So great was the sorrow of Kisa Gautami, called the Frail One, at the death of her young son that she would not accept the boy’s death. She took to the streets, carrying her dead son on her hips, knocking at each door, and demanding: “Give me medicine for my son.” Knowing that it was her sorrow for her dead son that had driven her out of her mind, a man advised her to go to the monastery where the Buddha lived.
The Buddha smiled serenely at Kisa Gautami’s request of medicine for her son. The Buddha told her to first ask for a mustard seed from each house in which no one has ever died. She went from house to house, but could not find any home which death had not touched. Finally she understood that she was sent on a hopeless mission. She left the city, carried her son to the burning ground, and finally gave him up.
In the gates of cemeteries in Rome that I visited, it is often written, “Hodie mihi, cras tibi!” Today it is my turn, tomorrow it will be yours! In the face of the certainty of death, human beings hope against hope. Scientists have discovered traces of pollen in the graves of Neanderthals. More than 80,000 years ago, flowers were already placed in the final resting places of the dead. Kings and emperors built pyramids and mausoleums. Today we have videotapes of loved ones who have gone ahead. Death remains as mysterious as ever. We rattle the bars of our cosmic cage, declaring a ringing “No!’ to death, as we “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
And so in the face of the certainty of death, according to John Dunne, the primordial question every human being has to ask is: “If I will die one day, what shall I do with my desire to live?”
Death and dying in the garbage dump
When I was in Smokey Mountain, I found out that strangers coming to the dump had to look down, because staring at someone might be cause for having “a faucet placed in your abdomen” with an icepick or a knife. I realized how easy it was for a crazed addict to stick a knife between my ribs in the darkened alleys.
The constant anticipation of pain and dying created a frenzy of panic that went far beyond mere terror.
Fear of death can wither the soul with its power and intensity—it reduces us to our elemental core. In the face of death, every thing just falls away, all pride or fear of failure, leaving only what is truly important. And so, I just went on anyway, following Flannery O’Connor’s advice: “Be properly scared and go on doing what you have to do.” In the end, I realized that even if I was constantly afraid of death and dying, I did not have to become my fear. God can also be found in terror, confusion, pain and especially in the face of death.
I anointed with the oil for the sick many of those who were dying in the garbage dump. They all died peacefully, clutching their rosaries. I was there as they breathed their last with calm assurance and tranquility of spirit. This is what I have observed about the relevance of faith in the lives of the scavengers: it provides them with the means to explain their place in the scheme of things. Faith gives them the power to endure misery, the strength to follow a moral code and brings them together in community. It gives them hope for the future in this world and in the next and so they face death peacefully. Everyone believes in a beyond where they will be reunited with their loved ones after death.
I consider myself insanely fortunate to have been given a glimpse of the scavengers’ world of meaning and faith, the world in which they lived their lives and died their deaths without complaint or fear. Their lives in the midst of squalor were a powerful witness to me of a faith much more vital than mine, a faith that sew them through the darkest night, death most especially.
Death, be not proud!
During the many times that I felt despondent in Smokey Mountain, I remembered what St. Paul said—I have not yet resisted unto blood. It was a great consolation to know that other missionaries have suffered more, from the time of the Roman persecution to the present. When I visited the concentration camp in Dachau, I was greatly consoled to see that there were many Germans too who paid with their lives, choosing to die rather than abandon the human value of compassion and their faith in their Risen Lord. I cried when I saw several names with SVD after them among the list of those who died. In Dachau alone, 31 SVD’s were imprisoned and 17 were martyred.
On December 8, 1942, Fr. Alois Leguda, SVD, was martyred in Dachau.
The Nazis cut strips of his skin and then drowned him with a group of ten prisoners.
Br. Gregory Frackowiak, SVD, was beheaded in Dresden in 1943, when the Gestapo found a holy medal sewn into his prisoner’s cap. Fr. Luis Mzyk, SVD, was mercilessly beaten for days on end and finally shot in the back of the head. Fr. Stanislaus Kubista, SVD, weakened by pneumonia while forced to work in the dead of winter, was stomped to death by the prison capo at the Stutthoff concentration camp. These four Divine Word missionaries have been pronounced blessed and are awaiting proclamation as saints.
There were many other priests and pastors imprisoned in 300 concentration camps during the reign of the Nazis. The history of the Catholic Church was not all Crusades and Inquisitions. From the time of the Roman persecution when thousands of believers went to their death singing hymns of praise to God, to the time of Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, OFM, who exchanged his life for another prisoner in the concentration camp, countless Christians were urged by their faith to give their lives so that others may live. They practiced compassion at the cost of self-annihilation, overcoming fear of death with hope for life that will never end.
Only with this kind of faith can one understand the command, “Lazarus, come forth!” and the exultation of St. Paul: “Death, where is thy victory? Death, where is thy sting?”