Hospice: Reflections on a Dying Life


The human race is one because of the common nature shared by its members. However, every individual is driven by their craving to achieve their private ambitions. Unfortunately the things they seek are such that no one can get enough of what they want. Only the unlimited goodness of God can slake all human thirsts. As a result the world in which we humans live is in a constant state of war between those who fail to gain what they want and those who succeed.

City of God, 18.2

The sad paradox of living in this Hospice, this Inn for Travelers which is our world, is that war and conflict seem to be almost a necessity. The somber analysis given by Augustine in the fifth century seems now all too true:

The City of Man, for the most part, is a city of contention with opinions divided by foreign wars and domestic quarrels and by the demands for victories which either end in death or are merely momentary respites from further war. The reason is that whatever part of the city of the world raises the standard of war, it seeks to be lord of the world, when, in fact, it is consumed by its own wickedness.

City of God, 15.4

In my 70 odd years of life, the United States has been involved in five major conflicts and numerous minor ones. Other nations have suffered much more. It seems that at every period of human history there have been wars going on throughout the world, tribe against tribe, nation against nation, indeed religion against religion. The result has been that ... No people can feel so secure that they should not dread invasions that are hostile to life.

City of God, 17.13

Hobbes' somber observation that "Man is a wolf to man!" seems all too true. If there is any injustice in the statement, it is against the poor wolves. They kill only for survival. We sometimes kill just for the fun of it. As Augustine observed:

God knew that human beings would sin and that they would go so far in their sinful viciousness that even the irrational beasts would live more securely and peacefully with each other than would human beings. Indeed, neither lions nor dragons have ever waged such wars with their own kind as human beings have fought with each other.

City of God, 12.23

We humans continue to want peace and dream of peace, hoping against hope that the prophecy of Isaiah will finally come true:

In days to come the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills.

All nations shall stream toward it; many peoples shall come and say: "Come, let us climb the Lord's mountain to the house of the God of Jacob so that he may instruct us in his ways and we may walk in his paths."

They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another nor shall they train for war again.

Isaiah 2: 2-5

His prediction of the future is indeed encouraging but the cry of Joel seems to be a better description of our present situation:

Declare this among the nations:proclaim a war,rouse the warriors to arms! Let all the soldiers report and march!

Beat your plowshares into swords,and your pruning hooks into spears; let the weak man say, "I am a warrior!"

Joel 4: 9-10

The difference in the two passages is that Isaiah is speaking about the world to come; Joel speaks of this world. The call to "come to the mountain" is a call to look to the heavens, not search the earth. We have received the "instructions" about how to live this life that Isaiah talks about. They come to us through the Sacred Scriptures, through the words and life of Jesus Christ, through the great prophets and thinkers of every religion, through the conscience of every individual. We have received the instructions on how to reach the "mountain" but more often than not we have not listened.

That this is a world in which violence is common is reflected in the two basic principles that should guide humanity: the so-called Golden Rule ("Don't do unto others what you don't want done to you") and Do No Harm ("Do Good to others, rescue them when you can, and do not harm them unnecessarily")

If we lived in a perfect world, the only moral rule would be to "Love" others. The fact that we have principles telling us to limit our harm is a sign that we live in a world where love and peace will not always be realized, where there will be conflict between "man and man" between "wolf and wolf", indeed between "wolf and lamb".

It is paradoxical that war seems to be a necessity in this Hospice for Travelers. In most of the motels I have visited over the years, I can remember few if any battles (except about the bill when checking out). Though it is unlikely that we will find conflict when we come to "check out" (how can you argue with a bill made out by God), as long as we live here there will always be the danger of war: war between room-mates, war between rooms, war between the various disparate sections of the Inn.

Why is this the case if everyone wants the happiness of peace? The reason is that each one wants their sort of peace and, because we are all half-cracked, these "wants" often conflict with each other. Not everyone has (or thinks they have) the means to live well, their fair share of respect, the autonomy to control their lives, the gift of loving and being loved. At least 50% of the guests do not get enough to eat. 80% live in substandard housing. Over 500 million are at any moment experiencing war, imprisonment, torture, and starvation. These, (along with the simple desire to hurt others for recreation) are the seeds of war, and such seeds have always been and will always be part of our lives.

