We Must Ask the Questions That Count — So What Questions Do We Ask?

“At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love.” —St. John of the Cross

Alexandre-Évariste Fragonard, “Cardinal Mazarin at the Deathbed of Eustache Le Sueur”
Alexandre-Évariste Fragonard, “Cardinal Mazarin at the Deathbed of Eustache Le Sueur” (photo: Public Domain)

As Leo Tolstoy, fabled author of War and Peace, lay dying, he reportedly turned to his wife, and in a voice fraught with desperation, cried out, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do!” Replying to her husband, who was far from being a fabled figure to her, she answered commandingly, “Leo, you’re supposed to die. And I wish you’d get on with it!”

Unlike poor Leo, who appears to have been most fearfully ill-prepared, the rest of us should probably have a plan in place for contingencies like death. As the young missionary Jim Elliot, murdered at age 28, memorably put it, “When the the time comes to die, make sure that all you have to do is die.”

For life, too. In fact, we should all regularly perform an inventory of our lives. Taking stock is not supposed to be an exercise only in animal husbandry. But what questions do we ask? Only the most pressing. Nothing trivial will do. Whether I order fried, poached or scrambled eggs for breakfast does not, against the backdrop of eternity, qualify as a serious question. It is fairly frivolous, in fact, because, as Pascal would say, it fails to take one by the throat. 

So, have I got a list of non-frivolous questions? I do. Which I’ve shamelessly stolen from another fabled figure, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. He was, for those of you blessedly spared having to read him, an 18th-century specimen of the purest Teutonic thought. No one, of course, apart from professors of philosophy and the poor sods they teach, reads Kant anymore. As an old professor of mine used to say, “Why swim through wet sand if you don’t have to?” Or, as Mark Twain said of the novels of Henry James, “Once you put him down, you cannot pick him up again.”

Here, then, is the passage from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason that says it all. It is a book, by the way, which I have often tried to put down but, alas, out of a spirit of penance, have managed over and over to pick up again. 

All the interests of my reason, speculative as well as practical, combine in the three following questions: 1. What can I know? 2. What ought I to do? 3. What may I hope?” 

How relevant, I wonder — thinking of Tolstoy — are the first two questions if, in the last moments of your life, there’s really no time to ask them? Are you even likely to have the energy to ask? Or the interest? Will it matter one whit that you haven’t finished exploring the wide range of human knowledge, or that you’re not quite finished canvassing options regarding good and evil, when the Old Guy is pounding on your door? Unless you can persuade him to hang out in the TV room cooling his heels, he’s coming for you. He will not be watching CNN while you serenely pursue questions of epistemology and ethics. Besides, if the whole point of the visit is to take you to the nearest cemetery, there will be time only for the briefest exchange. He’ll be in a bit of a hurry, you see. “Death goes dogging everywhere,” declares playwright Joe Orton. “She’s the tenant of the room, / He’s the ruffian on the stair.” 

Besides, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us (No. 1022), quoting St. John of the Cross: “At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love.” It will then be too late to be thinking of ways to love your neighbor. But it is never too late for hope. For exercising what Chesterton calls, “the religion of tomorrow morning.” Yes, even if you’ll not be spending it in this world. Hope can always be given a good workout, especially on deathbeds. What better time than “now and at the hour of our death,” to be asking Our Blessed Lady to fortify us in hope? Could there possibly be a circumstance in life more necessary for prayer than when you are about to take leave of it? As the good Dr. Johnson reminds us, “Nothing so concentrates the mind as the prospect of being hanged in a fortnight.” To steel oneself in the face of an ordeal as grim and final as death, one reaches for whatever weapons are at hand. None are more formidable than prayer, the very language of hope.

And what other avenue out of Hell have we got besides hope? It is the cement with which the high road to Heaven is paved. Fear of the one, which is perfectly healthy and human, can only be defeated by hope for the other. But note this — the final outcome of our hope does not actually depend on what we do. For if it did, then it would not be hope. Rather it would be presumption, which is what happens when Christianity is reduced to a self-help enterprise.

 By far the most sensible thing to do, then, is to throw yourself upon the mercy of God, from whom there is no end of forgiveness. Or so we have been assured by our latest Doctor of the Church, St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, who thought only of the sheer excess of divine love, never the prospect of her losing it or of God running out of it. Her life was marked by an utterly unbounded trust in God, which she herself has characterized as “blind hope in his mercy.” 

 Speaking of God and his saints, she says, “I believe that they are waiting to see how far I will go in my trust, but not in vain was my heart pierced by that saying of Job’s: ‘Even if you kill me, I will have hope in you.”

Believe in the truth of what I now say: we can never have too much trust in our dear God, who is so powerful and so merciful. One receives as much from him as one hopes for.

Keep hope alive, therefore, feeding it constantly with the desire to see his face and not die. Be like Thérèse, in other words, for whom the “always more” aspect of Our Lord’s mercy filled her mind and heart. So that the certainty of hope in God, confidence in the infinite inclusivity of his love, exceeded all else, giving her the heart of a child, open to whatever came her way. Including even the manner of her death, which, for all its protracted awfulness, she nevertheless welcomed with joy, knowing that it was God’s loving will for her.