Immortality, Resurrection of the Body, Memory | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Easter Sunday, April 12, 2009
| Ignatius Insight
Immortality, Resurrection of the Body, Memory | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Easter Sunday, April 12, 2009
| Ignatius Insight
"He (Christ) manifested
Himself to them, in this His exalted state, that they might be His witnesses to
the people; witnesses of those separate truths which human reason cannot
combine, that He had a real human body, that it was partaker in the properties
of his Soul, and that it was inhabited by the Eternal Word." -- John Henry
Newman, "Christ, a Quickening Spirit." 
"In the midst of creation in
its sinful state, a centre was born which the Son of God drew into his own
being. It is there now—the starting point of new life. This starting
point cannot be explained in terms of this world, but its rays light up the
whole world. From this point the Logos reaches out and takes hold of the world,
bit by bit—or else the world shuts itself up against him, is thereby
judged and falls back into darkness." -- Romano Guardini, The Humanity of
Christ, 1958. 
At the end of Lent, I was at
a conference at St. Vincent's College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. In the hotel
where we participants were lodged, I found on one of the tables a copy of a
local journal called the Laurel Mountain Post. I asked the lady at the desk if I could cut out a
page from the journal. She told me to take the whole thing, as there were many
While sitting there one
afternoon, waiting for a ride to the college, I began to read the first essay
in the journal. It was by the editor, Cathi Gerhard Williams. The article was
entitled, "Wilted Leaves on the Tree of Life." Lots of poetic and scriptural
overtones in that title, I thought, not realizing its source. It seems that the
Editor's father had just died. This article was a touching tribute to him.
Evidently, he was a tall, strong man of whom the Editor was most fond.
"It's not often that I get
to quote Einstein. It's pretty difficult for most of us to contemplate
theoretical physics, the dimensions of time and space that he defined,
especially when we are not only busy and distracted, but emotional as well,"
the article began. "In the first few weeks since my father passed away from
cancer and my thoughts were devoted to grief, something Einstein wrote caught
my attention: 'Our death is not an end if we can live on in our children and
the younger generation. For they are us, our bodies are only wilted leaves on
the tree of life.'"  So the title of the essay comes from Einstein, the
wilted leaves, the tree of life. The Tree of Life, of course, is in Genesis.
When I first read this
passage, I was struck by it. I read it to another gentleman who was at the
conference. His initial reaction was "Why, that is lovely." But this was not my
reaction, though I can appreciate it. It is striking that we find here no mention
of eternal life, none of the resurrection of the body, or even of the
immortality of the soul. "My dad is not coming back; he's gone forever." This
attitude is not Stoicism, which would perhaps have the dead subsumed back into
the world-soul. Certainly there is no cyclic re-incarnation of souls theory as
we find in many religions and philosophies.
The father's body was not
frozen in the hopes that science would figure out how to bring it back to life
in some distant future, the fate of the famous baseball player, Ted Williams.
No, we have here the calming sense of the definitive ending of human life. What
lives on is one's offspring, nothing more. Each of us has two parents, four
grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen great-great grandparents, and
so on, living in us. In this sense almost the whole history of mankind is found
in each of us.
Now, no doubt, as Socrates
said, begetting is itself a form of immortality. It is designed to keep the
species alive after the individual has passed away. The individual, in this
sense, is not for himself, but for the species. His personal existence is not
itself important except that others may go on down the ages. Yet, the real
uniqueness of man is whether each person is both immortal and will rise again.
The uniqueness of Christianity is precisely here.
In principle, this notion of
living on in our offspring is not wrong. Indeed, as my friend said, "it is
lovely." We do live on in our descendents. Every human body, as I mentioned,
originates in his parents, grand-parents, great-grandparents and so on down the
ages. We are borne up with our ancestors whom we never knew and support
descendants whom we will never know. Nor will our descendents much remember us,
given a few generations down the line.
Today, we may or may not
have graves and tombstones. Most of us will not. We will be cremated. Our ashes
will be scattered. It is true that burial in principle has the same effect.
Cemeteries do not last too long themselves. But the whole idea of burial was
that of respect paid to the body of an individual human being.
How do we come in contact
with those who have lived before us? We are beings with memory and history.
What we are interested in is not so much the body but the liveliness of a human
person—what he said, did, thought. We know this aspect of a real person
in biography, letters, and stories where we meet those who actually lived as
good or bad, moving or dull persons, but real ones. We are interested in their
personhood, which cannot be repeated.
C. S. Lewis has a famous
remark in which he said that he has never met a "mortal" person. To be mortal,
in essence, means that we die. All living things die. But what is different
about human beings is that they know that they will die. This knowledge is part
of their reality. Moreover, they constantly have intimations of immortality, of
what does not die. The great issues of justice, mercy, and love as such remain.
Each of us not only wants to know these truths as such, but wants their reality
to belong to us. When we test our longings here against the reality of being
mortal, we are confronted with hope. Is there a foundation within existence
that the "mortality" of mortal beings is itself "temporary?"
