Friday, July 1, 2011

The Art of Living and Dying

In the face of death, the question concerning life's meaning becomes unavoidable. The figure of Christ appears on ancient sarcophagi principally in two images: the philosopher and the shepherd. Philosophy at that time was not generally seen as a difficult academic discipline, as it is today. Rather, the philosopher was someone who knew how to teach the essential art: the art of being authentically human—the art of living and dying. To be sure, it had long since been realized that many of the people who went around pretending to be philosophers, teachers of life, were just charlatans who made money through their words, while having nothing to say about real life. All the more, then, the true philosopher who really did know how to point out the path of life was highly sought after. Towards the end of the third century, on the sarcophagus of a child in Rome, we find for the first time, in the context of the resurrection of Lazarus, the figure of Christ as the true philosopher, holding the Gospel in one hand and the philosopher's travelling staff in the other. With his staff, he conquers death; the Gospel brings the truth that itinerant philosophers had searched for in vain. In this image, which then became a common feature of sarcophagus art for a long time, we see clearly what both educated and simple people found in Christ: he tells us who man truly is and what a man must do in order to be truly human. He shows us the way, and this way is the truth. He himself is both the way and the truth, and therefore he is also the life which all of us are seeking. He also shows us the way beyond death; only someone able to do this is a true teacher of life.
Reflection – The art of living and the art of dying. The world today is full of ‘philosophers’ in the sense Pope Benedict describes – charlatans making money through their words, while having nothing to say about real life.
The school of ‘sophistry’ was all about this in the ancient world. What mattered was not what was said, but how it was said. The art of philosophy was the art of putting things well. Josef Pieper describes this in his book Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, which I highly recommend. Pieper’s influence can be seen throughout this encyclical.
How are we to live? Is it about how to make money, how to achieve wellness, how to achieve perfect skin and hair, how to find a mate, how to _____? Basically, is the art of living about how to get whatever you want? And what about death? How is perfect skin and hair or a whopping stock portfolio going to help you to die?
The art of living and the art of dying. The modern world often turns its face against death, although this is becoming harder to do with our aging populations and violent geo-politics. Is there a wisdom of life that can carry us over the threshold of death?
This was the hunger in the ancient pagan world that in truth made it so receptive to the Christian Gospel. As the martyrs of the classical world confidently strode into the arenas, young men, women, children, of all social classes, showing fearlessness in the face of fire, sword, and wild beasts, it became clear that a wisdom was being offered here that did not end with the art of living.
Today, it is crucial for Christians to study the art of living, and of dying. It is not sophistry, not mere words, nor the worldly arts of health, wealth, and beauty.
It is Christ and his wisdom, which is the wisdom of the Cross, of love, of service, of humility, of forgiveness, and of a deep trust in the Father. This is our Christian ‘philosophy,’ and in our world where death is looming on all sides, we need to study it well, at the feet of our Master.

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