In dealing with this "condition of war" we must of course pray for peace and hope for peace but we must also be prepared to deal with the wars and discord that will inevitably affect our lives. Certainly we should be messengers of peace, but we must also be able and willing to respond to attacks against those we love, those under our care, against those ideals to which we have dedicated our lives. In Augustine's view, when wars are waged for such good and noble purposes they must be said to be "righteous wars". (Against Faustus the Manichean, 22.75)

Of course the non-violent way to resolve conflict preached by Ghandi and Martin Luther King is preferable, but this does not mean that we should be passive in the face of injustice. As Augustine wrote long ago:

Wars are always unfortunate but it would be more unfortunate for the unjust to triumph over the just. The necessity of going to war to prevent this may certainly be regarded by good people as being a blessed course of action.

City of God, 4.14

There is no moral problem in choosing to give up our lives rather than to strike out against others threatening us; but is it not an injustice to remain passive when those we love, when the innocent, when the defenseless come under such attack? Does it make sense when others for one reason or another (even reasons that they feel have the highest moral justification) attack the ideals we live by, the church we believe in, the community that nourishes us, to stand by and let the vicious oppressors have their way? Augustine, himself a child of violent times, believed that the very injustice of such attacks imposes the duty to go to war against them. (City of God, 19.7)

Some object that such violent response was forbidden by Christ when he told us to "turn the other cheek", to remain passive and pray rather than fight. Augustine answers:

Christ's command not to resist evil was intended to forestall our taking the kind of delight in revenge which feeds on another's misfortune. It was not meant to encourage us to neglect the correction of others.

Letter 47, 5

The charity of Christ is of course manifested best by trying to avoid war as much as possible but, when it needs to be waged, that same charity commands only that it be carried on with a kindly spirit. This was the message that Augustine sent to the imperial official Marcellinus who was charged with putting down the constant conflicts in North Africa:

We should not return evil for evil but it is also true that sometimes we must act with a kind severity when we are trying to make the disorderly change their ways. Thus, an earthly state following the teachings of Christ will wage its wars with kindness and base the peace that follows on godliness and justice, being sensitive to the needs of the conquered.

Letter 138, 2.14.

To say that war must never be waged for the sake of truth, for the sake of justice, is to create the impression that there is no truth, that one belief is as good as another, that I should be happy to embrace any way of thinking that is imposed upon me. It is to imply that there is no such a thing as justice, that there are no "rights" or "wrongs", that therefore there are no "wrongs" to be "righted". Indeed, it is to imply that there is no such thing as "rationality" and that chaos and disorder is and should be the rule of the day.

To give away all these things (truth, justice, rationality) is to reduce life in this Hospice, not to a "law of the jungle" (for even a jungle has its own order and its denizens have their own rules of behavior), but to something infinitely worse. It is to reduce this world to a place without law, an anarchy in which there is no meaning. But if this is all there is to life, why should we worry about getting through our days with some nobility? In the midst of chaos the last thread of rationality should dictate that we exit as soon as possible. Even oblivion is better than the chaos that is left behind.

Augustine firmly believed that the truly great leaders are not those who stay passive in the face of such chaos. Rather they are those who, after trying to bring order with a "word" rather than a "sword, are not above using the sword, ...

... those who, through toil and danger with the help of God are able to conquer a seemingly invincible foe and thereby bring peace and order to the community.

Letter 229, 1

He believed that the good ruler should indeed wage war with tears in his eyes, but sadness about the necessity does not do away with the necessity. The need to wage war is always regrettable but it would be even more regrettable to allow evil nations to dominate those who are innocent. (City of God, 4.14). When victory comes to the just surely this is a reason for rejoicing. (City of God, 15.4)

Unfortunately wars are often unjust, waged for the wrong reason or in the wrong way. Augustine maintained that it is just to wage war to protect against an unjust aggressor (City of God, 22.6) or to regain rights unjustly denied (Questions on the Heptateuch, 6.10), but few wars are waged solely for such admirable reason. In his own day Augustine could find wars that were waged to dominate innocent nations (City of God, 4.6), wars driven by a spirit of extreme nationalism, wars entered into to distract the populace from troubles at home, wars begun simply because the ruler wanted to make a name for himself. All of these were rooted in a disordered love for things of this world and created more disorder in trying to possess it.

Even wars begun for the best reasons can become unjust if they are carried on in an unjust way, if alliances are ignored, if non-combatants are not protected, if the thrill of violence destroys any moderation. As Augustine warns:

The real evils in war are the love of violence, the cruel passion for revenge, the blind hatred of the enemy, the sometimes insane uncontrolled resistance to attack, the lust for power, and other things of this sort.

Against Faustus the Manichean, 22.74

War is indeed a sad necessity in this cracked world. The best that can be hoped for is that it will be carried on in a spirit of charity, aiming not at wreaking vengeance on an enemy but at bringing a peace that benefits both friend and foe.

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