Dr. Ernest Kurtz, author of the definitive history of Alcoholics Anonymous and many other fine books, passed away this week. We used to write each other regularly, and I am glad I saved his letters so that I could re-read them this week. At the time of our correspondence (1993-1997), I was a hospice volunteer and he was a former priest, which helps explain why many of our letters were about faith and death. It was an interesting experience to read what a friend who died a few days ago said about his mortality, 20 years in advance of the event. Here are three brief excerpts that struck me, from different letters:
I distrust all orthodoxy except the Roman church’s. (If you are going off the deep end, might as well jump high).
I would rather die eating a steak smothered in butter than live a long life on tofu and greens. Both theologically and existentially, I think it accurate that I have no fear of death. Any fear is of a stroke, and so I did do a living will — I do not think I would make a very good disabled person. (They might force tofu and nutrasweet and all that low fat merde on me.)
My life course, which has included hospital chaplaincy work and living in a terminal care hospital when I first arrived in Cambridge, has brought me around death quite a bit. And then there are my own heart attacks and the experiences that brought on the later angioplasty etc. My sense is that death is something we cannot imagine – on the chance that it is an adventure, though, I’m ready to go willingly. Close to death, the only regret most seem to have is that they were not kinder. But beyond that virtual truism, it seems to me that wanting to know about death is another manifestation of the human drive to control, and the frustration and consequent “denial” when faced with the inability to control. One reason I like the Catholic tradition is its openness to mystery. Confronted by mystery, the only response is awe. It can be hopeful awe or fearful awe or just plain awe. So far at least, my response is the last.
Rest in peace Ernie.