By Columba Ryan, O.P.
"1" N the middle of the jour ney of our life I came to myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost." "In the middle of life we are in death." The opening words of Dante's Inferno together with the hauntingly beautiful words of the Dominican Lenten antiphon at Compline may aptly enough express the theme of Ladislaus Boros immensely interesting and exciting book 011 the mystery of death, The Moment of Truth, Mysterium Mortis by Ladislaus Boros translated by Gregory Bainbridge, O.S.B. (Burns & Oates, 30s.).
He sees death as the moment when a man comes at last completely to himself: "Death is man's' first completely personal act, and is therefore, by reason of its very being the centre above all others for the awakening of consciousness, for freedom, for the encounter with God, for the final decision about one's eternal destiny."
Death is the moment when the will's unbounded striving comes at last into its own, when human knowledge. freed of its material opaqueness, realises itself in "total self-reflexion": when we achieve a total intuition and a complete remembrance: when love stands in absolute exposure and self-surrender; when the exhaustion of the "outer man" yields to the complete realisation as a spiritual centre of the "inner man"; when, in a complete remoteness from the world we achieve a proximity to it which starts from the presence of God encountered; when front a "state of ontological indigence" the soul becomes "pan-cosmic" by "reaching to the place where the whole world has its source . . . the place where from the beginning we always had our roots of being and essence".
This view of death is what he describes as "the hypothesis of a final decision", meaning by that that it is at the moment of death that each man makes, in a lucidity only then achieved, the decision for or against Cud once and for all.
But death is not isolated from life, as if it were a moment imposed as a final arbitrary test at which the orientations of a life-lime might suddenly and unaccountably be contradicted: "In the middle of life we are in death"—death is a "fundamental modality of living, concrete existence". T h e whole of our life carries death within itself; in life we find ourselves in a dark wood where the straight way is lost, and it is the very loss of the way, the contradictory tensions in desiring and not fulfilling, in reaching to God and not attaining, the tensions attendant upon life in the flesh, that are pointers to the character of death as we have just described it.
Fr. Boros owes his fundamental insight upon death to Heidegger. He claims to find different pointers to its character as final decision in suggested lines of thought taken from Blonde!, Marechal, Bergson, Marcel St. Augustine, Hiilderlin a n d from the "kenotic" theme that we must lose ourselves to find ourselves.
When he has established the philosophical hypothesis of death as final decision, he uses it as a touch-stone by which to elucidate and bring out the connections within a c 0 ni plea of theological problems—dealing, inter alio with the salvation of those who have never heard of Christ and of unbaptised infants, with the meaning of heaven and hell and purgatory, with original sin, and with the inalterability of the soul after death.
There is, I think, more than an echo here of the Blondeliam method of relating philosophy to theology and it is done here excitingly and with great effect. Given the hypothesis, It certainly does shed a flood of light on these topics, and, incidentally, affords support to some traditional and Thomist positions that have tended to he abandoned.
It is, however, in the philosophical establishment of the hypothesis that anyone used to Anglo-saxon fashions of thought will experience difficulties. The more philistine may feel that the description of death is romantic nonsense when confronted with the nasty messiness of a death, say, under the wheels of a run-away lorry.
Perhaps this is why the hook, for all its brilliance, has a curious lack of impact. But this difficulty at least can be met by insisting, as Fr. Bores does, that he is concerned not with the clinical event. but a metaphysical moment, and by recognising that the lucid decision of death is not so much a psychic event as a metaphysical option — if 1 may so descrihe it—related to the psychic events much as, for example, the Platonic ideal of justice is related to particular acts of a just man.
What is more difficult to excuse is the eclecticism of the philosophy, betrayed in the list of philosophers already mentioned, the enthusiastic recourse to imagery (e.g. "scattered pieces and broken shreds of our experience", "harvest of a cosmic spring", "the cracks in our existence"), the suspect pretentiousness of the jargon.
And on the theological side
confess to a feeling that there is an under-current of almost gnostic rejection of the bodily, the incantational, the resurrection. Perhaps I am unfair in this, and it would certainly have to be argued in detail.
The translator has done a magnificent job. One of his more felicitous inventions is the rendering of the Heidegerrian distinction between "existentiell" and "exislentire by "existential" and "existentiary"; it is n o t elegant—few neologisms are —but it makes for clarity.