Standing on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City on May 7, 2019, I hugged the mother of a former student I had taught at Yale, John Aroutiounian, who died tragically of cancer at the age of 26. When I delivered John’s eulogy earlier that day, I clutched a rosary from Medjugorje in my hand as I told John’s friends and family that I fervently believed that if God would allow the tragic death of one of the most brilliant students I have ever taught, he would work miracles in other ways.
Less than 11 months later, on March 31, 2020, John’s mother Rouzan told me that her husband Aris had died of COVID in New York. I clutched my phone in disbelief and wept, alone at home. Aris’s death was not the miracle I had so firmly expected. As John neared his young death, I told him I do not have a perfect answer to why God might let him suffer and die so young. Nor can I explain why God would allow a second tragic loss to the same family in under a year.
During his battle against cancer, I promised John that if he miraculously lived, I would go with him and his parents on a Marian pilgrimage. When he died on May 3, 2019, I felt called to keep my promise anyway. I spent my birthday on August 25, 2019, at the Marian pilgrimage site of Fatima, Portugal, keeping that promise.
More than just a student of mine and a collaborator, I thought of John like a son, someone with whom I could share intellectual jousting but also the ups and downs, joys, and sorrows and big questions of life. When I wrote him a letter of recommendation for a full scholarship to study law at Columbia University—one more of a long list of prestigious awards he won—I never dreamed that less than a year later, and just two weeks after he turned 26, I would be delivering his eulogy.
My first day in Fatima, I arrived early to the Chapel of the Apparitions to attend Mass. In case I had any doubt that God hears my prayers (which I often do), someone walked up and asked if I would read the prayers of the faithful at Mass. I was escorted right next to the altar built at the exact spot where Mary appeared six times to the young Portuguese peasants in 1917, asking them to pray the rosary for world peace and to offer their suffering for the salvation of sinners.
As I shed tears during the Eucharist, I knew I had received a special sign that I am not alone in my suffering. God hears my cries. God wants to give me his comfort.
On my birthday only three years earlier in 2016, John showed up at my new home in Princeton with a gift: Augusto Del Noce’s book, The Crisis of Modernity, which had recently been translated by Carlo Lancellotti. Why did he passionately insist we launch a program through the nonprofit I started, Scala Foundation, to discuss what Del Noce calls the death of the sacred and its impact on culture, politics, and identity? John got so excited about Del Noce because, having studied philosophy and law at Yale and Oxford before going to Columbia Law, he recognized in his own experience the social impact of a shift in philosophical anthropology—the basic question of who we are as humans—that Del Noce describes.
Drawing on the work of philosopher Max Scheler, Del Noce describes the consequences of as a shift from homo sapiens to homo faber in how we understand our humanity. In his essay Man in History, Scheler wrote that from the view of the human person as homo sapiens in the ancient Greek philosophy, what makes us different than animals is our rationality. Our very rationality that leads to the very idea that something other than us exists, something transcendent—not something in us, but something greater than us and also capable of interacting with us.
This rational openness to transcendence contrasts with what Scheler calls homo faber, a view of the human person as essentially made up of drives to satisfy one or another basic need for survival, power, money, or sex. For homo faber, we are not dependent on anything but ourselves. Even our spiritual experiences are somehow contained within us. Our religious rituals are really just more tools we create to get what we really want in this world. In my own research and teaching in sociology, philosophy of social science and practical theology, I am concerned about what happens when we describe human experiences of suffering and resilience without a metaphysical language of transcendence.
As he neared death, I reminded John what we had read together from Del Noce in the Scala summer seminar: without a metaphysical language of transcendence, human hope loses its connection to something sacred, other and unbounded by human nature. Our culture so often uses the word hope without the vertical dimension of dependence on God. Hope then becomes synonymous with changing oneself, self-control, or creating tools to master our environment. My own experiences of suffering have broken my illusion of self-mastery. When I acknowledge my dependence on a creator, I awaken to the reality that joy and beauty can be experienced even in the midst of suffering.
I reminded John that our faith tells us that with human hope comes the reality that we are destined for eternal life and our suffering is not meaningless. As his suffering grew worse, John told me he experienced that piercing beauty that is the presence of Jesus and he would accept his young death if God took him. John’s acceptance of his early death and his powerful encounters with Jesus as he suffered were a witness to his loved ones of the reality of our eternal home. In my eulogy to John, I reassured John’s grieving loved ones that we shall see John again and he will call us by name. Together we shall rejoice with him in the presence of our creator.
Shortly after John died, I read the papal encyclical Spe Salvi, on Christian hope, by Pope Benedict XVI. He writes that Christian hope is not a promise we will avoid suffering or triumph over evil; Christian hope in a God who promises to walk with us through the valley of death (Psalm 23). The death of a young person like John, and now the death his father and tens of thousands of others due to COVID, calls out for the language hope grounded in faith, transcendence, presence, awareness, and love; not a hope that is grounded in our modern illusions of progress, control, and efficiency.
Christian hope is not the same as progress, understood as overcoming dependency and achieving greater and greater autonomy by using reason, strategic rationality, and manipulating things with technology and science. Christian hope is grounded in faith that we are creatures of God—that he loves us, and by depending on him, we can walk through the darkness of life.
