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Such Are the Gifts

I have found great wisdom (not morbidity) in the injunction in the Rule of Saint Benedict to keep death daily before our eyes. It offers perspective and, paradoxically, can enliven, making us more sensitivie to and appreciative of what we so often take for granted.

Michael Gerson has a reflection in today's Washington Post that considers the benefits of numbering our days.

Here is an excerpt:

At every stage, even in the manner of their dying, people can demonstrate they are something more. I recall my Italian, New Yorker grandmother — full of years and full of cancer (the result of a lifelong smoking habit) — telling me through some of her last, gasping breaths: “You have made me so very happy.” Such are the gifts human beings can give each other, even when there is nothing else to give.

About the Author

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College.



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I also was very touched by Mr. Gerson's personal story and his brush with Eternity. However, he has consistently condemned ACA,  and full access to the excellent health care services I am sure he received. I wish he would use his column to advocate for the millions of Cancer patients who face extraordinary odds. In two decades it is estimated that  there will be close to 25 million Cancer survivors in the USA who will confront long term and late effects of their medical treatment. Does Mr. Gerson's Christian belief system allow for all to get life-saving heath care?

Lovely last words, and I bet that they're representative of that woman's attitude in life.

Another advantage of approaching death is that it might make people more authentic. They finally drop their mask, if they had one. 

Can I fully share the Church's belief in the importance of universal access to health care while still confessing some dismay at the reduction of the value of a moving reflection to its author's political commitments or omissions? Surely that violates the very definition of the attitude of dialogue called for by the Second Vatican Council, which envisions that, by the miracle of grace, we approach those with whom we disagree in love and even a loving hermenutic?

Yes, Andrew, I think you can. Gerson--and many others--have written of their "near misses" and the epiphanies they experienced, and these accounts are spiritual treasures.

However, I think it's useful to recognize that not all of those diagnosed with cancer have the wherewithal to fight it successfully because they don't have access to the same level of care Gerson did. Neither do they have the leisure of a convalescence in which they can mull their epiphanies and turn them into inspiration for the rest of us.

Some are, instead, distracted from these more spiritual pursuits by having to wangle payment plans out of hospital billing departments, crawling through bureaucracies trying to get disability payments to help their families while they are sick, and forgoing treatment when it looks like it will beggar those they love.

The ACA may be a step toward not only helpng people beat a dread disease but in giving them some peace of mind when death is inevitable. We'll see.


Gerson's piece is indeed moving. He calls himself an "instinctual Calvinist" because he asks the question "Why me?" But it's a common human reaction to misfortune, by no means restricted to Calvinists. Perhaps, however, one of the advantages of advancing age is the inclination to ask the same question -- "Why me?" -- in a somewhat different vein: What have I done to have received all the good that's come into my life? It's hard to believe that I am simply reaping my just deserts.

Useful, hence, to match Gerson's article with Dionne's Thanksgiving piece on gratitude, the link to which popped up on my screen after Gerson's piece.

(If knew more about 16th century Protestant theology than I do, I might be able to untangle Luther and Calvin on unmerited grace, but it's been some years since I read any of that).

I do prefer Christian Wiman's perspectives in his memoir My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer which was published earlier this year. Gerson's religious reflections although poignant have ignored the millions of uninsured folk in this country. As an Ooncolgy Social Worker I see and hear the stories of so many who face great uncertainty now with years ahead of them. I rejoice at Gerson's successful recovery I just wish religious conservatives were no so blinded to the moral imperative of health care coverage.


Nicholas Clifford,

thanks for the link to Dionne's piece. I thought this a fine line:  "If faith without works is dead, gratitude without generosity of spirit is empty."

Pres. Obama pushed mightily for ACA because his mother had cancer, could not afford treatment, and died at 52.

"If faith without works is dead, gratitude without generosity of spirit is empty."

A splendid sentence, and no doubt even Luther (who I think ranked the Epistle of James dead last in importance, and would have liked to purge it from the NT because of that remark about faith and works) would have agreed with Dionne.

No doubt I'm revealing my fading memories of my never very deep studies of the Reformation.

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