Death and Punishment

I must have been three or four years old when I was first acquainted with death. My parents had a summer home at the Belgian seashore; enchanted as I was by the dunes and the wild flowers, I was roaming about when, to my delight, I found a bird’s nest hidden in a bush. The artistry of those small twigs admirably entwined into one another was a thing of beauty.
But upon coming closer, I saw, lying next to a broken shell, a dead chick. My response of horror and dismay was such that I ran to my mother for comfort: The sight of this small corpse made me understand in a flash that death is a terrible punishment. It is so fearful because life is such an incredible gift.
When I entered grammar school, the nuns told me that death was the punishment inflicted upon our first parents for their sin, and I grasped more deeply how terrible it is. That this penalty was justified in no way erased the impression of dread that I had experienced a few months before. But it made me understand the gravity of sin, for it must be dreadfully serious to call for such a fearful chastisement.
To be born knowing that our bodily existence ends with extinction, and that every single minute brings us closer to our end, is a thought that we should never lose sight of, and one that can lead us to despair if there is no promise of resurrection. Is it possible to truly love someone who is condemned to total annihilation? Can one love what tomorrow will be “a handful of dust”? It’s a question that atheistic materialists would be hard-put to answer, and probably do not dare to raise.
My paternal grandmother died when I had just turned twelve. Deeply moved, my father — a devoted son — brought me to her bedroom where this strong woman, for whom I always had a certain degree of fear, was lying on her bed. Her handsome face had a deadly pallor; her eyes were closed, her body was limp and cold — the soul had left it. The contrast between the strong woman I had known since my birth and this corpse, once again, shattered me. By then, I knew by heart the words of the Ash Wednesday Liturgy: “Remember that you are dust.”
When people run for president and blather endlessly to try to convince a gullible public of their eminent qualifications to solve all the problems of the world, I cannot help but wish that someone would whisper in their ears that death is always at the door. All wise spiritual guides have made a point of meditating on death as a powerful incentive to “care for our soul,” which, Socrates tells us, has the mark of immortality.
How many people have I known in my life who were strong, healthy, and powerful on Monday, only to be cadavers on Tuesday. Victims of a freak accident: Thomas Merton (Father Louis) was electrocuted in his room while attending a conference. A heart attack can end our lives in seconds. Crossing the road is not without danger, and driving in a society where so many people are drunk or on drugs is a constant threat.
How wise Holy Church is to include the following request in the Litany of all Saints: “From a sudden death, deliver us O Lord.” Death is the most important moment of life, and therefore, wisdom tells us that we should never lose sight of our mortality, while refusing to let this awareness prevent us from doing what God calls us to do at a particular moment.
It is related in the life of St. Aloysius Gonzaga that, during a recreation, the spiritual director asked the following question to the novices under his guidance: “If you were to know with absolute certainty that you will all die within a half hour, what would you do?” Most of them said they would rush to Confession, or run to the chapel and pray. Not St. Aloysius — he said calmly that he would remain where he was for that was where God wanted him to be at that very moment. Clearly the consciousness of his mortality did not prevent him from being fully “present” to the tasks given him.
This is one of the paradoxes of Christian life: Man’s constant awareness of his mortality, while directing his thoughts to the hereafter, do not prevent him from attending to the “theme of Christ” at that particular moment. This young saint saw all things sub specie aeternitatis — time gains its full value when seen against the background of eternity.
Indeed, we know neither the day nor the hour. How well can one understand the fears that Keats expressed: “When I have fears lest I should cease to be…” To have tasted the sweetness of existence and realize that our mortality is constantly threatening us — that should poison the lives of those who believe death has the last word.
In our society, men try to live longer and longer while knowing less and less about the meaning of their lives. An endless, meaningless life is no “life” at all.
Looking at one’s address book, one is shattered to see how many names of friends and acquaintances have been crossed out: They are no longer there. The older one gets, the longer the list grows.
But when one loses the person that one loves most deeply, death opens another dimension of horror. This was already experienced by Augustine, who, as a teenager, had a deep friendship with another boy. When the latter died, Augustine tasted despair. He could not imagine how he could continue to live now that his friend was a corpse. He went through a severe crisis, but later, after his conversion, and reliving this episode, he wrote in his Confessions: “Oh! the madness of those who do not know how to love men as men should be loved.” When a creature becomes one’s god, and one loses him, the only possible solution is suicide — that is, to choose to marry death. Romeo and Juliet, and Tristan and Ysolde come to mind: Death unites them.
When Augustine entered the Holy Arch, he found the recipe that enables us to love creatures as they should be loved; he dubbed this amare in Deo — that is, to partake of Christ’s love for his creatures. For, he tells us, it is not possible “to love more than God those we love in Him.”
Christianity does not destroy natural love: It purifies and deepens it. This is proven by the fact that it has produced a rich crop of holy marriages and holy friendships. They are beacons of hope — promises that human love is not only pleasing to God, but through His grace, can be healed of the wounds inflicted upon us by original sin.
Gabriel Marcel — whose thought is very much centered on human relationships — spoke about a very deep bond between husband and wife. He wrote that, when one of them loses the other, he experiences it as his own death: “Your death is my death.” Even though it is obvious that the act of dying is always a personal experience that nobody can do for another person, the French philosopher touched upon a deep truth: When two souls become one, their physical separation is and should be experienced as a sort of death.
