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A tribute to my friend Don Noll

posted Feb 15, 2018, 5:10 PM by Carmina Chapp
I only knew Don Noll for about four months. And he was already sick with cancer, at age 82, when we first met. My wife, Carrie, first met him at a gathering of people associated with the diocese of Scranton. He invited her to visit his farm and so we did. Don was an organic farmer with a good amount of land and some lovely greenhouses, and we met with him to discuss how his farm could carry on now that he was ill. He was very interested in our farm and its social justice mission and so we had a lovely first meeting. Since then, we introduced Don to another friend of ours who is a horticulturist and the two of them began to make plans for Don's farm. Sadly, Don passed away yesterday at the very beginning of Lent.

What struck me about Don was how life-affirming he was to the very end. He refused to give in to the cynicism about life his disease and advanced age could have induced, and instead was busily making plans for this year's plantings. He probably knew that his remaining time was very short, but he soldiered on, happily, all the same. Rest in peace Don.

But his passing also caused me to reflect on our mortality just a bit. Don, as I said, was an avid organic farmer. He studiously avoided foods and habits that lead to diseases like cancer. He did not smoke, or drink all that often, ate whole organic foods, got tons of exercise and lived his life at a pace that did not induce stress. And yet, he died of cancer. And he died of cancer because all of us die. Despite all of his health affirming habits, Don's immune system aged as he aged. As it does for all of us. And eventually, it was overwhelmed, and Don's body failed him.

I am not trying to be morose or depressing. But in this season of Lent I think the Church does ask us to reflect upon our actions in the light of what our true end is. And our true end is supernatural. None of us will live in our mortal bodies forever. We will all die. And I think this truth is one we Americans try to hide and repress and brush aside precisely as morose and depressive, as noted above. There is a not so subtle cult of bodily immortality in America that is obsessed with "organic this and natural that" - - who else in the world would spend $4.00 for a bottle of designer water? We are inundated every day with a new study linking this or that food or activity to cancer or dementia or whatever. We have people who freeze-dry their bodies at death in order to be thawed out a thousand years from now. We have people openly talking about "downloading" our consciousness to computers once they get more sophisticated. And our entire medical system is predicated upon an idolatry of perceived immortality that this system supposedly will bring us.

I am not saying we should not care for our bodies. They are temples of the Holy Spirit and gifts from God. And to abuse them is sinful. But that is different from denying that our bodies will inevitably die and that we need, therefore, to focus on the eternal things that will make us fit for union with God. The co-owner of our farm, Father John Gribowich, has said to me that one of the greatest pastoral challenges he faces is precisely this American denial of the reality of death. "Nobody thinks, really, that they are going to die" he told me, and he finds this refusal to face death incomprehensible for a Christian. Certainly, death is scary, even for a Christian, because it is the great unknown, the last apocalyptic moment in each of our lives. Fortunately, based on conversations I have had with people who were dying, God does seem to give us tremendous graces to face this moment. But face it we will.

Finally, as a Catholic Worker I would like to point out that there is a social justice component to this as well. The working poor and the destitute do not shop at Whole Foods. They cannot afford it. They shop at places like Walmart and they buy pasta and generic spaghetti sauce and whatever else is on sale, no matter how "carby" or "starchy" or "glycemic" or "non ketonic" or "non organic" or "non vegan" it might be. You will buy that generic pack of 12 chicken thighs on sale for $3.50 no matter how that chicken was raised - - "free range" or in someone's bathtub - - it doesn't matter. It is meat and it is cheap. And so the poor get diseases and die at much higher rates than the rich. The poor do not have the luxury of cheating death and of denying its final provenance in our lives.

I remind myself of this sad fact every time I shop for groceries and I am tempted to spend money on things like "organic dark chocolate bars" and "super fantastic, super antioxidant, super wonderful, super immortal, first pressing Olive Oil" for $20.00 a quart. I am not saying we all need now to eat unhealthfully just because the poor do. I think God does want us to eat the natural and wholesome foods of this earth that he has created. And our farm is devoted to bringing just those kinds of foods to the poor. But I am saying, in this season of Lent, that we reflect on our mortality and on the fact we are all going to die, and how our lifestyle choices should reflect a concern for the fact that when we meet our Lord, as we all will, he will ask us what we did for the poor.

End of ramblings.
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