t just look at life as like going to sleep and not waking up. We say an Islamic suicide bomber is deluded for thinking he will go to Paradise and have 70 virgins if he kills himself and everyone near him. Why do we see him as ridiculous and then turn around and claim that we will have an even better reward for believing and following the teachings of our religion. As if we know something the Islamist and the atheist do not. Religulous.

  • jenny

    Oh, Stacy….. as a child i had simillar questions. The priest who taught the religion class, gave answers that were not appropriate for children.At that time, I personally lost the hope that God is just and good.

    I wonder if that priest had gave the same scary answers to his own children, if he had one.
    I remember Pope Francis said sometimes ago that we have to explain God to children , using a language adequate for children .

    • Stacy Trasancos

      Oh yes! Children have a way of making you deal with the fundamentals, and if you don’t, they’ll know. I’m starting to think that is a good test of truth: Can you explain it to a child? Even if it leads to complex thoughts (like mysteries do) the basics should be clear.

  • Mike B

    From G K Chesterton’s Orthodoxy:

    A martyr is a man who cares so much for something outside him, that he forgets his own personal life. A suicide is a man who cares so little for anything outside him, that he wants to see the last of everything. One wants something to begin: the other wants everything to end. In other words, the martyr is noble, exactly because (however he renounces the world or execrates all humanity) he confesses this ultimate link with life; he sets his heart outside himself: he dies that something may live. The suicide is ignoble because he has not this link with being: he is a mere destroyer; spiritually, he destroys the universe. And then I remembered the stake and the cross-roads, and the queer fact that Christianity had shown this weird harshness to the suicide. For Christianity had shown a wild encouragement of the martyr. Historic Christianity was accused, not entirely without reason, of carrying martyrdom and asceticism to a point, desolate and pessimistic. The early Christian martyrs talked of death with a horrible happiness.

    • jenny

      According to the calendar, the vast majority of early saints were martyrs. That gave the impression that for a regular person, it is quite difficult to become a saint…..

    • Stacy Trasancos

      Mike, Josef Pieper, citing St. Aquinas, addresses the “so-called joys of fortitude” and the “bombastic enthusiasm and oversimplification” of martyrdom just a few pages into his tract on fortitude, on p. 119. If you’re interested…