Recently I found myself tagging along again with my friend the philologist as he visited Ukraine. The Catholic University there is an amazing place—the top academic institution in the country—with a vibrant teaching faculty, a vivacious coterie of students, and a caring administration. Behind it a strong driving force has been a Harvard PhD named Jeffrey who has helped to shape and guide the university to ever higher ground, including, for its improved location, some fresh ground—literally—next to Lviv’s central park.
The beauty of the town, the joy of the students, the vim and vigor of Jeffrey himself easily outstripped my own jet-lagged energy, and in a way contrasted with it. But a deeper contrast was in the acute awareness I and, I think, everyone had of the soldiers on the other side of Ukraine fighting and dying against the pro-Russian factions (and even Russians) just as we were enjoying a lovely “dark prune” tort with raspberry tea. The blood red tea made me think of the blood being spilt by the noble Ukrainian soldiers at that very moment, the prune cake of the mire in which their bodies might just then be lying.
And as we visited church upon church, I though in brief prayers about those soldiers and about a dear friend’s mother who was even as I was praying for her dying. I thought about the inevitability of death, and that death is all around us. “Lo, that we walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” And we do walk through that valley and beneath that shadow quite often in this life, all too often. Death is ubiquitous, too close at every moment.
The ancients knew this. Euripides devoted an entire drama to it entitled Alcestis, the story about a husband, Admetus, losing his wife to death only because she chose to undergo death’s penalty that her husband might live. And then it struck me: Death is seeking us to pay something, to give something back. Does he require that in return for life? I don’t think so, or at least not precisely. If that were the case we would not be so outraged by death, would not weep so bitterly; rather, Death is asking us to pay for our sins. You can see it in the sarcastic and pitiless way he looks at us. He comes with no care for “timing,” no sense of decency. Rather, he comes to punish us—not the person dying, but the people left behind—abandoned, orphaned by Death. He has come to punish us for our sins.
Which is why Euripides, as if enjoying a vision of a spiritual sea change to come, portrays Heracles defeating Death, beating him mercilessly as he deserves. In that play, Heracles brings Alcestis back to life for Admetus. And I think I know another “mythology” that teaches this same thing, boldly proclaiming redemption and resurrection as a historical event. In light of which I think that the next line of the old Psalm then makes sense: “I will fear no evil, for thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” Now I get it: the Psalmist is saying “Go to Hell, Death, or at least go back to Hell, for I am in a good state: ‘my cup runneth over’.” Is that the reasons those religious students at Catholic University in Lviv seemed so vibrant and alive, so optimistic even with Death knocking at another, not-so-far-away Ukrainian door? I’m not sure, but I am sure they at least know the twenty-third Psalm and, when the time comes in their life that Death draws nigh, they’ll remember what it means.