Yesterday, during the prayers for the dead, a section of each Holy Mass before the Our Father, a beloved-priest monk, deceased some years ago, a dear friend, retreat-master and someone with whom I often exchanged letters filled with spiritual richness – from him I stress – came powerfully anew to my heart and I reflected with come confidence that he is face to face with the Beloved of his life.
After Mass, however I realized I am now deep into, perhaps further along than I suspect, an unexpected journey.
About to face, sometime in the future, as yet totally unknown to me, of not just the journey’s end, but the final stage of a battle I have been engaged in for over seventy years!
In many ways the entire journey through life, what is actually a pilgrimage to the Absolute, is, if not purely an unexpected journey, certainly a journey filled with, sometime fraught with, the unexpected.
From the moment in chronological time the Holy Trinity breathes life into us, with the cooperative love of a man and a woman, who co-create new life with the Trinity, we have begun the journey.
The first door we pass through, the first complete stage of the journey is through the door from within our mother’s heart and womb out into the birth-reality from the, as it were, enclosed universe within her, into the ever-expanding universe from life at home, to life away from home, on a planet itself but one place within an even greater universe.
Change, movement, experience, growth, aging, joys, tears, success, failure, love, love lost, hopefully found again, the ebb and flow of friendships and perhaps encounters with enemies – yes the journey is one of constant discovery, of learning, of choosing.
For we human beings created in the image and likeness of God with the immortal soul breathed into us, our body, with its senses, mind, will, imagination, emotions, is not the sum of being: being is who we are, mindful the soul gives form to the body and the body itself is a temporary abode.
We are in a sense nomads on the journey carrying the ‘tent’ of our bodies wherever we go.
For us then death is but the final and greatest doorway which when passed through allows us to step into the reality of true being, into an immensity greater than the entire created universe, a place of no more tears, neediness, nor lack of love and beauty because it is our true home, which is the place of everlasting communion of love with the Holy Trinity: the real purpose of our being.
That said these more than seventy years death and I have been in a battle wherein mostly I have used my wits and energies, and since ordained, my priestly power to frustrate death at every turn.
I realize now that death at some point, I know not when exactly, will turn and no longer flee from me the pursuer but will come towards me and this time – though I admit as yet I lack enough faith and trust to do so – I will stop, stand, wait and, if granted the grace of absolute faith and trust, surrender to death’s embrace, confident the embrace is not my being overcome or destroyed, rather death’s embrace is actually the door being flung open!
Two passages come to mind at this juncture. The first from the Holy Gospel:
Then Jesus told His disciples, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? [cf. Mt.16:24-26]
And from St. Paul:
Bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God. He saved us and called us to a holy life, not according to our works but according to his own design and the grace bestowed on us in Christ Jesus before time began, but now made manifest through the appearance of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. [2 Tim. 1:8-10]
There sure are lots of ‘heroic’ ways to deny ourselves and some are called to do so, such as those who voluntarily give up all the security of marriage, family etc., to embrace the monastic, religious, priestly life.
However, I would argue the true heroic way is to embrace what Jesus is asking by being faithful to the duty of the moment, as moms do when their baby needs to be fed at two in the morning, as dad’s do when going to work each day, what they both do at day’s end by giving the children all the attention they need during supper and bedtime rituals. THAT is self-denial in spades!
Self-gift to other, in marriage, parenthood, priesthood, in military service, policing, teaching, shelf-stocking in a grocery store, etc., etc. – the fullness of what Christ asks is not to be found in any particular vocation or profession, rather it is within our vocation/profession living out the simple principle: God first, the other second and I am third.
This is also how we live out what St. Paul is asking through the strength we get from God: when it seems we are just way too fried to carry on, way too ‘giving’ empty to spare another drop, we can draw upon the strength of the very grace Jesus asked for in the Garden: “Not my will but Yours be done”, the grace of strength is the very grace we ask in the Our Father: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Again, it has taken more than seventy years of the unexpected journey for me to barely begin to embrace the above, much less live it out!
