As the saying goes: “Nothing is certain but death and taxes.” But taxes you can avoid and evade; death — not so. Therefore, the only logical response to death is to embrace it…or at least accept it. After all, it’s not like we have a choice.
While traveling back from dropping off a son for college in Oregon last week, we attended Mass in Missoula, MT at St. Francis Xavier church. During the prayers of intercession, one prayer caught my attention: “For all who have died, for all who are going to die and for all who are afraid to die.”
That last one — all who are afraid to die — stood out for me. “Isn’t that just about everyone?” I thought. Yet, many years ago, I realized there was only one thing to do about death — to make a friend of it and think of it often.
Life through Death
At first glance, thinking of death seems morbid. Death hardly seems like a cheerful thought the day. But I contend that it is just that — or at least it can be a holy way to get through the day. And with holiness comes peace and ultimately joy. The opposite would be to try to deny death. That would be a depressing and hopelessly futile endeavor. Death is coming for us all so the sooner we make peace with it the sooner we can get on with living.
In the book Amazing Grace for Surivors (Ascension Press) there is a story titled “The Gift of Cancer.” In it, Richard J. Cusack, Sr. says that God gave him the greatest possible gift. “It was cancer and the fear of dying,” said Cusack. “Through that gift He woke me up and showed me what life is all about and how wonderful it can be when you begin your journey closer to Him.”
Cusack recovered, but during the time he believed he was at death’s doorstep, he prioritized his life very differently than it had been previously and he also began a ministry. “One Friday afternoon at 3:00 p.m. he was sitting in a perpetual adoration chapel, thanking God for all the extra time he had been given. ‘Before I arrive at my final judgment, is there something I can do for you here on earth?’ he asked God. ‘What would be pleasing to you?
He suddenly had an inspiration about making a beautiful holy card with a monstrance on the front and the words, ‘Do you really love me? Then come to me. Visit me before the Blessed Sacrament.’” His first printing of 100 cards quickly ran out and requests for more poured in. Since that time, Cusek has distributed tens of thousands of these cards. It was death that was the inspiration for such living.
Several years ago, I was speaking with Elizabeth (Beth) Matthews, a favorite author of mine who contributed stories to the “Amazing Grace” book series. She was in the middle of yet another move, dealing with all the usual hassles and then some. Beth related to me a phone conversation she had with a relative. “In another hundred years we’ll all be dead and none of this will matter,” she had said.
Her relative was taken aback and said, “Oh Beth, don’t say that.”
But Beth responded: “Why not? It’s true.”
I understand that such a thought is actually not depressing, but freeing. Death puts everything in perspective. Instead of fretting over some irritation, it reminds us that indeed, soon our life on earth and life’s inconveniences will be nothing to us. It reminded me of something my mother used to say to me when I was a girl, whenever I was upset over some trivial thing: “Will it matter in a hundred years from now?”
What if Death Was on Your “To-Do” List Today?
I once read of a monk that was working in the garden when he was asked what he would do if he had one hour left to live. The monk calmly stated that he would not do anything differently, he would continue working in the garden. Many are surprised at such a response since most of us would immediately drop to our knees and pray. But for this monk, he strove to live every moment for God. Thus, he was always ready.
We all know people who spend inordinate amounts of time at work and have many possessions, but don’t go to Mass. If they knew they would come face to face with the Almighty that afternoon, would they change their schedule for the day? Or parents who run their kids all over town for activities, but don’t bother to take them to church on Sunday. If they suddenly learned their child was going to die very soon, would the priorities change?
I actually had the experience of thinking one of my sons had died. When my husband Mark and I came upon our 14-year-old son, he was blue and not breathing. It turned out that he had a seizure and his breathing had been cut off. We were at a lake at a family reunion and it was the middle of the night. Our older son heard him struggling to breathe before he lost consciousness. Mark ran next door for help where his brother, a doctor, was staying. During those tense moments, Mark and I prayed separately. My oldest son and I prayed together and another son did CPR, which he had learned at boy scouts. Mark and I later learned that we prayed with the same thought in mind — that perhaps our son was already gone and it was too late. While we pleaded with God for to save our beloved son, we also acknowledged our acceptance of God’s will. Or course it was an emotional situation. My body shook with shock as I thought with horror that I had not even gotten to say good-bye.
Our son recovered within minutes and never again had another seizure. But our family was left with the experience of death. I told the kids we had been blessed for two reasons. One, our son and brother was still with us and two, we experienced first-hand what it is like to have death come without warning.
I am not in any way trying to lessen the shock and grief one feels over the death of a loved one. I know it is not a one-time feeling, but something that is grieved over and over again. But for Mark and me, the fact that we are in touch with eternity and try to live or it, our first reaction to any death is acceptance — even along with the shock and grief. It is what keeps us grounded and helps us to share the same priorities: God first, everything else second and nothing in the way.
The Divine Jeweler
A few years ago, I heard on the news that former Beatle, George Harrison, had died. For some reason, on this particular occasion, I was immediately struck by the thought that now he was no different than a cleaning woman. His soul lay bare while his fame and fortune remained in this world. The only things he could take with him were the same things we all take with us — the love and service to God and others.
On earth, true value is often clouded by the glitz of the world, but death, like a divine jeweler, appraises life’s true valuables. I need the help of death to do this for me. For instance, I could be dropped into any department store onto any aisle (save the tool section) and find things I want to buy. Linens and towels? Suddenly mine seem so faded and thin. Furniture? Everywhere I look is something I like. One thing that helps to douse my materialistic inclinations it so remind myself that life is passing and nothing that I want to buy is of lasting value.
Someone much wiser than I once likened earthly life to a ship: It is the vessel, not the destination. The only reason we fear death is because we try to make the ship into the destination. That would be like driving across country in a car and then not wanting to get out once we arrived at our desired location.
Don’t think that I am above fearing death or that I’m looking forward to losing my loved ones. I simply have come to terms with the fact that God has promised us eternal life and that it will be better than anything we experience on earth. There’s only one way to get there — through death. And we all have to go sometime.
A favorite prayer of mine which keeps me grounded in this reality is “A Workman’s Prayer to St. Joseph”. Appealing to St. Joseph for a right disposition in our work, it asks for help: “….having always death before my eyes and the account which I must render of time lost, of talents wasted, of good omitted…”
When the inspiration struck for this article, I envisioned that the topic would incite some to imagine me at my computer dressed in black with a humorless expression on my face. Some might wonder what sort of mother I must be to keep death on my thoughts. But instead, it is life that we strive for in our home. The idea is just not to confine ourselves to life on earth but to live in harmony with eternity. Only then do we live life to the fullest.