A beautiful death
When I received the DMin reading list this past summer and saw that Heroic Leadership by Chris Lowney was included, I smiled. It was the same book I had encountered over a decade ago. I had found it so remarkable that I bought a box and mailed them out as Christmas gifts for Canadian parachurch leaders who I had worked with that year. Leadership books in the business sector are a dime a dozen, but ones like Heroic Leadership that counterintuitively give light to a humble but noble pathway are not. They deserve a slower, more contemplative, read.
The author, formerly a priest, now turned wealth manager, reveals that the heart of Jesuit education and 450 years of that order’s impact lies in the four qualities of self-awareness, ingenuity, love and heroism. The Jesuit model explodes the ‘one great man’ model for the simple reason that everyone has influence, and everyone projects influence – good or bad, large or small – all the time.” Great leaders “set themselves apart from the mainstream”, and quietly, persistently listen to their heart and march to a beat of a different drummer.
The timing of the reading of this book is curious. Just last week we were remembering the 500-year anniversary since Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittemburg door, and launched, whether he intended it or not, the Reformation of the Church by change from without. Within the same general time frame, Ignatius of Loyola, 450 years ago, represented a leading vanguard of the Counter-Reformation – change from within – that began to challenge the same egregious excesses of the Church a few decades later.
If we examine what made Ignatius a great leader, it wasn’t necessarily his charisma or drive, but a self-awareness that came from a deeply personal and mystical encounter with Christ while writing the Spiritual Exercises. He met Jesus, and was transformed by Him; this wasn’t just an inward change he arrived at through personal study. Meeting Christ propelled him outward to launch foreign outposts and educational institutions as the Compañía de Jesús, his gathering of stalwart friends, walked together in shared mission. With rhythms of action and contemplation, Ignatius was “a contemplative person even while he was in action.”
At a critical juncture in my life I found myself in Bogotá, where we had once lived as missionaries. I knew I needed to meet Christ using these same Exercises that Lowney calls a life-long development tool. I called the Jesuits and found a spiritual director, Hermana Patricia, a beautiful nun, who was trained in leading people through the rhythms of consolation and desolation that accompany those who follow the Exercises. She walked with me for eight days in a convent, breaking silence only during our hour-long reflection times each day.
The beauty of the Ignatian Exercises is that they are so centred in the Gospels, and specifically rooted in the drama of the last week of Christ’s passion on earth. The Exercises invite one to imagine a different scene each day. You picture yourself with Christ while in the Upper Room, you walk with Him to the Garden, you stand alongside during the mocking, abuse and betrayal by the authorities, you limp together down the Via Dolorosa to Calvary. Then you watch and listen to His love expressed to you. In my experience it was deeply moving and life-altering. “Loyola intuitively grasped what every competent therapist understands about self-discovery and what every quality manager understands about motivation: the switches are on the inside.” I needed inner transformation to be ready for outward action.
Tomorrow I am flying to Vancouver to be with a new client named Doris, who is also a dear, long-term friend. Her husband, Ray, has just died after 22 months of a valiant and exhausting struggle with cancer, and his Celebration of Life service is being held on Saturday. Though all death is unwanted and horrible to witness, in some respects, this was a beautiful death. What made it unusually hopeful was the way Ray confronted his mortality face first.
Here is Ray’s last blog post before he died:
I can’t walk anymore, so we have had a parade of people over this last week walk into our bedroom to see me. Some have sat or even laid beside me on our bed. Others have stood, and we have held hands, and others have chosen one of the many chairs which have mysteriously wound up in our room…. Gone are the days when we worried about people seeing the scuffs on the wall, or the worn out carpet, or our 1980’s dated bathroom…all of that stuff which was so major not that long ago seems so trivial.
Death is a mystery and most of us are curious when it comes to the subject, but we don’t talk about it a lot. The process of dying is even more mysterious, and I think one of the reasons that I am still here is so that people can watch what it looks like to die and imagine, what it might look like for them when their day comes. So instead of looking at the type of bedroom suite we might (or might not have) people are looking at what matters…they are looking into their hearts and wondering about their mortality.
As Ray was confronted by his own imminent death, it birthed an exceptional degree of self-awareness. Lowney says that transformational leaders are twice-born, they have gone through the fire and emerge owing nobody nothing. He writes that “[Ignatius] understood how he fit into the world and that it was not a hostile place.” Only self-aware people live with this freedom unafraid. They possess a unique joy not found amongst those who strive and are driven to success.
One of Ray’s unusual empowering acts during his months of slow dying was to create, together with his wife, a foundation that would be endowed with his life insurance payout. Incredibly, on the day of Ray’s death, the Canada Revenue Agency called with the announcement that the application for the new foundation had been approved. Over the next years the family will have the responsibility and the joy of disbursing funds for the most marginalized in the name of Christ. To me, this represents true, self-aware, heroic leadership. It is a life beautifully lived, a death beautifully died.
 Lowney, Chris. Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year Old Company That Changed the World. (Chicago: Loyola, 2003), 18.
 Lowney, 21.
 I don’t think he ever intended a split.
 Ruiz Jurado, Manuel. For the Greater Glory of God: A Spiritual Retreat with St. Ignatius. (Frederick MD: The Word Among Us, 2002), 11.
 Lowney, 115.
 Ray Olafsen, “Facing Mortality: A Shared Piece by Ray and Doris,” Caring Bridge Blog, October 18, 2017, accessed November 9, 2017, https://www.caringbridge.org/visit/rayolafsen/journal.
 Lowney, 45.
 The Canadian equivalent of the IRS.
