Is “being good” good enough? Reading “Tuesdays with Morrie” by Mitch Albom
This post was written by Fr. Emmanuel as a sermon in 2000 and delivered the following year.
Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom (1997) is about the last months in the life of an old professor, written by one of his students, who happened to spend a few Tuesdays with him during his time of illness. The book is, purportedly, a lesson on how to live. What lesson does the old professor have to teach us, disseminated by his pupil and extolled by a number of other best-selling novelists? Here is a typical piece of wisdom from the dying man: “The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, [I was very impressed when I got to this line, but there is no period here, only a comma. So it continues] devote yourself to your community around you, [how does that differ from the first? It means to be active in your community] and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.”
This last sentence gives me a lot of trouble with the lesson imparted by the old professor: “devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.” The focal point is I, Me, Myself. Our devotion is to the self, an entity so exalted it is even creative. It creates something. Something, what? What can we possibly create? It is a word used by artists, who create statues, paintings and buildings. To the extent these are imitations of the Creator they are poor analogies of the one and only creation by God. But what did the Professor advise his pupil, and us, to create? “something that gives you purpose and meaning.”
Why do we believe in God? Why do we love our Lord Jesus Christ? Why is our existence filled with Him? Why is our only aspiration to know Him, to love Him, to serve Him, to praise Him and glorify Him, to unite ourselves with Him, to live with Him forever? Why is His holy Church at the center of our life and activities? Why do we desire everyone to be drawn to this ark of salvation? Why do we desire ardently that the holy Orthodox Church be known to all the world? Do we have such things at heart because they give us “purpose and meaning”? Far from it. Our faith is not a “cause” – it is life in Christ! As that blessed priest, Papa-Dimitri, would say: “Our faith is alive! Our religion is a living religion!”
What is wrong with the wisdom of the professor, disseminated by his pupil (as Plato did with Socrates), is that his religion is “to be good and to do good” (by the way the rabbi who authored the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People endorsed this book) – without Christ. But do-goodism, without Him Who alone is Good, is no good. That’s why I’m talking to you today about this book, because books like this one influence our society, the people around us, and even us, who fall victims to a God-less world, a Christ-less world, and a Church-less world, books to be shun away as from some terrible pestilence.
There are plenty of Morries around: good people, we think of with fond memories and thank God for; people who inspire us to love, to do good, to be kind and caring; rays of sun, radiating warmth and humanness. Thank God for them. But if their presence and their example won’t draw us nearer to Christ, I would have them on a par with the forces of evil, a masqueraded goodness, as a devil appearing as an angel of light, a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
I’m talking to Christians, not to people who have not known Christ in their lives. There is a tremendous difference between good people and saints. The difference is this: Good people are the summit of where one can reach “in the world.” With “us,” we (supposedly) begin our climb as good people and we (are supposed to) end it by being saints. A good person is a person of virtue–and that’s admirable. God will reward such person, as He knows. Saints go beyond human capabilities, they are adorned with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and ride on His wings.
Here is the abysmal difference that separates good persons, like Morrie, and saints, like St. Paul, for example. Dying Morrie says: “I mourn the slow, insidious way in which I’m dying” (p. 57). And, “It’s horrible to watch my body slowly wilt away to nothing” (p. 57). We also hear the author himself reflecting, “I had the coldest realization that our time was running out” (p. 59).
Compare this to St. Paul, who writes:
“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies;” [and] “we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence… So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day… So we are always confident… Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.” (2 Cor. 4:8-10. 14-18; 5:1-10).
People like Morrie fill us with their humanism and humanistic values: family, making this a better world, “one big human family,” lovism and goodism, feelings and emotions, pleasures of life, fulfillment and satisfaction, and living “meaningful lives.” Trouble is these values keep us glued to them, and they don’t free our souls to rise to God. Compare again Morrie’s words to those of St. Paul. Morrie says: “There is a painful price to pay when you have a family, because I’ll be leaving them soon.” (p. 94) The apostle craves to be freed from his temporary shelter and be with the Lord. Let’s translate that: he craves to be dead! The Lord also said, “He who loves mother or father more than me is not worthy of Me.”
What about us? We care about so many things: We read the newspaper daily, catching up on all the news that happen locally, nationally, internationally; we watch the news on TV, in all the gory detail; we’ll debate them in the coffee shop or with our bartender, barber or hairdresser, or brother or sister in law. We check the stock market daily, obsessed with its ups and downs, the profit margins of companies, and their profit ratios. Our jobs take the lion’s share of our time, creating anxiety and stress in our lives. Do we hear the words of the Lord? “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful” (Lk. 10:41-42).
Lest we be confused as to why we seem to put down an otherwise good and honest and sweet person who took his suffering and death astride, let us reflect on a couple of things, such as: Was his life sinless? Well, knowing that no one is sinless but God, he must have committed a few sins. But then, where is his repentance? Where are the signs of contrition for having offended God? Has he examined his life and prepared himself to face God and His great and fearful judgment with tears of repentance and contrition? He was not a Christian, but a Jew; fine. Where is his adherence to the first commandment of all: “You shall love your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”?
Morrie maintained his bitter-sweet humor to the end: “I am bargaining with Him up there now. I’m asking Him, ‘Do I get to be one of the angels?’” (p. 163) Yes, he may have been talking to God–or to someone. Certainly that wasn’t prayer. Certainly it wasn’t asking forgiveness. Well, actually it was! He was forgiving others and lastly himself! That’s right: If we have been conceited, vain, fallen short of our goals, whatever it might be–let us just forgive ourselves, and we’ll feel so much better.
Morrie may have maintained his peace and serenity and appeared ready to cross the great river, or as he put it, “ready to move on to whatever is next” (p. 173), thinking perhaps along the terms of reincarnation (in which he seemed to believe)–or “whatever.” Rather the latter. Death for him was the end. We are all part of the ocean.
Our fear is the fear of no longer being alive, of being able to enjoy life, to be with family, etc. It is not the fear of appearing before a celestial tribunal and giving an account of our life. The difference is tremendous. The one leaves us alone, desolate; the other sets our thoughts and our lives together. If you believe that you are dust and to dust you shall return–and that’s the end of it, you have one perception of life; if you believe in reincarnation you have another (I don’t know what); and if you believe in life–and let’s not forget death–eternal, then you have another view.
Which is your view?
Article graphics and editing: Tony Hatzidakis