Life and death with a Jesuit: Father James Schall on the important things

Life and death with a Jesuit: Father James Schall on the important things

Life and death with a Jesuit: Father James Schall on the important things

Jesuit Father James Schall. (Credit: Georgetown University.)

Jesuit Father James V. Schall had a close call at the age of 91 earlier this month. He spoke to Crux about life and death, and what he thinks is most important to be happy.

If this were your last interview, what would you say?

Jesuit Father James V. Schall had a close call at the age of 91 earlier this month. A longtime professor of politics at Georgetown, he’s been living in retirement with his brother Jesuits in Los Gatos, California.

“At 91, one has little leeway. The old hide-and-seek cry, ‘Here I come, ready or not,’ is in place,” the priest said.

“We do not know the day or hour. So, we abide in what is given to us in the now. We do not know if we are ready – we just try to be, to have faith and courage,” Schall continued.

In an email exchange, Kathryn Jean Lopez spoke to the Jesuit about life and death.

Lopez: What is best about life?

Schall: What is best about life? The first thing is having it, actually being in existence and knowing that we exist as this human being, that we do not cause ourselves to exist. We are given life. What is best about life is to know that it is a gift rather than some blind development with no internal meaning to itself as this, and not that, being.

Following on this realization of our own existence, what is best is knowing that we are not alone. We live among others and seek and rejoice in our friends. We discover in revelation that we are also to become friends of God. Our lives are often filled with sin and suffering, when we need others most, for forgiveness, for help, for understanding.

What is best about life is also the fact that we can walk this green earth, see things, and especially know what not ourselves is. We exist also that what is not ourselves in all its variety and complexity can be known to us. We are not deprived of the world or others because we are not they. Instead in knowledge, the world and our friends return to us. We know a world that is not ourselves; we are blessed.

What is most challenging about life?

Finding its order. My book, The Order of Things, goes into this issue. At first sight, the world seems a chaos, a disorder. But the earth and all in it reveal an order that is not there because we put it there. We find it already there. This is what we discover when we discover anything.

Modern (and Muslim) voluntarism will claim that nothing is stable (an old Greek view also). Everything can be its opposite. Therefore, there are no evils. But there are evils, due precisely to a lack of order. Moral evil is a lack of order that we put in our own thoughts and deeds because we reject that order that is given to us that constitutes our own real good. The challenge of life is to deal with the reasons for evil without despair or without affirming that evil is good.

Even in the worst circumstances, we strive to see what is in order. But when it is our responsibility to affirm or allow that order, we can prefer our own ideas. In doing so, we implicitly reject the being that is. Thanks to the redemption, this rejection can be repented and reordered, but even here, we are required to act in a way that confronts what is really wrong. We are responsible for our own lives. In the end, the story of our personal existence will be told in terms of how we lived and understood the gift of life that we have been freely given.

What’s most unappreciated about life?

In a way, I suppose it has to do with what Aristotle said was the beginning of our knowledge, namely, our capacity to wonder. Samuel Johnson (whose life is simply one of amazing wonder) cautioned that we are not to go about just wondering. We are to learn and come to conclusions. We are to know the truth of things, we in our very own minds. But we are provoked by what is not ourselves. What is out there beyond our ken? We are not content simply to say, “I do not know or want to know.” We come to full knowledge only gradually. And we never cease to wonder about what is out there even when we know something about it.

So, I would say that what is most unappreciated about life is the adventure of it, the sense that it is really going someplace, and this lovely world is not its ending but beginning. In addition, we do not appreciate how much we can damage ourselves and others when we do not know the truth of things and reject the order of things to impose our own order on our lives and world. We have been redeemed, but we have not been excused in our freedom. We are not able to be friends with one another or with God unless we choose; by the way we finally live, to do so.

What is the most important gift of your life, besides life itself? Your priesthood? The sacraments?

I have long said, and urged the point on anyone who will listen, that the best thing that our parents give us is brothers and sisters, and eventually along with their children. Even if my two good brothers are with the Lord, their welcome to me and our own hassles have been a context of life that has always been a consolation to me. My good sister and my two step-sisters are also here.

Of course, priesthood and sacraments, the life of the Church as I have been given in the Society of Jesus loom large. The Order in my time has provided me with education and opportunity that I could not otherwise imagine for a young man from a small town in Iowa. I have lived for a time in some great cities—San Francisco, Rome, Washington. But the great gift to me was the chance to live a life relatively free to read and write and wonder how it all fit together. I have never been a “specialist,” and it probably shows, but I have thought often about the whole. I think that leisure to wonder about what it is all about has been a great gift to me.

I have loved teaching and the students that somehow kept coming to my often meandering classes in which I was often but one step ahead of them, and not always then. Indeed, having young men and women there, to tell them just what there is to be read that will open their eyes to what is, has been part of this gift. If I could entice but one student to read Joseph Pieper—an Anthology or E. F. Schumacher’s, A Guide for the Perplexed, I would be happy with the chance of being there to see the delight the student saw on actually reading these good books, or Plato or Aristotle or Augustine or Aquinas or Johnson.

Are you ready? And how do you know that you are?

At 91, one has little leeway. The old hide-and-seek cry, “Here I come, ready or not,” is in place. We do not know the day or hour. So we abide in what is given to us in the now. We do not know if we are “ready” – we just try to be, to have faith and courage. If we had certitude about these things, we would already be dead.

Are there any last words that you might like to add in the unlikely event that this is your last interview?

What an amusing way to put it! The “unlikely event”! Yes, Schall can be long-winded. I noted the other day that the complete listing of what I have published according to date and source since my first essay in The Commonweal, in 1954, comes to about 150 pages. This includes books, book reviews, chapters in books, academic essays, columns, lighter and shorter essays, interviews, letters to editors, and newspaper essays. Indeed, St. Augustine’s Press is yet to publish one of these days a collection of my earlier JVS interviews.

I think that my last words remain those that I cited from Chesterton at the end of the “Last Lecture” — that all inns lead to that Great Tavern at the end of the world when we shall drink again with our friends in that eternal life that is offered to us by our very God when he called each of us out of nothing to exist and participate in His inner life.

The Trinity has always fascinated me. A chapter in my first book, Redeeming the Time, was entitled: “The Trinity — God Is Not Alone.” Aristotle wondered if God was lonely and therefore lacked one of the highest of human values. Since there is otherness, love, and inner-relationship in God, He does not need the world to explain his glory. The world as we know it reflects His glory, but His glory as it is awaits us. Our lives transcend the world, even while we remain in this world, with all its own tragedy, drama, and uncertainties. The last words remain—we are bound for glory, Deo Gratias!

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