pastoral book review: Lessons learned from Mitch Albom's
Tuesday with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life's Greatest Lesson
One of the most difficult things for a modern Christian pastor to address in the context of the contemporary Christian church community is the issue of death. Although Christianity is fundamentally a life-affirming religion, in the sense that it affirms the life-giving potential of faith and the goodness of God and God's creation, there can also be no denying the fact that it is also founded upon a philosophy of transforming death, namely the suffering of Jesus upon the Cross. In a society where individuals are tempted to think of death merely as a loss or as a negative part of life, a pastor can feel like he or she is swimming against an ideological tide to cause Christians to view their faith in a more life-affirming and positive fashion.
While authors such as Sherwood Nulan's text, How we Die, attempts to provide the reader with some different versions and visions of the modern American experience of death, as well as show some of the efforts to sanitize and distance people from the dying process embodied in hospitals and modern medicinal terminology, a pastor must also spiritually grapple with the congregation's location in a historical place and time where fear of death, rather than tolerance of death is the common sentiment. What comfort and ritual interpretation can a pastor provide to cause individuals to view death in a way that is not spiritually depleting?
Death is a journey, not an ending, every pastor must stress to his congregants, whether they are immediately facing death or not. Furthermore, every pastor must help his congregants not simply accept, but spiritually come to terms with and cope with death, on a personal level during the passage of a loved one, and also with their own inevitable demise. This can be especially difficult when a loved one is coping with a terminal illness, or when a parishioner is coping with an illness. Often the dying process seems physically painful and agonizing, rather than instructive. But the text Tuesday with Morrie: An Old Man, A Young Man, and Life's Greatest Lesson presents a positive way for individuals in a modern context to view death. It suggests that death, like growing up or growing older, or getting married, is simply another life stage rather than a potentially agonizing event upon the mind, body, and soul. Although there may be pain, this is true of all growth processes and journeys, and ultimately death is transforming for all individuals rather than life-ending -- death signals the beginning of a new, albeit different kind of life of the soul, when the death comes at the right time and place.
To valorize this book as a part of a pastor's education may sound strange on its outset, given that the book is not overtly Christian in its worldview. It is written by a Jewish man about his Tuesday visits and encounters with his former Jewish professor. However, by depicting the relationship between an older and a younger man, it illustrates how the passage of life in the context of all faiths from one stage into the next life can be instructive. This is not true merely for the elderly individual, but all who observe the individual's passing including, in this text's case, the Morrie Schwartz's student.
This text's popularity on the best seller lists indicates perhaps a hunger in the hearts of many American readers to access a more positive and more emotionally fulfilling view of death than currently exists in much of modern ideation. The book chronicles a true story about the bond between a student and his former teacher, a teacher named Morrie Schwartz who the author regarded as both an intellectual mentor and spiritual father when he was growing up. Although he lost touch with his old professor upon graduation, he never forgot him. However, as gradually the secular cares of the world took over, he began to regret that he had emotionally and spiritually lost touch with some of Morrie's teachings. He began to long for the guidance of the old man. Many readers may feel the same way about a prized, past teacher but Mitch Albom was uniquely lucky in that he was able to locate Morrie again. At first, Mitch was saddened to learn of Morrie's terminal medical condition. But as the book evolves, it becomes clear that the fact that Mitch found Morrie at this time, at the end of Morrie's life and at a time of spiritual crisis in Mitch's life, was a kind of inadvertent spiritual blessing, an act of providence.
The relationship between a younger man and a wise, dying older man would be humbling no matter what the context. However, the story is particularly illustrative as it comes, not when Morrie Schwartz was the author's professor, but after Mitch Albom had long lost touch with the older man. Thus, for Mitch to come back as an adult and to humble himself before a teacher of his youth is particularly inspiring. Morrie must admit that in some ways he is just as much in need of an education as was his young pupil, as he contemplates the great mysteries of the world he is passing into. Mitch must admit that he is still as ignorant in many ways, as he was when he was a young man, when first met Morrie the professor.
As Morrie lies dying from a terminal illness, Mitch must also come to terms with his own eventual mortality, as well the morality of a man whose wisdom he regarded as immortal. He states that at this professor and scholar's funeral, "no books were required, yet many topics were covered," as individuals mulled over Morrie Swartz's life, including the man's "love, work, community, family, aging, forgiveness, and, finally, death. The last lecture was brief, only a few words. A funeral was held in lieu of graduation," the graduation attended so long ago, not of Morrie but of Mitch, when Mitch graduated from college.
Now it is Morrie who is graduating, the author makes clear from the onset, into another part of existence -- but graduation is the appropriate word, for although a graduation might cause one to cry, for a student is leaving his or her fellow classmates and leaving the security of being a student and the lack of responsibility it may entail, the graduating student is also entering a new and exciting stage of that individual's life.
At Morrie's funeral, Ablom reflects, "Maybe death is the great equalizer, the one big thing that can finally make strangers shed a tear for one another."
However, this is not always the case. Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Illych shows that an individual's quality of life affects the quality of an individual's death. In other words, because the subject of Tolstoy's great novella is not a good man, but has led a petty life, he dies a painful and unpleasant death, although Tolstoy still envisions the possibility of redemption even for a petty bourgeois sinner like Illych. But because Morrie Swartz has given so much of himself to others over the context of his rich life, his death is instructive to the devotee that his former student Mitch Albom has become.
Death is only an equalizer in the sense that Ivan Illych cannot take the money he has earned over the course of his life into the next world. But one who dies does take the spiritual gold one has gained over the course of one's existence into the next world, and also leaves a certain 'interest' for those who one has left behind. Thus most of Albom's book chronicles the dialogues that take place between Morrie Swartz and Mitch Albom. The author stresses as he chronicles their discussions that death ultimately transcends all religious barriers, as he notes of Morrie that "the things he was saying in his final months on earth seemed to transcend all religious differences," that these two men may have had, for "death has a way of doing that," of making differences and barriers of any kind seem insignificant
"The truth is, Mitch," Morrie once said, to Mitch "once you learn how to die, you learn, the meaningless of such divisions of religion, caste, and class. When one is facing death, this changes all of one's petty concerns and focus on petty and mundane squabbles. " You strip away all that [earthly] stuff and you focus on the essentials," says Morrie to Mitch.
In a world that is increasingly divided between religions and different points-of-view, this book would be an excellent text to give to a family who is dealing with the passage of a loved one. It might help them see death not as the end of an individual's life, but as a graduation from one stage of being to another.