Book Briefs -- By: John H. Armstrong
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As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning, Richard John Neuhaus. Basic Books: New York, New York (2002). 168 pages, cloth, $22.00
We are born to die. Not that death is the purpose of our being born, but we are born toward death, and in each of our lives the work of dying is already under way” (3). With these sobering words the acclaimed writer Richard John Neuhaus begins his little treatise on facing death and returning. “Death is the warp and woof of existence in the ordinary, the quotidian, the way things are. It is the horizon against which we get up in the morning and go to bed at night, and the next morning we awake to find the horizon has drawn one day closer” (4).
Though the reader may, at first, be put off by what seems excessive morbidity, such prose jars the reader into the reality of what is as human as birth itself. Neuhaus writes to jar you. He grabs you by the lapel and seems to say, “Listen friend, this is for you!”
Ideas taken from Augustine, Goethe, Job, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy are powerfully used in the opening chapter to set the stage for Neuhaus’ personal reflections. He argues that former reticence about sex and death, in everyday human conversation, has been replaced by a great liberation. The problem is this liberation has removed the mystery and without the mystery there is no profound reflection. An unreflective life is not one that will be lived well nor one that can face dying well. As in so many areas of modern life television has intruded into the inner sanctum of our humanity making everything appear clinical, if not entertaining. “Death with
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dignity” now allows multitudes to embrace euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide.
The background of Neuhaus’ personal reflection was his own personal brush with death when an operation went badly wrong and he almost bled to death internally. He frankly admits his most personal questions and explains how he thought about himself, his circumstances and his future. There are parts of this story that are profoundly moving. As one would expect from Neuhaus, there is a blend of traditionally Roman Catholic thought with more evangelical Protestant teaching.
This is not so much an essay about one person facing his own mortality as it is a profoundly Christian attempt to make sense of life and death in the moments of actually facing your own death. For this reason I found the book extremely valuable. In fact, since reading this little volume before my evening sleep I have come to reflect far more intentionally on my own death. Neuhaus notes that from the twelfth-century Enchiridion ...
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