Immortality, Resurrection of the Body, Memory | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Easter Sunday, April 12, 2009 | Ignatius InsightImmortality, 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." [1]

"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. [2]


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 copies around.

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.'" [3] 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 leaves.

"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". [4]

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 glad.


[1] 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, [1891] 1987), 316-17

[2] Romano Guardini, The Humanity of Christ (New York: Pantheon, [1958] 1964), last lines in the book. Available online from the EWTN library.

[3] Cathi Gerhard Williams, "Wilted Leaves on the Tree of Life," Laurel Mountain Post, March/April, 2009. Available online in PDF format.

[4] See Galatians 4:4-7; Catechism of the Catholic Church, pars. 422, 460.

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Easter: The Defiant Feast | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
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Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

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 website.

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