"My dread is not the fear of death; it comes from being impotent to stop it from taking me and the persons I love."
One evening last week, I was suddenly overwhelmed by fear—dread actually, the way the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard defined it: “Dread is a desire for what one dreads, a sympathetic antipathy. Dread is an alien power, which lays hold of an individual, and yet one cannot fear oneself away, nor has a will to do so; for one fears what one fears one desires. Dread then makes the individual impotent.”
Yes, the fear I feel is not fear of death. I have taught philosophy for most of the last 40 years to understand that we are all, as Martin Heidegger describes us, beings-towards-death or that death completes life. According to Fr. Roger Trofontaines SJ, death is a test for love, a condition for freedom.
My dread is not the fear of death; it comes from being impotent to stop it from taking me and the persons I love. The truth is I have never seen a week when so many people I personally know have died at the same time; exemplary Filipinos like Aileen Baviera, Alan Ortiz, and Carn Abella (who died of a heart ailment that might not have been related to COVID-19). And then there are the good doctors who have sacrificed their lives to help the sick—among others Israel Bactol, Greg Macasaet. Rose Pulido, Raul Jara, Marcelo Jaochico, and Sally Gatchalian.
I suppose once I accept my impotence and rely unconditionally on The Lord’s power to save us, whatever form that takes, then the dread will disappear. Borrowing from Kierkegaard again, as taught to me by Fr. Roque Ferriols SJ, I will move from full of fear and trembling to becoming a knight of infinite resignation and finally a knight of faith.
The Gospel reading for the Fifth Sunday of Lent is helpful in this respect. It is about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. On receiving the message that his friend was ill, Jesus and his disciples went to Bethany where Lazarus lived with his sisters Martha and Mary.
Upon arriving, Jesus found that Lazarus had been in the tomb for three days already. Martha went to meet him exclaiming, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died, but even now I know that God will grant whatever you ask of him.”
Jesus answered: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to Him, “Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world.”
Mary posed the same question to Jesus who was greatly distressed. In his humanity, the Lord wept with Martha and Mary. Today, he is with us too in our dread and suffering.
With a profound sigh, Jesus said, “Where have you put him?'”
They said, “Lord, come and see.”
Jesus reached the tomb, a cave with a stone to close the opening. When they took the stone away, Jesus lifted up his eyes and said: “Father, I thank you for hearing my prayer.” He then cried in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”
The dead man came out, his feet and hands bound with strips of material, and a cloth over his face. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, let him go free.”
I do not know if I will survive this pandemic. I have what have been described as “co-morbidities” that make me more at risk than others. I am certainly preparing for that eventuality, making sure my affairs are in order so the family will not be so burdened if I fall in the days ahead.
I certainly do not want to die. I still have things I would like to do as husband, father, hopefully as grandfather one day, and as teacher, thinker, writer, and advocate.
But I also know that this labor is not mine but the Lord’s and if He calls me now, he will make sure the family will be fine and the work gets done.
So, I am preparing also spiritually. It’s a good spiritual exercise anyway.
I imagine myself to be in front of The Lord on judgment day and he asked me the questions in the gospel of Mathew: Did you feed the hungry? Did you give the thirsty a drink? Did you welcome strangers? Did you clothe the naked? Did you care for the sick? Did you stand up for prisoners? Did you do these to or for the least of your brothers and sisters?
I would add also these questions: Were you a good husband, father, son, brother, uncle, cousin, and friend? Were you a good teacher and mentor? Did you fight for human rights and social justice? Did you protect planet and people? Were you a good Filipino and global citizen? Were you kind, non-judgmental, charitable, and compassionate? Above all, did you ask for forgiveness for your failings and sins?
If you believe that, like Lazarus, resurrection awaits all of us, then you will not be afraid.
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