Death, in my experience through most of my life, is a sneak, a thief, arbitrary, sometimes cruel, occasionally as unexpectedly quick with the speed of a striking snake, at other times lingers for no apparent reason, and throughout human history is often in league with pandemics, warmongers and terrorists and not infrequently a co-conspirator with people who hate.
That said my first experience of this sneakiness of death was when I was a small child just after the war, during family supper when suddenly my Grandmother moaned, clutched her chest and fell to the floor.
She was dead.
In those days, deceased family were waked in the home and so within hours there she was in the open casket, cold, stiff to the touch and my battle with death had begun – death the sneak, death the quick, death the thief.
Within seemingly quick succession over the next couple of years my Great Uncle, who in many respects was dead in body and spirit from his First World War wounds, was gone, quickly at the end, and then my Grandfather, with him death lingered cruelly and his death filled me with both anger and a grief, I admit, which sometimes these sixty plus years later still pains.
First in the newspapers, then in magazines, and books, in the years immediately after the Second World War, pictures of the concentration camps, and the victims of death’s abode piled like tossed debris, as well as pictures of emaciated survivors, men, women, children, were rather common both because of the Nuremburg trials, and because everyone was trying to do the impossible: understand how this could have happened.
I remember my first perusal of a book about the camps, likely I was by then five or six and already possessed with a mind of keen observation, analysis and memory. I asked the Aunt whose home I was visiting: why the people were naked, that it was wrong for people to have their picture taken when they had no clothes on.
She gently re-opened the book which I had slammed shut in disgust and explained things to me.
This did two things within me: made me from then on fiercely opposed to war, discrimination, hatred and made me see death even more as the enemy.
Some years later death as the cruel co-conspirator with disease was brought home to me and seared me deeply emotionally during the polio epidemic.
Many children, including classmates, died, and an awful lot of those afflicted ended up in what were called iron lungs.
I remember when we were given the polio vaccine after the epidemic sensing this battle death had now lost!
When I was sixteen the seductive sneakiness of death tried to overpower me.
I was working, having left home two years before, high in the rafters of a barn replacing the rotted boards of a catwalk and could look down from my perch, through the immense and empty hayloft, it was the beginning of summer and the cattle were on pasture, down all the way to the cement floor and this idea took hold, telling me how easy it would be just to let myself fall and then all the adolescent angst, the pain, the confusion, the disenchantment with life would be over.
At the time, when eventually I completed the job and got down to the barn floor the normal way, by the ladders, I had no idea why I did not let myself fall, did not surrender to death.
Today I know it was grace.
Not a grace I was consciously aware of or said a clear yes to at the time, but a grace nonetheless.
The grace of the power of the constitutive passion to live placed in all of us at our creation.
In life each moment of each day is preparation for life forever with Him, if in each moment, no matter the particular pain or darkness, we choose life!
As we know the repercussions of WWII rippled throughout the remainder of the 20th century with a seemingly endless series of civil wars and revolutions from China to Iran, extending even into the 21st century, as well what became known as proxy wars extended from Korea to Vietnam to Afghanistan; civil rights movements and other struggles, sometimes indirectly, sometimes deliberately, increased assassinations of political and civil rights leaders, opponents of oppressive regimes; plagues from AIDS to Zika unfolded along with terrorism from the Red Brigades to Al Qaeda to ISIS, while even today famine is death’s chariot to move among whole nations.
Within such chaos comes another type of death: that of rational morality, common sense and social cohesion unravels.
There are today, since the end of the 20th century fewer democratic governments around the world, a growing gap between rich and poor, an angry clamoring for ‘rights’, without an equal voice for personal responsibility, and finally people who actually believe and practice, for example their Catholic faith, are becoming a remnant, while others gather on the edges as either extreme fundamentalists or as cafeteria Catholics.
In religions without a solid base of central wisdom and guidance, such as Catholics have in the person of the Pope, extremists misuse sacred texts to justify their death-dealing angry illusions.
