The old spiritual masters—even the great ancient pagans—often advise us to look at things from the vantage point of our deathbeds. I recently had unusual confirmation of the wisdom of that advice.
After six months between nursing home and hospital ICU this summer, my uncle, Raymond Royal, spent a whole day dying a hard death. He suffered from several ailments the doctors couldn’t understand. The nurses, who have seen it all, were troubled. The family suffered almost as much as he did.
A tough end to a very different life: He never smoked, drank little, disliked complex food, never married. The youngest kids in the family, jazz, and Notre Dame football were his only passions. He always dressed so carefully that, even as an eighteen-year-old who had left high school early to fight in World War II, after boot camp he was assigned to Washington and the presidential guard. When Roosevelt died, my uncle marched alongside the casket, no doubt with the most highly polished shoes in America.
The family joke was that he stood in the back of the church during Mass, not for lack of piety, but because he didn’t want to ruin the crease in his pants by sitting. No careless leaning against the wall either; you never know what dirt might lurk there.
So it was no little irony that he spent his last six months in a hospital gown, cleaned and cared for by others, struggling with breathing and feeding tubes and other technological gadgetry.
The priest at the funeral, however, who heard his confession the day before he died, remarked that while the body had curled up like a dead leaf, the spirit had, at the end, been made new. In fact, based on their conversations, he was “as certain as it is humanly possible to be” that God had done something wonderful with Raymond in those last days.
Even those of us who think ourselves serious Catholics believe the homilist has to say such things at a funeral. In his case, though, the homilist was my brother, whose spiritual realism, I can attest, is rock-solid. When he told us, in the very church where my uncle had been an altar boy and later stood like an honor guard, that the doctors, the machines, the hospital visits were over, but that God’s work was continuing—and might continue in us, despite all adversities, if we turned to Christ, as had Raymond—I knew my own day-to-day faith, by comparison, a pious abstraction.
Just hours before my uncle’s death, I did a Point/Counterpoint debate about the new TV series, Nothing Sacred, in which the main character is a priest with doubts, temptations, and little to offer besides declaring, from the pulpit, a moratorium on Catholic sexual ethics.
The contrast with what I saw in the next few days could not have been greater. I don’t know what state the controversy will reach by the time this column appears, but the piecemeal decline of popular culture, trivial in one way, is weighty in cumulative effect.
What the producers saw as realism, I see as the purest Hollywood fantasy, far less realistic even than the old films like Going My Way. In those films, or a modern one like Clockers, the priest is a figure I recognize: someone with a worldly past transformed into something both down-to-earth and divine—in a word, Catholic.
My radio interviewers took me to task because the Jesuit magazine America and the president of Georgetown University, Father Leo O’Donovan (a member of the Disney board, the parent company that produced Nothing Sacred), both like the new show because it opens a dialogue with modern America. But there are other things a Catholic might want to find in popular culture.
Hollywood, higher education, and some elements in the Church have become purveyors of a perpetually adolescent mood, fixated on the point at which we begin to doubt the inherited wisdom of church, family, and nation, and to think for ourselves. An authentic human moment, but in a culture of adulthood it would be seen as the merest beginning of far deeper illumination. Plato thought the Greeks were in a cave facing shadows and needed to turn back toward the light. The philosopher Leo Strauss has described the modern position as a subbasement in Plato’s cave.
Our easygoing impulses, otherwise valuable, prevent many of us from recognizing the urgency for constancy stronger than death. And as Cardinal Newman observed, we start to rationalize our waverings: “In all ages, indeed, consistent obedience is a very rare endowment, but in this cultivated age, we have undertaken to defend inconsistency on grounds of reason.”
Requiem aeternam, Raymond, who learned the most rigorous obedience from the Master. Poor reasoning cannot hide such truth. Disney and its cultural allies have little to teach you, or us about our last day.