Saturday, 17 December 2011

A circle of flowers

Two posts on the death of Christopher Hitchens - Christopher Hitchens now knows there is a God, and Pray for Christopher Hitchens - prompted me to recall a story about Madeleine Delbrel. It is related on p.76 of Charles F Mann's biography Madeleine Delbrel: A Life Beyond Boundaries. The story comes from the first days of Madeleine's life in Ivry, a Communist suburb of Paris.
As part of her growing social involvement, Madeleine agreed to care for a cancer patient while his wife was at work. He was close to death, yet still reading l'Humanite, the French Communist newspaper, delivered by his good comrades. Sensing the man's hostility toward her as a Catholic, Madeleine engaged him on a personal level, talking about his favourite jams and jellied fruits. By the end of the afternoon, they had established a warm and jovial rapport.

The next day, Madeleine arrived  with flowers, chicken soup and pear jam. When the man did not respond to her greeting, she thought he was asleep only to discover moments later that he was dead. Recovering from her initial shock, Madeleine sent for the wife and summoned enough courage to prepare the corpse for burial. The wife arrived, her face flushed and her eyes brimming with tears. She was accompanied by a horde of Communist neighbours who became a captive audience when she turned to Madeleine and scolded her for arranging the flowers in the form of a cross on her husband's chest. Realizing her blunder, Madeleine sincerely apologized and carefully rearranged the flowers in a circular fashion.
Now, a Catholic should certainly pray for the repose of the soul of Christopher Hitchens, as they should pray for the repose of the souls of all those who have died. And it is not inappropriate to recall the hostility of Christopher Hitchens towards Catholic figures like Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II. The obituaries and commentaries on his death do to a degree continue the controversy that was Christopher Hitchens'  life, and Catholics are entitled to engage in their side of that controversy.

But, at the same time, I wonder whether or not charity asks for a certain discretion? For a prayer that is said quietly, but said nevertheless, and said in the form of flowers arranged in a circle rather than a cross.

UPDATE: An interesting comment by the President of the Pontifical Council for Culture is reported here.

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