Saint Ignatius High School

Death, Lent and Tocqueville

Are you a Catholic who happens to be American or are you an American who happens to be Catholic? This week, Tom Healey explores this life-long question through the historic lens of Alexis de Tocqueville and his most famous work, Democracy in America.

The following sentiments may resonate with your experiences. They certainly have resonated with mine:

In America, I saw the freest and most enlightened men placed in the happiest condition that exists in the world; it seemed to me that a sort of cloud habitually covered their features; they appeared to me grave and almost sad even in their pleasures.

[They] dream constantly of the goods they do not have.

It is a strange thing to see with what sort of feverish ardor Americans pursue well-being and how they show themselves constantly tormented by a vague fear of not having chosen the shortest route that can lead to it.

The inhabitant of the United States attaches himself to the goods of this world as if he were assured of not dying, and he rushes so precipitously to grasp those that pass within his reach that one would say he fears at each instant he will cease to live before he has enjoyed them. He grasps them all but without clutching them, and he soon allows them to escape from his hands so as to run after new enjoyments.

I could continue with this quote for a few more paragraphs, but I think that the picture painted by Alexis de Tocqueville in the above lines captures the spirit of Chapter XIII of Section 2 of his Democracy in America. The fact that they were written after his 1831 visit on behalf of the French government tells us a lot about our country and the human condition within any nation like ours.  

The title of the chapter, “Causes Of The Restless Spirit Of Americans In The Midst Of Their Prosperity,” notes that Tocqueville not only wanted to point out our restlessness, but also to show why we are so restless. The answer is simple and as old as humanity, but to Tocqueville’s way of thinking, it is particularly rampant in America. Why are Americans so restless even in the midst of their prosperity? Death. Americans fear death like no other people in Tocqueville had experienced.

His reasons for this conclusion are beyond the scope of this simple essay, and anyone interested in Tocqueville’s observations can easily find this work online [this chapter is less than 1,500 words in length - less than three full pages on a computer screen]. The conclusion is most important, especially during the season of Lent. We Americans tend to avoid talk of death, and we have even devised several nuanced euphemisms to describe it, but during Lent, the topic of death is unavoidable. The crucifixion and death of Jesus must happen before Easter Sunday can be celebrated.

The phrase Memento Mori, Remember death, predates Christianity, and yet it is perfectly suited not only for Lent but our entire lives. To follow Jesus means to pick up a cross and walk to Calvary. We know this because He said so Himself.

Lent is obviously a time to remember that we are dust and to dust, we shall return, but every day is a day to Memento Mori. We instinctively know this and pass it on even to the youngest of our children - oftentimes without even realizing it: “Now I lay me down to sleep; I pray the Lord my soul to keep. And if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

And thus, considering our country and our creed, we are people caught between two realities: our national fear of death and our theological embracing of it. So the question we must answer this Lent and for the rest of our lives is: Am I, at heart and at the core of my being, a Catholic who just happens to be an American, or am I an American who just happens to be a Catholic?