Published on January 20, 200
A good friend died the other week; Joey Fermin, SJ was 46.
He had been ill the last year and a half of his life, but when the end came, it still came suddenly. A mere eight hours after being brought home, to the Jesuit Residence inside the Ateneo de Manila campus in Quezon City, he succumbed to a familiar disease of unknown origin.
Too young, much too young, many mourners at the wake murmured. Maybe. Being in the same age group, I would certainly like to think so. But I doubt if “F,” as we called our classmate since high school, would have agreed; a priest for only 10 short years, he knew death’s dearest demographic. Every day is a slaughter of the innocents; to these victims, 46 would have seemed a ripe old age.
“Would have agreed.” “Would have seemed.” In these phrases I hear the wistful music of the conditional. They remind me of a line from the essential Zbigniew Herbert, who wrote, very much in passing, about “the beauty of the subjunctive.” The poem explained why resistance to oppression was also aesthetic: “but fundamentally it was a matter of taste.”
F certainly would have been discomfited (there we go again!) by the outpouring of affection, the torrent of attention, that attended him at the very end. It was not to his taste. At his funeral Mass, his devoted sister Anna expressed her family’s sense of wonder and deep gratitude for F’s last gift: “the non-celebrity had become a celebrity.”
The mourners who crowded the chapel in the grade school of which he had been an excellent headmaster; the messages that filled his Facebook “wall” (this was truly our first Facebook funeral); the memorable homilies from his brother Jesuits that remembered him in light (to mention only the three I heard: Rene Javellana’s wonderful romp through the 1980s and the world of the samurai, Ben Nebres’ moving meditation on leadership, Mario Francisco’s pained excavation of meaning from F’s death); not least the hundreds who went all the way to the Jesuit novitiate in Novaliches to bring him to his grave—all of this gave us comfort, was a source of grace. Speaking in conditionals was a consolation too; it allowed us to think of our friend as somehow still alive.
But in truth, we were mourning the death of a man in the prime of life, and that fact gave this death a deeper terror.
I was reminded of Philip Larkin’s terrifying “Aubade.” (I cannot read it without looking up every now and then to make sure the lights are on, even in daytime.) This poem of false dawn looks down at the abyss and sees, well, nothing.
This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.
As Christians we do not believe that behind the door of life lies nothing, precisely because our faith is based on a fundamental, life-giving death.
Francisco’s homily at the funeral Mass did not seek refuge in euphemism. “Now that Joey has gone to his final mission, we realize, more than ever, how much we know of Joey. We know him, but we got to know him more profoundly this past year. In trying to pry open the dark secrets of diseased flesh, we, all of us and Joey, gleaned something of the mystery of spirit. And what was hidden through years of quiet service suddenly took on a flash of transparency.” Then (to my mind a direct refutation of Larkin): “Some people think that the unknown is what is most fearful. What we know of Joey and of God through him is what makes the unknown bearable, even insignificant.”
* * *
I have always associated F with John XXIII, because he was born on Nov. 25, 1962, the Good Pope John’s birthday. Judging from “Journal of a Soul,” the Pope’s serene diary, they also shared the same sense of self-possession. At the end, however, F reminded me of John Paul II, another bull-like athlete reduced by disease. His suffering was itself a form of prayer.
Again, this confession would not have been to F’s taste. He would have shrunk from being compared to Peter’s successors. But doesn’t a good man always call the great to mind? He is the measure by which we understand their greatness.
* * *
Presidents’ forum. The Ateneo de Manila celebrates its sesquicentennial (a $10 word meaning its 150th anniversary) this year. The rites open on Thursday, Jan. 22, with an international forum of university presidents. Professor John J. DeGioia of Georgetown University, the first lay president of a Jesuit university, will strike the keynote.
Columnists’ secrets. The Department of Journalism of UP’s College of Mass Communication is hosting a forum on Monday, Jan. 26, to discuss and document what it is newspaper columnists really do. “The Shaping of Opinion,” featuring the Star’s Jarius Bondoc and the Inquirer’s Rina Jimenez-David, is open to the public and starts at 10 a.m.
Blog’s new address. Starting today, my Newsstand blog will now be hosted at johnnery.wordpress.com. Since I already paid the annual fee to my original host (consider it my contribution to the US economy, which needs all the help it can get), the old address will still be good for another six months or so. But new posts, starting with Barack Obama’s inauguration, will be up at the new site. Why the change? Fundamentally it was a matter of taste.