November 01, 2014 at 12:01 am
Tony La Viña
I have been thinking about death the whole week. That November 1 would fall on a Saturday, when this column is regularly published, made the topic attractive to write about. In the past two weeks, death has also visited some people close to me, among them my Ateneo School of Government colleague and friend Dondon Parafina whose mother Rose Santander Parafina passed into eternal life last October 27, and Brenda Jacot Murphy, a US-based cousin who is very close to me (we share a birthday and a passion for Camiguin, our ancestors’ home island), who also lost her mother Leonor Lim Jacot last October 17. And then of course, earlier this week, the country heard of the leaving of a great Filipino and human being, Senator Juan Flavier.
Every Undas, which is really October 31 until November 2, with some starting even earlier and others coming later, most Filipinos troop to cemeteries to visit their dead. Family reunions abound, joy luck clubs convene, and impromptu parties are organized in memorial parks. During these days, definitely the resting place of the dead are the most alive places in the country.
And rightly so. Because death is not the end of life; on the contrary, life is completed by death.
When I was a third year philosophy student at the Ateneo de Manila, our philosophy of man teacher, Professor Pablito Perez (now a Court of Appeals Justice) introduced and made us read two French Catholic existentialist philosophers: Gabriel Marcel and Roger Troisfontaines. Up today, Gabriel Marcel’s The Mystery of Being and Troisfontaines’ article Death, the Test of Love and the Condition of Liberty, continue to influence my thinking of the nature of being human, the relationship of the body and spirit based on the concept of embodiment, what truth is, the essence of freedom, the experience of love, and many other existentialist themes. And of course, a profound understanding of death was a main take-away after one year – at that time, Ateneo required us to take 16 units of philosophy as part of our core curriculum - of introductory philosophy.
Later, after graduation in college and a stint as a caregiver and printing press worker in Udine, Italy, I also had the opportunity to teach philosophy of man/pilosopiya ng tao in a decade of teaching in Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro, Ateneo de Manila, and Mother of Life Formation Center. Currently, I handle tutorial philosophy classes at the Redemptoris Mater Seminary where I introduce Catholic existentialist philosophy to my students. This teaching makes me continually think about death.
Going back to Gabriel Marcel, I learned that the best way to describe a person is not by describing what he has done or listing his credentials and achievements. In Chapter VIII of The Mystery of Being, aptly entitled “My Life”, Marcel proposes that a person is not those things he has done or possess but how much that person has responded to the calls and demands of his/her life. Marcel introduced me to a term that will guide me for the rest of my life – disponibilite (loosely translated as availability). You are going to be judged not by what you do or have but by how much of yourself you have made available to the mission you have been called, Its not having that matters but being. Its not your successes that count but one’s generosity. Marcel taught me, and this in turn I pass on to my students, that to be happy, you must live and work for causes greater than yourself.
Troisfontaines completed this lesson from Marcel with his reflection on death. In his classic text on this topic, he pointed out that death is a certainty. We are all beings-unto-death, walking toward that line where we pass on to a different world. But as scary as that might seem, death is actually to be welcomed. Until one dies, commitment is never final, freedom is not yet full, and yes life is not complete. With death, a life well-lived will forever be a good life. Of course, the opposite is true: if one lived an evil and a meaningless life up to the last gasp of one’s human existence, then that too could be your permanent epitaph – a sad, unhappy, and bad life.
I don’t think I have ever met Mrs. Parafina; being Mrs. Jacot’s nephew, I had of course met her a number of times but did not know her well. But Dondon and Brenda, I know quite well and this I am sure, they are fine, in fact wonderful human beings. They are good, compassionate and kind persons who make the world a better place. Only mothers like Nanay Rose and Tita Bebeng could have brought up human beings like Dondon and Brenda.
This brings me to Senator Juan Flavier, Johnny to many. Flavier is well-known for his work in health and family planning. He was that and many other things, including an abiding commitment to indigenous peoples’ rights which was the area I worked with him on. Sen. Flavier was a giant Filipino, small in height yes, but extraordinary large in his heart (for the poor and country) and impact. He leaves behind a grateful nation, but he also gifted us with Dr. Jondi Flavier and his siblings, and grandchildren, who will continue his legacy of service to the poor and country.
Last Sunday, after a weekend convivenze (retreat) in Tagaytay, we - members of the Neocatechumenal community to which my wife and I belong – visited three of our brothers and sisters whose bodies have been laid to rest in Loyola Memorial Homes in Marikina. In the resting place of Marylex Salinas, who passed to eternal life only a few months ago, there is an epitaph “A beloved child of God”. On these days when we remember our death, this has to be the only prayer that counts: “Lord, accept your beloved children into your Kingdom”. How I wish I could join them soon, when death completes life.
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