When a loved one dies, our hearts long for the future reunion to become real in the here and now. Christian rituals are so powerful precisely because they open our hearts to a deeper reality that is present now. The many rituals I participated in at Fatima—the Mass, Eucharistic adoration, the rosary, acts of penance—are all enactments of my connection to a reality that exists already but it is beyond immediate appearances. At times my prayers will seem to go unanswered and I will be sorrowful. But the answer is already there in my heart—my faith gives me hope in eternal life and with that hope I can always grow in love. As Benedict wrote, faith brings the future into the present:
Faith is not merely a personal reaching out towards things to come that are still totally absent: it gives us something . . . Faith draws the future into the present, so that it is no longer simply a “not yet.” The fact that this future exists changes the present; the present is touched by the future reality.
Spe Salvi pushes us to ask: Why do we have hope at all? Having traveled to a holy place for my birthday, the “why” I live seemed to be exactly what I was doing in Fatima because I encountered a “who”: a loving God, whom I can serve and praise in this life, and who consoles me in my sorrow. As Benedict explains:
God is the foundation of hope; not any god, but the God who has a human face and who has loved us to the end, each one of us and humanity in its entirety . . . his Kingdom is present whenever he is loved and wherever his love reaches us. His love alone gives us the possibility of soberly persevering day by day, without ceasing to be spurred on by hope, in a world which by its very nature is imperfect.
People of faith must do what we can to reduce suffering, and to console people who suffer. But people of faith have something more to offer to those in sorrow. Our faith and hope as Christians are neither naïve progressivism nor a pessimistic nihilism.
When I hugged John on his deathbed and sobbed, when I hugged his mother on the steps of St. Patrick’s and sobbed, and when I clutched my phone and sobbed with Rouzan as she told me her husband had died, my love and pain were simply tiny signs of a love we all participate in that is greater than all of our suffering. It is that love I went to Fatima searching for; it is that love my life and my work has to give witness to or else I will fail in my role as a teacher and scholar; it is that love I depend on to have hope.
Signs of that love have come to me in the many gestures of hope and comfort from my loved ones in the past year. The sublime joy of love even in the midst of sorrow reminds me that there is a place where our tears will be no more. I have also had moments when I have felt John’s absence acutely and I find it hard to have hope. I hang my head in disbelief, and the tears return. But because I have the gift of faith, eventually I feel John’s presence return in my heart.
In Fatima on my birthday last August, in a mysterious but real way, my desires were fulfilled: John was present with me. Since then, I had several moments where I am certain John is with me somehow, mysteriously. One of them was the day his father died. The day John’s father Aris died, after crying most of the day and laying all alone on my couch in Princeton, I joined a nightly COVID Zoom call with my mother and siblings to pray the rosary. My brother’s youngest child, five-year-old Gabby, normally skips the rosary.
But that day, Gabby walked up to the camera of her dad’s cell phone and with a giant smile held up the rosary from Fatima I had given her for her birthday. Then she sat next to her mother, asked instructions on how to make the Sign of the Cross, offered to lead us in the Our Father, and tried to repeat the 50 Hail Marys while counting on the rosary beads.
Although miracles that suspend the usual laws of nature can happen, the everyday miracle of a child’s love is a sign that even when we feel alone, God’s love abides in us. Although she had no idea how sad I was, her gestures were a sign of John comforting me, as he knew that her love made me happier than anything else.
When I came back from Fatima last year, I told Gabby I was there because I was sad that my friend John died. “After someone dies, will we all be together again?” Gabby asked with fervent curiosity and solemn seriousness. “Yes,” I explained. “When we die, we all go home to God, and he brings us together again. But even here on earth, I told her, God is always with us.” “And we all have a guardian angel,” she piped in. Her face lit up with wonder when I told her, “When my friend John was near death, an angel visited me and told me he would pray for me and my friend who was dying. If you are ever alone and feel scared, don’t forget Gabby, that you can talk to your guardian angel and to Mary, the mother of Jesus.” She held the rosary I had given her and asked me if I had told her mommy I had seen a real angel. If such a wonderful thing had occurred, she must have thought, why would I not tell everyone the good news?
Another time I have sensed John present was on Holy Saturday in 2020, when I organized a video conference call to pray for the souls of John and Aris and for anyone else grieving a loss. Faces popped on to the screen from Armenia to London to New York to Kentucky to California and many places in between. We were all in isolation, and suddenly all together to mourn without touching. We were strangers many of us, we were different ethnicities and faiths, but we were united by the love of John, Aris and Rouzan. We could see each other to share in our grief.
Bishop Daniel Findikian of the Armenian Orthodox Church in the United States started the call chanting the traditional Armenian rite of prayer for the dead. Then one by one, friends shared memories of John and Aris. Both father and son had accomplished great things in their lives, but what everyone remembered them for was their humility, warmth and hospitality. Their love extended not just their own family and friends, but also to the least in this world, the outsider, the homeless, the newcomer, the struggling. Just like the disease spreading all across the world, but in the opposite direction, their love knew no boundaries.
Although the grief of a woman who has lost her only son and husband in under a year is unspeakable, Rouzan told me she is consoled by a vision of John and Aris hugging each other in heaven, rejoicing to be together again. Although we cannot go on pilgrimages right now, prayer conference calls are just one of many ways we make present the love we each received from John and Aris and all of our loved ones, spreading that love faster than this disease can ever move.