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Elegy for Ellie

I sat with Ellie as she gently slipped into a deep sleep today. In fact, I had slept with her, worked with her, and cried with her for much of the last week. ‘Slipped’; ‘fell asleep’; ‘passed away’. So many euphemisms to avoid the difficulty, the permanency. What I mean is that Ellie died.

For clarity, dear reader, Ellie is my cat. Lest you think that the above is all rather melodramatic – though pet lovers amongst you will understand – Ellie had a particular significance for me. She had nursed me through a serious illness, never leaving my side when I most needed her. Aside from my wife, she is possibly the ‘person’ who knows me best. So it was that I wouldn’t leave her side when she most needed me.

It was heart-wrenching. It was also beautiful. The paradox of beauty in death has always struck me whenever I have had the honour of sitting with a dying person.

In those long waiting-hours, I reflected a lot on beauty. And more than that: in the wee small hours, my mind wandered to the transcendentals beloved of the ancient philosophers.

For Plato and Aristotle, the world had genuine meaning and purpose. The transcendentals (from the Latin ‘transcendere’ meaning ‘to exceed’) for them were indicators of, and pointers towards, this fundamental meaning. They saw these cosmic values as truth (that which defines reality), goodness (that which fulfils its purpose), and beauty (that which is lovely).

Although the concept has been greatly elaborated by subsequent thinkers, most particularly the medieval scholasticism of Aquinas and others, the transcendentals enabled cosmic purpose and meaning to be knowable by the noble seeker.

In a small, but hugely significant way, the pain of separation from a loved one opened my eyes afresh to the importance of the concept of the transcendentals, but not just as metaphysical concepts.

There is no denying, for me, the fundamental goodness that lay at the heart of my relationship with Ellie – the outpouring of love that drove her to implant herself at my side when my illness was overwhelming. Neither is there for me any doubt of the reality of the bond which joined us then – and joins us still – the truth of that relationship of love. And in all that lay – and lies – profound, if indescribable, beauty.

And if all this is captured in such glory through a relationship with a beloved pet, how much more so can a human relationship transcend our expectations and point us towards surprising insights into the nature of our existence.

Whatever metaphysical or theological framework, or none, that we embrace to navigate the complexities of human existence, we all would do well from time to time to reflect upon the concept of the transcendentals to inform our approach to the world and each other, and to use those insights to refresh and bring balance and purpose to our lives as we navigate the complexities (and sometimes the horrors) of our world.

Shortly after Ellie’s death, my wife and I, still grieving, embarked on a business trip to Africa. We were greeted with warmth and love by some people that I already knew, and by many that we didn’t. In the kindness of friends and strangers alike, we were given another glimpse of truth, goodness, and beauty for which we are immensely grateful.

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