But Marcel complemented the thought by adding that love’s very essence contains a promise of immortality: “To love someone is to say to him: Thou, thou shalt not die” (Le Mort de Demain). He who has once experienced a deep love knows intuitively that the beauty that he has perceived in the loved one is not a temporary illusion: It points to another world where Love has the last word.
That life is a most precious gift is deeply inscribed on the human heart. This is why murder is condemned in all societies. But because of the tragic human situation, there are, alas, instances when to take another life — while always deplorable — is nevertheless permitted (in cases of legitimate self defense, for example). If someone is brutally attacked, or if those confided to his care are threatened, it is legitimate for this person to use violence, even if it leads to death. But, if possible, he should try to incapacitate the attacker rather than killing him. If taking his life is the only possible option, this act is not murder, though it should be regretted. Killing and murdering are two different acts.
The same applies to legitimate self defense in the case of war. This has always been the teaching of the Church — though it would be beyond the scope of this article to turn to the hot topic of legitimate and illegitimate wars.
There are also cases in which a person freely chooses to sacrifice his life for the sake of a noble cause, or to save the lives of people dear to him. Euripides’ Alcestis comes to mind. Her husband, King Admetus, had been informed that he would suffer a speedy death unless he found someone willing to die in his stead. Petrified by the prospect, he turned to his parents and friends: None of them was willing to take his place. But Alcestis herself was and her heroic action was so highly esteemed by the gods that they brought her back to life. It’s a pagan presage of Christ’s words at the Last Supper: There is no greater love than to offer one’s life for one’s friends.
It would take us too far afield to address the Biblical story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son to God — a request far more onerous than to sacrifice his own life. The same goes for the sacrifice par excellence: Christ dying to save us. But it does shed light on the fact that life is the gift par excellence. Let it only be said that Christ is life itself, and that He promises eternal life to those who follow Him.
This brings us to the hard case of suicide, which is most often triggered by despair: Overwhelmed by suffering, a person views life as a curse and freely chooses to end it. Be it unbearable physical torments, a feeling of failure or meaninglessness, bitter disappointments, betrayals by “friends,” or the conviction that one is not loved, there comes a point when “to end it all” seems the only possible solution. This conviction inevitably blurs a person’s vision and diminishes his responsibility in performing the terrible act. Suicide is a war on life. The suicide hates life and wishes all life to be extinguished. This is powerfully expressed by Chesterton in Orthodoxy: “The suicide is ignoble because it has not this link with being; he is a mere destroyer; spiritually he destroys the universe.”
One remark, however, is called for: In the world in which we live, where the temptation to become God without God is endemic, suicide can also have roots other than plain despair: namely, resentment. C. S. Lewis relates that, when he was an atheist, he resented the fact that he had been given life without his permission — a permission hard to obtain from a non-existing being. There are men who, resenting the fact that they cannot conceivably give life to themselves, take their metaphysical revenge by deciding for themselves the day, hour, and cause of their death. They thereby escape being at the mercy of “the master of life and death.” There is something of this brashness in Kirillow’s suicide in Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed.  It is an act of defiance and a bitter consolation for one’s incapacity to give life to oneself. The devil always caricatures God.
In the light of what we have said, the horror of murder receives its full significance. To choose to extinguish in cold blood a life given by God to another person, to reduce to dust and ashes the body of a human being made in His image and likeness, should make us shudder. A thief, when repentant, can restitute the object stolen. But if man kills another, he cannot bring his victim back to life: The most bitter tears, the deepest repentance cannot resuscitate the corpse. The horror of murder is already depicted at the beginning of Genesis: Cain, out of jealousy, murders his own brother, and the blood of the latter cries for vengeance to heaven. The history of the world is a sad one indeed: Throughout centuries, millions and millions of people have been murdered (though it was always acknowledged to be a crime).
The fearful change that has taken place in our “civilized” world is that millions no longer understand, and for this reason no longer respect life. We have legalized the murder of the innocents — the unborn baby. The most helpless of all helpless creatures is, with the collaboration of the one to whom this new life has been confided, “professionally” and scientifically dismembered.
The terrifying thing is that once a crime is legalized, the feeling of guilt is put to sleep — no punishment, therefore no crime. The abortionist is a criminal; the mother freely collaborates in this crime, and the absent father shares in their guilt. Abortionists are the murderers of maternity, and as maternity is God’s tenderness, the crime of abortion cuts man’s heart from the source of all goodness.
When maternity is killed, the sun sets on a society: Unless the West wakes up to the enormity of this crime, it is doomed. Let us hear the angels’ voices urging us to convertere, convertere ad Dominum.


  • Alice von Hildebrand

    Alice von Hildebrand is professor emerita of philosophy at Hunter College of the City University of New York and the renowned author of many books, including The Soul of a Lion (Ignatius, 2000), The Privilege of Being a Woman (Veritas, 2002), and Man and Woman: A Divine Invention (Sapientia, 2010).

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