Our greatest concern should not be the debated impact on climate by human activity, rather it should be the persistent de-humanizing of the human family, a far greater and more immediate unfolding of death with the spread of abortion, euthanasia, the dismantling of the family as a sacred relationship between a man and woman and the children issued from their love.
I will admit I went through a period overly influenced by the above matters and did not lose but decidedly rejected and walked away from Catholic faith and praxis.
It was in the midst of those dark years, before my conversion of return to Catholic faith and practice, that death showed me its cruelty and claim to power in the work I was doing, always I might add on the graveyard shift.
No irony there!
One night the homicide detectives asked everyone on that shift to find time to go to the morgue and see if we could recognize, as a person with a name, a body dragged out of the river.
Since my own duty required me, while on patrol, to answer calls across the whole city it was not until two in the morning that I had time to respond.
There in the morgue was the body of a young man, perhaps in his mid-twenties, who had been severely tortured before being executed.
I stood there, not able to make an identification, but lingering, wondering if a mother or father, a wife or children, a lover or friend was wondering where he was, what had happened to him?
It seemed to me, as anger welled within me about the way humans cooperate with death in the brutal way this man’s life had been taken, that maybe death was too powerful, maybe I should stop trying to beat death.
Then, inside of my mind or heart or…….somehow I heard yet not hearing as in when someone else is speaking, but heard in a depth of my being I’d been ignoring for decades: “You will remember him in your first Mass and pray for his soul and he will be granted peace.”
Terrified, I fled the morgue.
Fifteen years later during my ordination Mass I remembered him, prayed for him, and continue do so each anniversary of my ordination for more than thirty years already.
During my years serving as a parish priest, as is true for all priests, death and I met often: in hospitals, nursing homes, prisons, family homes, at scenes of highway accidents.
The prescribed prayers of the Church within the Sacrament of the Sick administered to the dying make it clear death’s victory is illusory for Christ is greater, the same within the prayers for the deceased during the wake and funeral Mass where the emphasis is that life has not ended but changed, changed because Christ IS risen!
While intellectually I believed all the truth Jesus and the Church teach about the resurrection of the body and life forever in communion of love with the Most Holy Trinity, deep within my being there remained doubt.
Until one year when I was on sabbatical I was able to participate in a Byzantine liturgy commemorating the burial of Christ.
At the end of Vespers, as I experienced it almost twenty years ago, four acolytes held the icon high enough that, led by the bishop and priests, followed by the congregation, we processed under it, having to bend low, as if to enter the tomb in which Christ was buried.
But unlike the enclosed tomb, we came out on the other side!
My entire being experienced, finally without doubt or hesitation, the truth of entering death with, in, through Christ as the unexpected final steps of the journey.
"Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" [1 Cor. 5:55]
In the late 90’s Jean Vanier gave the lectures in the CBC Massey Lectures Series, which talks were eventually published in a book called BECOMING HUMAN: “We human beings are all fundamentally the same. We all belong to a common, broken humanity. We all have wounded, vulnerable hearts. Each one of us needs to feel appreciated and understood; we all need help.”
That word from Jean Vanier serves me as a reminder this unexpected journey will someday be not the symbolic bending, entering, emerging from a liturgical gesture of death, burial, resurrection, but the actual entering and emerging.
Therefore I, and all the elderly, must embrace a humble willingness to risk others, the younger, stronger in particular, seeing our brokenness, woundedness, vulnerability, neediness and reach out for any help needed.
It also means, in union with the often rejected and lonely Christ, peacefully accepting the response to our need may not be instantaneous.
If we love those we need, then we will trust their love in return and be patient.
Jesus tells us: Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come…….So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. [cf. Mt.24:42&44]
However, there is no need to fear the last footsteps of the journey for Jesus promises us: Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. [cf.Jn.14-16]
At journey’s end, in the most unexpected moment, we will not be alone, He will be with us.