The subtitle of this memoir is "Meditations upon Returning." Richard John Neuhaus is a Catholic priest and scholar, director of the Institute on Religion in Contemporary Life in New York City and described on the book cover as "one of the foremost authorities on religion in the contemporary world." The book is a meditation on his near-brush with death as a result of colon cancer.

As Fr. Neuhaus describes it, he underwent two colonoscopies to ascertain the cause of persistent abdominal symptoms, but in both cases his colon was pronounced completely normal. However, shortly thereafter, he developed extreme abdominal pain and was taken to the hospital, where emergency surgery was performed and a colon cancer the size of a "big apple" was removed. During the first procedure, the surgeon nicked his patient’s spleen, so a second emergent procedure was required to control hemorrhaging.

The two procedures left Fr. Neuhaus very near death, but he gradually recovered over a period of several months. When introducing the story of his illness, the author comments, "several lawyers have told me my case would make a terrific malpractice suit." (p. 79) But he says he won’t sue, because it would "somehow sully my gratitude for being returned from the jaws of death." (p. 80) In fact, he has considerable praise for his surgeon.

The narrative of Fr. Neuhaus’s illness occupies a relatively small proportion of this memoir. The first three of seven chapters consist of the author’s reflections on the meaning of suffering and death, and especially the existential question of "Why me, now?" (His answer is "Why not?) In chapter five Fr. Neuhaus describes a near-death experience that changed his life, a scene in which he heard two "presences" tell him, "Everything is ready now." In much of the rest of the book, the author examines and rejects the possibility that the experience was a dream or an hallucination. He is convinced that he witnessed the "door" to a more glorious life after death, and this has, in some sense, profoundly changed his present life.


Fr. Neuhaus’s reflections are heavily infused with Catholic theology and scholastic philosophy. Thus, parts of this memoir seem rather academic and may be difficult for the general non-Catholic reader to follow, or to "buy." But the author also includes his personal, existential reflections on the meaning of suffering (see chapter one) and his insightful commentary on our contemporary culture’s discourse regarding death--we seem to talk about death all the time, but we don’t internalize or personalize its meaning.

Fr. Neuhaus says relatively little about his actual medical and nursing care, but the book’s strongest point is his description of what it feels like to be a seriously ill, potentially dying patient. The profound weakness, the loss of interest in "goals," the focusing of concentration, the preoccupation with bodily functions--all these come through with simplicity and clarity.

Fr. Neuhaus’s near-death experience is (to this reader) remarkable for its simplicity as well. No glowing figures, no light at the end of a tunnel, no supernatural discourse about returning to life--simply a deep and difficult to describe, but very meaningful, experience. Whatever this experience might be (chemical, psychological, or spiritual), it seems unquestionably a good thing.


Basic Books

Place Published

New York



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