Lessons learned from the life and death of a friend.
What’s the best/worst feature of cell phones? Getting bad news very quickly. Illustration: A couple of weeks ago, while on the phone with family, in mid-conversation, I received a text announcing that Stephen, a friend who had become dear to me in just a few short years, had died. As we all suffer through the year 2020, I think we can find hope and inspiration in my friend’s life and death.
He’d undergone routine surgery, had complications, had a stint in Intensive Care, apparently recovered, and went home. Days later, he was dead. Humanly speaking, the world is now a dimmer, grayer place. Stephen was literate, quick-witted, playful and gregarious. He loved word-play and witticisms as much as I do. Lots of jokes and quips now lie piled up in a corner—I can no longer share them with Stephen.
Of course, it’s not enough to speak of Stephen’s life and death only from a natural viewpoint. The pain of his death cuts more deeply, and more cleanly, when looked at from the supernatural viewpoint. Stephen, as much as he was a man of learning, a true man-of-letters as well as a man of many languages—even more so was he a man of faith and prayer. He loved Jesus and Mary deeply; he had a profound love and reverence for all that is related to the Holy Eucharist; he befriended the saints. To begin to do justice to Stephen’s life and death, I’m required to speak of them as a Catholic. I know that he’d settle for nothing less.
Stephen would be horrified if I suggested in any way that we consider his death as the immediate beginning of his sainthood. Indeed, as a scholar of Dante, as one who with love and understanding read Dante’s “Divine Comedy” many times (and taught others to do the same), I’m sure he’d want us all to pray for the repose of his soul, and to offer many Masses for him. (I interviewed him about Dante’s “Purgatorio”, which you can read about and listen to HERE.) His knowledge of human weakness (starting with his own), and faith-informed confidence in the human capacity for God-given glory, gave him a deep humility, a thorough gentleness, and a quiet but very bold courage.
I know this to be true because he challenged me frequently. He urged me repeatedly to be a better steward of my resources, opportunities and gifts, to argue more rigorously and more charitably, and to not be governed by my natural melancholy. Stephen was a model friend and brother-in-Christ because we could contend with each other without losing charity. Our disagreements reminded me of how G.K. Chesterton spoke of his disputes with his brother: “We argued frequently, but never quarreled.”
Since Stephen was a classicist and a medievalist, I think that it would be fitting to pay tribute to him by offering this quote from St. Augustine’s Confessions, Book IV:
What drew me closest to my brothers was the delight of chatting and laughing together; of showing our affection for one another by kindly services; of reading together from books that spoke of pleasant things; of joking together amicably; of disputing now and then but without resentment, as one is wont to do with himself; of awakening by rare contest the pleasure of being one in mind; of mutually instructing one another; of longing for the absent one, and of tasting joy at his return. We loved each other with all our hearts, and these marks of our friendship that were shown in our faces, by our voices, in our eyes and a thousand other ways were among us like ardent flames that fused our souls together, and of many made but one.
Why do I write about this personal matter in such a public forum? Because the lessons of a life and death like Stephen’s are lessons for everyone. Crime and sin nothwithstanding, God reigns, and can teach us much through the life and death of my friend. Let’s step back from the newsfeed and consider: Like Stephen, we are all brought into existence and given the breath of life by God almighty. Like Stephen, we are all meant to receive the Gospel and be sealed with Christ. Like Stephen, we are all meant to love and forgive and bless with a power beyond ordinary human reach. And, like Stephen, each of us will eventually run out of “eventually” and will finally and irrevocably face the holiness of God. Learning from Stephen I urge: While we have time, let’s repent, let’s forgive, let’s learn, let’s pray and let’s worship. And please pray for the repose of the soul of Stephen, and the consolation of those who mourn him.
When I write next, I will speak of how to resist discouragement. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.