Remembering Ivan Illich

On Monday, December 2, 2002, Barbara Duden called me from Bremen, Germany. Here in Philadelphia where I now live it was about half-past twelve noon, and we were eating lunch. She said that Ivan Illich had died that morning.

Since I had seen Ivan in September, and since we had such a good talk at that time, I was reluctant to attend the planned funeral. Barbara would be surrounded by good friends.

That afternoon and evening I started calling and sending emails to people on this side of the Atlantic. One answer, for example, from Gustavo Esteva, contained a column for the Mexico City newspaper, Reforma on Ivan's death; he had already written this!

The next morning, I continued contacting people. In the afternoon a Bremen friend, Antje Menk called, saying that the young people there (Silja Samerski and Matthias Rieger, I guess) were insisting that I come, and she was sending a ticket. I was unable, then, to finish going through my list of people to notify.

I called Peter Bohn, another Illich friend in Philadelphia, since we had agreed to meet downtown the next day after a demonstration against the war in front of the Federal Building; I told him I was going to Germany and would not be there to meet him.

He said he, too, would check on a ticket. Later, he called back to say he had a ticket for me that evening to Frankfurt. Then Samar Farage called from Germany to say that they couldn't buy a ticket for me from that side of the Atlantic. I explained that Peter had just bought me an electronic ticket. I had a few minutes to pack and get to the airport.

Arriving in Frankfurt, I took a train to Bremen. In the train station, I was joyfully surprised to find Michael Aiwanger, a young friend, there to meet me. He took a chance that I would come in on that train! We walked to Barbara's home, getting there shortly after 3 p.m.

Michael had seen Ivan early Monday morning, and they talked about a seminar Ivan was to direct on the weekend. Ivan said he was tired and lay down on a futon in the living room. Michael left and, some minutes later Silja, who lives down the street, came in (she has a key to the house), and found him dead. Barbara, who was in Hanover at her teaching job, had spoken to Ivan on the phone about noon.

When I arrived at the house, each person, Barbara especially, warmly embraced me; I felt embarrassed by such a genuine outpouring of affection. I entered the front room and found the body of Ivan resting on the futon where he had died. A burning candle and cut flowers stood nearby ... a symbol of life ... an image of death.

Using the Breviary that contained the Latin Vulgate, the one Ivan and I said each day whenever we were together, I recited some of the Officium defunctorum, the office of the dead.

Wednesday evening was a time to greet old friends who had come for the wake and funeral. So many good people, all of whom had been introduced to me by Ivan since the time I first visited him in Germany in 1978 ... some now close friends.

Early Thursday morning we lifted the body into a plain wooden coffin, and the lid was screwed down with finger-nuts.

The large church of St. Johann was nearly filled the next morning for the Mass. Various friends of Ivan participated in the ceremonies, well arranged by Wolfgang Sachs. The pastor, Propst Ansgar L�ttel, who had been to see Ivan some days earlier, spoke the homily/eulogy, acknowledging his awareness of who the man, Ivan Illich, was.

Many of those at the Mass gathered in the chapel of the distant cemetery, Oberneul�nder, for a short service, then proceeded to the gravesite for the burial. I was especially impressed by the ceremony in which each person present went up to the open grave and threw a handful of dirt on the lowered coffin; some also threw flowers.

All were then directed to a hotel for coffee and a bowl of soup. For some, it was the last event of the celebration, since they had to return to their jobs and homes.

My final feeling was one of joy. Various factors together, not in any order, contributed to this feeling. From reports of those persons who were present, the meeting between Ivan and Propst L�ttel, some days before Ivan's death, was most cordial and filled with understanding. In the light of this report, I must regard the visit, especially the time the two of them were together alone, as a grace-filled moment for Ivan.

At the church, just before the Mass, a young man came up to greet and embrace me. Almost ten years earlier there had been a serious break between him and Ivan ... from close intimacy to anger, distance, pain on both sides. He and Ivan never again spoke to one another.

Before and after the break, I visited him, stayed with his parents, and tried to be a friend; we had been quite close. Because of his lack of enthusiasm for my visits, several years ago I had stopped traveling to the town where he lived.

He traveled five hours to get to the funeral, and had to return home almost immediately after the ceremonies for his teaching duties the next day. He came back to Bremen to see me on Saturday and Sunday; we had long talks. I think that much of the woundedness that divided him and Ivan is now healed.

Another person, a young woman, was also bitterly estranged from Ivan. She had moved from a close friendship to a kind of smoldering anger. She and I had also been good friends, but I had not seen her for two or three years. While in Bremen, I sent her a greeting card, and received an immediate friendly reply by email (sent to the Illich email address). She was happy to hear from me, and invited me to come visit her and her family.

These three events were beyond what I could have hoped for ... they do not respond to my sense of causality ... they are, strictly speaking, gratuitous gifts, manifestations of a merciful Providence.

Well, maybe. They may also represent a kind of higher superstition, that is, my superstition. True, they are signs, but signs of what? I take them to be signs of grace. But the very fact that I interpret them in this way may indicate a superstitious need in me ... I need signs of grace (there's a hard saying in the New Testament in which the Lord rebukes those who seek signs; see, e.g. Mk. 8.12).

I regard these events as a blessing on Ivan's life, as indicating a good far beyond what even the most perceptive eulogists will be able to cite. They indicate the important aspect of Ivan's stance: How he stands before God ... (again, maybe!).

Ivan suffered from physical pain, which, as far as I could tell, was constant and almost unremitting ..., and this for some years. I think he also suffered certain effects from the opium that he took to help bear the pain, but as I don't know anything about the physical pain, I know even less about the effects of opium. He was also greatly and increasingly distressed in his attempts to be a friend to different people.

I think, however, beyond all the above, he experienced another terrible pain: the inability to say what he wanted to say: about the corruptio optimi , the misterium iniquitatis , the relationship between these two realities, their respective relationships to the world and to the Church, and the interrelationships of all these complex cultural/historical/ecclesiastical, divine affairs.

In our long conversations on these themes, the struggle and frustration were evident ... and awful to witness. He who had said so much so well in his life was now unable to speak. And he was acutely aware of his inability to articulate what he vaguely felt to be the truth.

Given the other pains and sufferings, maybe especially the long-range effects of the opium, it was impossible for him ever to overcome this final confusion. Therefore, I felt it was good that he died sooner rather than later. In a sense, it was already years too late.

David Cayley is now working on some tapes he recorded in which Ivan attempts to make a last statement. I've read most of the transcripts and there are nearly insuperable problems ... of clarity and theological precision. But maybe Cayley can pull off what he did with the life and thought of Simone Weil! From her eminently difficult writings, he put together a magnificent intellectual/witness portrait.

So, my overall feeling is one of immense gratitude. Ivan Illich suffered various quite different kinds of pain in the days, weeks, months, and final years preceding his death. All that is now swallowed up in the fulfillment of his faith.

Lee Hoinacki


January 2002

Social philosopher Lee Hoinacki, a former Dominican priest, university professor, and subsistence farmer, is author of Stumbling Toward Justice and is coeditor of The Challenges of Ivan Illich .