As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning by Fr Richard John Neuhaus (Perseus Books, 224 pages, $32.95)

To stare certainly at death, across an uncertain number of years and, thereby, to live in ignorance and expectation of what Thomas Hardy called the “day which (lies) sly and unseen among all the other days of the year,” the day of our death; this is an inextricably and exclusively human endeavour. And since, as the author points out, the mortality rate is 100 per cent, it behooves all of us to ponder our fate. Christians have always been urged to meditate upon the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, hell.

In his book, As I Lay Dying, Fr Richard John Neuhaus offers a series of reflections on the first of these last things; namely, death. This is emphatically not a self-help book, a genre Neuhaus despises. Rather than developing strategies to cope with death or to evade it, he wants to encounter death head on, with all “its strangeness and terrors.” Convinced of the centrality of death in determining our fate for all eternity, Neuhaus poses fundamental questions about what happens when we die. Believing with St. Thomas Aquinas that “of all human evils, death is the worst,” Neuhaus insists on exploring the process of death.

In keeping with the theology of the body of Pope John Paul II, Neuhaus rejects the dualism that posits a sharp demarcation between the soul and the body, and views of the jettisoning of the body by the soul at death in much the same fashion as a butterfly’s leaving behind of the chrysalis. In contrast, Neuhaus proposes the integrity of the human person composed of body and soul. Quoting St. Thomas, he accepts that we are most fully what God created us to be when we are intact. However, death shatters this fundamental unity in a “catastrophic severing of body and soul, a destruction of the self who is by nature body and soul.”

Instead of passing quickly to the dogma of the resurrection of the body at the Last Judgment, Neuhaus wants to know what he will be like in the interim. What will it mean to him to be separated from his body? Will he miss his body in heaven and, if so, how can he be perfectly happy? In all this, Neuhaus displays a rather touching attachment to the body in which he has sipped Merlot, listened to Mozart and watched the clouds.

Nevertheless, Neuhaus wants to insist upon the “I-ness of the soul.” In a rather deep meditation involving philosophy, theology, and psychology, he explores the relationship between brain, mind, consciousness and the soul. To those materialists who insist that the soul (“I-ness”) is only a function of the brain, he cleverly points out that they will never know if they are right, since their consciousness ends with death. Instead, Neuhaus fixes on two fundamental properties of the soul: its indestructibility and its capacity for truth. Not surprising, these characteristics lead Neuhaus to a Christian solution to his death meditations. Christ is the Truth: “I have been crucified with Christ: the life which I now live is not my life, but the life which Christ now lives in me.” (Gal. 2:20) In other words, because we are part of the Mystical Body, we have died with Christ and been raised with him in Baptism. Death has no dominion over us because it has no dominion over Him.

Despite the brilliance of Neuhaus as a teacher, these meditations may be a little heavy for the general reader. However, this is more than compensated for by the gripping narrative, not only of Neuhaus’ experience of near- death, but of his near near-death experience. His is a riveting story of misdiagnosis of colon cancer, collapse, emergency surgery, hemorrhaging, more surgery, chemotherapy and, finally, surgery to reverse the colostomy. Moreover, because Neuhaus is so well-connected, the people he encounters are well known to us. It is the Pope’s best biographer, George Wiegel, who takes him to the emergency department and overcomes an “imperiously indifferent woman” at the desk with threats of violence. When he is in a coma unable to communicate, it is John Cardinal O’Connor who recalls him to life. And when he is recuperating, the apostolic delegate calls to say that Pope John Paul II is praying for him. This is not just name-dropping. Neuhaus has often been invited to dine with the Pope.

And it is easy to see why. An affable and witty man, Neuhaus has an erudite, subtle, and well-stocked mind. One of the joys of this little book is the seemingly inexhaustible string of appropriate quotes that Neuhaus has at his fingertips. He quotes novelists like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, philosophers from Augustine and Aquinas to von Hildebrand and Pieper, poets like e. e. cummings and Anna Akhmatova, and religious writers like Cardinal Newman.

All in all, Neuhaus marshals quotes from over 30 sources and liberally sprinkles them throughout his text. He even nods in the direction of William Faulkner, who was the first to write a book called As I Lay Dying.

Moreover, Neuhaus shows us the very human face of illness. To anyone who has been in an intensive care unit either as a patient or a visitor, he recreates the atmosphere of medical machines “pumping and sucking and bleeping as usual,” as well as the bewildering array of tubes inserted into the body. He candidly admits his humiliation and embarrassment of illness, his resentment against nurses who infantilize patients, his self-absorption and finally, his shameless pleasure in being pampered. But even here Neuhaus is a priest and philosopher who reminds us of the “aura about the sick and dying,” “the aura of redemptive suffering.”

Easy to read yet profound, timeless in its concern yet the particular story of one man, this “wise little book” offers much to its readers, not the least of which is the beauty of its writing. For instance, he refers to recollections “touching the burlap of disappointment and running my fingers over the velvet of joys recalled.” Later on, one of our joys will be the pleasure of recalling Father John Neuhaus’ As I Lay Dying.