This knowledge rooted in
hope is what Lewis meant. The actual human beings we meet are, like each of
them, created for eternal life. And they will achieve it, either in grace or in
judgment. The existence of each human life, each mortal, in this sense, is a
drama of decision about what he is and forever will be. No one can or does
escape this purpose in his being. The wilted leaves on the Tree of Life rise
again. This truth is what the death and resurrection of Christ are about. All
the beings we meet are not only "immortal" but will rise again as the
individual persons they are from their conception.
The three ideas that I have
used in the title of these Easter reflections are "immortality," "resurrection
of the body," and "memory." On the death of a parent, the idea that something
of them lives on in their offspring in this world is correct. We add that we
are living the blood heritage of our ancestors. We also want to know what each
of these ancestors was in his personality. We add the notion of memory. We not
only know where our great-grandfather was buried, but we have a letter he
wrote, or an article about him, something to make him more than a tombstone
name that we also bear.
Immortality is a Greek, not
a Christian, idea, though Christians have no problem with it. Most Platonists,
as Augustine said, do have a problem with the resurrection of the body, which
is the center of Christianity. The end of the incarnation of Christ is His
resurrection. For Christians, the doctrine of the immortality of the soul is
important. It guarantees, as it were, that the same person who died will be the
one who rises again. If no immortality of the soul—the animating
principle of the person—is possible then any resurrection would be a
re-creation, not a resurrection. We would not be the same being before and after,
which is the essence of the doctrine of the resurrection of the body.
Thus, we mortals are really
individually immortal. Our species is not itself an individual, personal being,
but is carried on within the world by begetting individual persons of our kind.
This species life reflects our desire to be immortal. But the species as living
may well cease on this planet.
The idea of what it is to be
a human being, however, will be permanent. We are not just "ideas"; we are
individuals with names. We live a certain period of time. Death comes to us. It
is both a blessing and a punishment. It ought not to exist, but does. The
context of this death is the life of Christ. We must take this life seriously
because of who Christ was—true God, true man.
Christianity is the only
true explanation of what each of us is in our very existence and in our
destiny. We are each sons and daughters of individual parents whom we know.
Though we seem to be working to obscure this relationship in the name of our
"freedom" from our natural burdens, this is still the best guarantee of a human
life while we are in this world.
But each human being,
however begotten, is created for eternal life. He is also engaged, while in
this life, with deciding how he will live this eternal life. God has not only
given us life, but has given us eternal life. This gift means that we are, from
our origins, more than human in the sense that we are created, while remaining
finite and human, to see God as He is in His Trinitarian life. It is this purpose
which charges our very souls and causes us not to be content with our mere
mortality, with the thought that all we are is a brief span of withering
"When mankind was estranged
from Him by disobedience," St. Basil wrote in a treatise on the Holy Spirit,
God our Savior made a plan for raising us from our fall and restoring us to
friendship with Himself. According to this plan Christ came in the flesh, He
showed us the gospel way of life, He suffered, died on the cross, was buried
and rose from the dead. He did this so that we could be saved by imitation of
Him, and recover our original status as sons of God by adoption.
What is striking in this
passage is the notion that "God our Savior made a plan." We are not just
drifting. We can finally return to the purpose for which we are created. We are
not each of us "the Son of God." But we are "sons of God by adoption". 
The generosity of God is the
abundance of God in conceiving and bringing forth beings who would be invited
freely to live His own inner life. The rub is that something so great cannot
just be "given" to us without our free acceptance of it. Newman takes the first
step when he explains just who this Christ is. He had a "real human body" that
partook in the properties of a human soul. It was "inhabited by the Eternal
Word," so that it was a divine person. If this description is so, all of what
we know about immortality, resurrection, and memory follow.
The center of creation,
Romano Guardini wrote, cannot be of human creation, and in fact was not. The
Logos reaches out to shed light, "bit by bit." The world, each of us, can shut
itself against Him. We can fall back into the darkness. We can understand
ourselves to be withering leaves. The tree itself has no life. Our personal significance,
in our own minds in this theory, is only passing.
But it is not so. We have
never met a "mere mortal." What we meet, every day, what we remember, what
exists "by adoption," are those who will die and rise again to be judged, to be
given freely what they would want if they really knew themselves. At the end of
our lives, we do not say "And now he is not." We say rather that he is
immortal, awaiting the resurrection of the body and life eternal. We have no
freedom "to be not." We already are within a "plan." As Basil said, "God our
Savior made a plan for raising us from our fall and restoring us to friendship
with Himself." This is what Easter is about. We thus can indeed rejoice and be
John Henry Newman, Sermon 13, "Christ, A Quickening Spirit: The Feast of the
Resurrection of Our Lord," Parochial and Plain Sermons (San Francisco: Ignatius Press,
 1987), 316-17
 Romano Guardini, The Humanity of Christ (New York:
Pantheon,  1964), last lines in the book. Available online from the EWTN library.
 Cathi Gerhard
Williams, "Wilted Leaves on the Tree of Life," Laurel Mountain Post, March/April, 2009. Available online in PDF format.
 See Galatians 4:4-7; Catechism of the Catholic Church, pars. 422, 460.
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James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning,
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006),
The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007).
His most recent book from Ignatius Press is
The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and
Political Essays, is now available from The Catholic University Press. Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!