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.