In one of his Blackford Oakes novels, William F. Buckley Jr. had a character crack a Wagnerian joke along these lines: What is Siegfried? Siegfried is the opera that begins at 7 p.m. and when you wake up three hours later, you’re shocked to find out that it’s only 7:30.
That was certainly my experience when, in solidarity with my late father-in-law, a wonderful man and devout Wagner fan, I attended the third installment of Wagner’s Ring Cycle while living in Seattle—in those days, one of the few places in the world besides Bayreuth, Germany, that regularly produced the Ring. Sitting there while the caterwauling droned on for what seemed a virtual eternity, I was reminded of high school classes that never seemed to end, the minute-hand on the classroom clock moving at the pace of a Brontosaurus slogging through dense Jurassic goo.
Somewhere after one’s 55th or 60th birthday, time seems to accelerate to what Captain James T. Kirk of the starship Enterprise might have ordered up as “Warp Factor Nine, Mr. Sulu.” In Cracow, recently, I had lunch with two friends I hadn’t seen since the Pre-Plague Era (2019), and they startled me with the reminder that we’d first met fourteen or fifteen years ago. It seems just as inconceivable that it’s been seventeen years since I spent the summer speed-writing a book on the death of John Paul II and the election of Benedict XVI, or that it’s been thirty-nine years since Eddie Murray blasted a home run off his name on the Veterans Stadium scoreboard and my Baltimore Orioles last won the World Series.
I’m told by the (even) older that there is no brake applicable to this perception of time’s relentless acceleration. Which brings me to one of the aphorisms of the late, great Fr. John Courtney Murray, S.J., whose scholarly work helped prepare the ground for the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom—a conciliar act that ignited the Catholic human rights revolution, which played a pivotal role in the Revolution of 1989 and the collapse of European communism.
Fr. Murray liked to turn commonplace sayings inside-out for didactic effect. For example, “If the end doesn’t justify the means, what does?” His point was not that a good end justifies any means to its accomplishment; the point was that the moral justification of good means had something to do with the moral goodness of the end being sought. Or try this: “A gentleman is never rude save intentionally.” Good manners are good manners, a sign of Christian respect for the dignity of the other. Sometimes, though, charity (and justice) require stopping a miscreant in his tracks so that he recognizes the error of his ways; and that’s when (and why) a gentleman can be deliberately rude.
But perhaps the most striking of Murray's aphorisms was phrased, if memory serves, like this: “Death is the only thing we really have to look forward to.”
Why? Not because of death’s inevitability, but because it is only at the moment of death, or in anticipation of it, that we can offer back to God the entirety of our earthly journey: in gratitude for the divine gift of life, in humble thanks for the divine mercy, in prayerful hope of a merciful judgment, and in anticipation of a transfigured life beyond the shadow of death. And that is something to which we can really look forward. Because unlike anything else, it is not ephemeral.
I recently discovered a text of Pope John Paul II’s that captures in prayer something of the essence of what Fr. Murray meant. It was written on May 18, 1985, in Belgium, where the pope marked his 65th birthday while on one of his pastoral pilgrimages. Poles are not that big on birthdays—name days are more important in Polish culture—but John Paul took the occasion to pen this act of personal dedication:
If one day illness touches my mind and clouds it, I do surrender to You even now, with [a] devotion that will later be continued in silent adoration. If one day I were to lie down and remain unconscious for long, it is my desire that every hour I am given to experience this be an uninterrupted thanksgiving, and that my ultimate breath be also a breath of love. Then, at such a moment, my soul, guided by the hand of Mary, will face you in order to sing your glory forever. Amen.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.
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Image by Ian MacQueen licensed via Creative Commons. Image Cropped.