11 responses to “A beautiful death”
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My wife and I were talking about the reformation this week and I said that I didn’t believe Luther intended to branch away from what was his church. I believe he wanted change. I like your comparison between Luther’s and Ignatius’ approach to “reformation”. So often we see people leave churches, business or other organized groups due to not agreeing with some aspect or another rather than staying within and working to build a better structure.
I saw your heart in this blog, Mark. The journey and reflection you had this week of remembering those Christ encounters and how so often we hear him in the stillness more than the jubilant noise. Thank you also for sharing Ray with us. What a beautiful story. Your job puts you into contact with people that have the means to share their wealth with those less fortunate. What would suggest as a way to honor someones life if they didn’t have an inheritance?
My response to your question about honouring someone’s life if they didn’t have an inheritance is simply to live an other-centred life. The discipline and the grace required to surrender each day and to serve others in love is more than enough. The money bit is just a tool that should have much less prominence than it acquires in our culture!!
The interesting thing about Ray is that he grew up on welfare and lived a very simple life in the public service sector in Canada. He was a proud member of a union. He just happened to structure his life so that when he was unexpectedly diagnosed with terminal esophagal cancer, that the family benefited from the insurance payout. But together they decided to use that money for benefiting marginalized families in need. It was a beautiful expression of shrewd planning.
Thanks Mark. I hope you heard my question correctly. Sometime emotion gets lost in writings. I was moved by your friend loss and his desire to help those less fortunate. It got me thinking about my own mortality and ways we could continue the work knowing we have never been in a place to have money. I know legacy and inheritance it not so much about money as it the Christ-like example we leave. I guess I was just wondering if there were some other tangible methods that you have seen or heard about?
Mark, I loved hearing more about your experiences with the Exercises. Ignatian Spirituality feels like home to me, and it gave me pathways to connect with God at a time when everything that had ever worked for me stopped working.
And thanks for sharing Ray’s story. I grew up with a terminally ill sister who died when I was pregnant with my second son, in the same hospital that my son would be born in four months later. I feel like my entire life I watched her die (I was 2 when she was diagnosed with her disease. She was 12 and dies at age 35). But in reading your post about Ray, I see some of the gifts I received in being able to watch my sister die. not the least of which is having a keen sense of the things that really matter in life.
Do you think that coming to terms with mortality is an important piece of self-awareness? Asked another way, can we be self-aware without facing our own mortality?
Me too, me too! I found my traditional approaches to spirituality had dried up until I uncovered Ignatian spirituality. I’d love to talk more with you about this. I’m excited that in New Brunswick I discovered a retreat house near me, and am planning on a weekend silent guided retreat at the end of November. http://villamadonna.ca/
Thank you so much for sharing your journey with your sister. I am sure it has indelibly shaped who you are today.
I think that our facing mortality is essential in ministry and in the Christian life. The first time I walked the camino, I walked by a church in the town of Castrojeriz which unexpectedly had an engraving of a skull-and-crossbones at eye level for all the passersby. The church wanted people to recognize their mortality. I think this is what Jesus was getting at when He tells us to take up our cross daily.
I’ll post a photo of that on our facebook page… can’t do it here.
I found this post very moving and deeply connected to meaningful life circumstances. The link between the Reformation and the birth of the Jesuits is interesting. In many ways I believe that the Jesuits saved the RC church after the reformation. They continue to be a role model for humility on leadership on a scale that is difficult to fathom. It surprises me that they are not more widely touted but I believe some of that has to do with the continued unwillingness of many in the Protestant movement to recognize much of the good evident in Catholicism. I am thankful for your insights and wisdom in this regard. I pray that I will have the presence and peace of mind to approach my own mortality with the humility and awareness of God’s blessings as Ray did.
For some reason in the past few years I have loved attending funerals. I think it is because facing mortality allows us better self-awareness.
Ray was an unusual man with an acerbic sense of humour that you would have enjoyed. He made his pastor promise him he would preach on Scripture verses he selected, and then he provided him with this passage from Deuteronomy 25:11-12.
The pastor did it. And amazingly he did a fine job of weaving it all back to the source of life. But it was good for a chuckle.
I am still amazed that you ran into Dr. Darrel Peregrym at the memorial! I look forward to hearing how you two ended up being there together. He is a good man!
Thank you for connecting your writing in such a personal way to your friend’s home going. And your personal reflection while being in Bogota was wonderfully written.
Should every one of us spend a time like that in our personal lives? I think you might say yes.
Thanks Jay! Darrel and I have known each other for over a decade, and we became friends because of this couple, Ray and Doris, who were mutual friends. I was more than a little surprised when I discovered that Darrel was one of the faculty advisers for this cohort!
I’m a big fan of getting away from the clamour of daily life and finding oneself again in the silence. I also realize we all have our own pathways to greater self-awareness. If you do sense a pull to a retreat like that, then I encourage you to explore that desire more fully.
Thanks for restoring my faith in the Jesuit approach to leadership! You did a great job outlining Lowney’s “exercises” on spiritual reflection within a Biblical context. There was great imagery in your words. For example, “wondering about their morality” is a good motivator for Lowney’s self-awareness drills. Thanks for putting “hero” in a leadership context that fits the situation. Ray is no doubt a hero of the faith, whose life and death spoke into the hearts and souls of many in search of Christ.
Great post Mark as usual! What a fascinating job you have to come in often after a loved one has passed to help carry out their philanthropic wishes. What a great window into that you gave us…especially the part when you said, “Over the next years the family will have the responsibility and the joy of disbursing funds for the most marginalized in the name of Christ. To me, this represents true, self-aware, heroic leadership. It is a life beautifully lived, a death beautifully died. What a great example of being a modern-day hero even after his death. Blessings to you and your work.