When Burt was a freshly minted Ph.D. in philosophy he was told by his doctor that he was soon to die. Fifty years later, forty-four of them spent teaching, he writes to pass along his prayerful wisdom about living in the shadow of death, which we all do but he was forced to consciously know. Actually, Burt, teacher that he is, communicates the wisdom of St. Augustine, whom he taught and whose religious philosophy guides his life. The book begins with a citation from Augustine’s Sermons that summarizes the book: We are now travelers on a journey. We cannot stay in this place forever. We are on our way, not yet home. Our present state is one of hopeful anticipation, not yet unending enjoyment. We must run without laziness or respite so that we may at last arrive at our destination. I found the summary of Augustine helpful and the commentary by Burt friendly. Though the book is directed inclusively at the dying (i.e., all of us) it will best be appreciated by the retired or those thinking about it. Those who have fully yielded to the traditional Catholic-Christian teaching about the last things will, I suspect, find nothing new here; but they will find many occasions to pray and deepen their sense of mystery. In its eschatological realism Reflections on a Dying Life is a refreshing relief from the “Golden Years”, viagra-enhanced illusions shamelessly pandered by high finance, health plans and the pharmaceutical industry.
In Part One Burt gently helps us see, whatever our age, the impermanence at the core of all our happiness and all our security: We cannot stay in one place for all time. We cannot capture any one time in our life and make it last forever (p. 3). The one human experience that authentically contests our essential impermanence is the giving and receiving of love. We are blessed if we can wait for the Lord in the embrace of another human being who loves us. No human love can take the place of divine love but true human love can help us wait for the Lord in hope. Having experienced the love of another human being, of being loved despite our quirks and scars, can make it easier to believe that we can be loved by a God (25). But those we love die too. Try this for driving home the impermanence at our core: If we enjoy good health at the present moment, it inevitably diminishes. If we have importance, it inevitably wanes. If we have found love, there is no guarantee that our beloved will be with us forever…. Fame lasts only for a fleeting moment, and when we die it ceases to be of any importance at all. Love is a precious gift, but we may fall out of love or have our loves fall out of love with us. It is no wonder that Augustine will hold out little hope (indeed, no hope) for perfect peace in this life (53).
Burt’s title, it will be remembered, is Reflections on a Dying Life, inviting all ages to think of their lives as already moving toward their inevitable end. In a chapter entitled “Joyful Work” he offers two criteria for self-judging our work to be successful, regardless of professional or outside judgment: 1.To make ourselves worthy of being vessels of God; 2. To allow God to work through us to bring good to others. To illustrate his own self-doubt about the importance of his own life, Burt frequently (in nearly half the chapters) recalls his feelings of isolation and triviality as an academic attending philosophy conventions to give a paper in a not very filled room to not very interested fellow academics. I was there only because the conference would look good on my resume, but I cannot remember any of them (including my own) having a long-lasting impact (78). When I delivered a formal paper to the ten or twenty hardy souls who by mistake had wandered into my lecture, the sparse attendance never bothered me because I knew that my name would appear in the program to be read by those beyond the doors who hopefully might come to believe that I did something worthwhile in my days of traveling (83).
Part Two is entitled DEATH: THE DOOR TO LIFE. Here Burt shares his wonder and his fears about the process of dying. Like his mentor Augustine, he greatly fears the possibility of personal extinction and depends on Scripture and his own experience for his faith in the eternal existence of his spiritual soul. While we need hospice care at every moment of our lives …. (b)ecause we are in a ‘strange place’ no matter how long we live here and how much we get used to it… This is especially true at the last moments of life when finally we must face our imminent death (142).
Part Three is LIFE AFTER DEATH. Burt acknowledges that the arguments he has considered in Part Two for the immortality of a self seem far from coercive (150) and he finds comfort in the fact that even Augustine, when in old age he returned (Retractions) to consider an early work On the Immortality of the Soul, acknowledged that he found his early argument for immortality so obscure that I can’t keep my attention focused on it and, when I am finally able to concentrate on it, I can barely understand what I have done (150). Burt agrees with Chateaubriand that for most of us it is easier to believe in hell than in heaven. The Hades of ancient Greek religions was a place for the dead, but far from happy. The recognition of a personal resurrection to a land of joy, he reminds us, did not appear with any force in the Old Testament until the Maccabean period, the second century before Christ. He cogently remarks that the belief in a more democratic blessed immortality for all of us followed the emergence of a sense of “justice” where everyone and everything was in its proper place and that responsible agents would receive rewards or punishment depending on whether they freely chose to act in accordance with their nature (161). What Christ added to this emerging sense of justice was, always, that God was a God of Love. God created human beings not because he wanted someone to judge but because he wanted someone who could choose to love him and be with him happily for all eternity (162). So, he continues, It follows that Augustine’s advice to those trying to understand what heaven is like would be very uncomplicated. He would tell them, ‘Fall in love!’ (168). We will, he adds, love God in and through the precious human loves that are with us in eternity (169).
There is much Augustine but little new theology in the work. So we are not surprised that the penultimate Chapter is The Sad Necessity for Hell and the last The Probability of My Salvation. If humans are truly free, they are free, like Lucifer, to radically reject their creature-hood, though he quickly adds that the Catechism teaches that no one knows for sure that any human being is in hell. In his sole correction of his life’s guide, Burt points out that his reading of Sacred Scripture led Augustine to conclude that many humans are not saved but this opinion has not found a place in the official teaching of the Catholic Church. As he began, Burt concludes – with Augustine. We are on our way to see the Christ who is God and the Christ who shares our humanity is the way through which we are going. We are going to him and we are going through him. Why then should any of us fear becoming lost? (187).