What Lasts

Edward Schillebeeckx, the renowned Dominican theologian, once asked, “What is a human life of at most between seventy and ninety years to the eternal God?” Although our life is but a moment or a sigh in God’s perspective, our life story of fifty or even a hundred years becomes complete and whole in and through our death. Then we can face God at last knowing who we are—or with the hope of at last coming to know who we are. Yet death, the end of every earthly life, is a topic about which many of us do not wish even to think. We may even try to deny it when we encounter it in others or when it is approaching for ourselves. By contrast, in this book, John S. Dunne recounts the profound ways that he has thought about death and, more important, about what lasts from life.

Dunne’s work is an intricate patchwork quilt of recurring and interwoven themes. As a reflective or, better, meditative stream of consciousness citing a multitude of thinkers, it is not always an easy read. But persistent effort uncovers its nuggets of wisdom.

Dunne tells us that he started to think about his own mortality and the meaning of death when he was thirty years old, when he put to himself the question: “If I must die someday, what can I do to satisfy my desire to live?” As Dunne saw and felt it, the desire to live turned out to be a desire for eternal life. And that begot another question: “Is there a life in us that can live on through death?”

For Dunne, the deeper life that can live on through death is “the life of the mind, the contemplative mind that is, and the life of the heart, as heart speaks to heart, and the life of the soul, as the soul is oned with God in the unknowing that is knowing more than we can tell.” Moving beyond “a standpoint before others,” and so beyond the hope of acceptance and fear of rejection by others, one comes to “a standpoint before [one]self.” This standpoint brings to the fore what is untold in the story of one’s life: “what belongs to my standpoint before myself and my standpoint before God” is “essentially my relation to myself and my relation to God.” Here Dunne finds a prayerful tranquillity, in which one prays Augustine’s prayer in his Soliloquies, “May I know me! May I know thee!”

Dunne considers such a prayer to be answered by prayer itself. In “the standpoint of the self before God,” I come to know myself, God, and God’s love for me. Such “thinking is thanking.... I recollect my life in the presence of God with thanksgiving.” Giving thanks for all that has been, I likewise say yes to all that shall be. By thus relating to myself, I will to be myself. This involves “rejoicing in the Lord—the essence of the love of God as joy at the thought of God, bringing all your cares to God with thanksgiving, and coming thereby to a peace that passes all understanding.”

In The City of God, Augustine declares that enjoying the happiness of this life, without the hope of what is beyond, is but a false happiness and profound misery. Dunne sees love as the road of union with God, and thus as the road that makes death a fulfillment. Death is “not a going out of existence so much as a going to the heart of existence.” Love is a road of light and of hope because it does not “deadend” in death but goes ever on. A deep rhythm thus resonates within life. It is evidenced by a joy that is present in time when time is “full of the timelessness that is eternity.” The riddle of eternal life is “a living in the presence or in the presence of the presence.” That is “the presence of God as known in knower, loved in lover.”

Three great metaphors from the Gospel of John, life, light, and love, are the threads binding together the various perspectives of Dunne’s tapestry. “The love is from God and of God and towards God. Eternal life then is the great circle of life and light and love.” But as Dunne notes, even love must pass through loneliness, light must pass through darkness, and life must pass through death. In that regard, I wish that Dunne had also given attention to the synoptic Gospels and the way they place prayers of trust (Psalm 22 in Mark and Matthew, and Psalm 31 in Luke) on the lips of the dying Jesus hanging on the cross. Jesus’ dark night of faith on the cross, dying with absolute trust in the God whose reign he proclaimed, speaks to the radical way we will all have to entrust ourselves in our dying.

In the chapter “Spiritual Journey,” Dunne refers to life as “the gradual discovery and growth of a purpose I did not know.” Distinguishing the “Road Taken” from the “Road Not Taken,” he writes about the ongoing relationship between theology and music in his life. Though music was in his life from the beginning, he made a choice. His road taken was that of learning to love in the way of words (his theological writing). In the later years of his life, his road not taken, the way of music, of song and dance, has rejoined the way of words, his road taken. Citing Thomas Aquinas in his preface to the Psalms—“Song is the leap of mind in the eternal breaking out into sound”—Dunne explains his composition of a “Symphony of Songs.” The book ends with words from those songs, which are on a CD that comes with this book.

Published in the 2008-09-12 issue: 
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Bernard P. Prusak teaches theology at Villanova University.

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