Saturday, June 30, 2012

You Are In Line to Die

Yesterday morning I offered the Funeral Mass for a longtime parishioner.  Whenever I think of Bill, I think of his hands.  You could not help but notice when you met him that the tips of his fingers were missing.  That was the result of his being shot during the Korean War and left for dead in the snow for two days. He lost the tips of his fingers and toes as a result of frostbite. Probably the first time I recall meeting Bill was at the wake of his daughter some twelve years ago.  When she died, she left a husband and five little sons.  The image of that father and his young sons kneeling at the casket has always stayed with me.  Today at the funeral, I saw those five--not so little--sons again.  In addition to losing a daughter, Bill and his wife also lost a son.  Their married life of 57 years has known some extraordinry sorrow.  And yet, week after week, there they'd be at Mass--Semper Fidelis--always faithful.

After Bill's burial, I ran a quick errand, came back to the rectory for lunch, and then went to the wake of a fourteen year old boy named Marc who suffered a sudden medical difficulty and died.  At the wake, his parents, two little brothers, and I had a brief moment together.  We held hands, talked, and prayed.  By all accounts, Marc was as good a kid as he looked.  And he looked like a good kid.  He had a boyish smile and a kind face.  He always struck me as a kid who was filled with a lot of goodness.  That opinion was confirmed over and over again yesterday by every person who spoke to me.  But, everyone also wore a question upon their face: "Why?"
In part because I am unable to be at the funeral for this young boy, I spent a longer time than usual at the wake.  I sat on a bench outside the funeral home for a couple of hours and spoke to whomever wanted to talk.  While I wasn't talking, I just observed hundreds of persons as they passed by me on their way inside. Politicians, teachers, coaches, elderly folks, and young children all waited in line and conversed about the unfairness of this young boy's death.  As I watched, a question came to my mind?  "Do they think about the fact that they too are going to die?"  If a fourteen year old--seemingly healthy--young boy can suddenly die, what about the rest of us?  How is it possible that people can attend a wake like this and not change the way that they live?

Then I thought, "Forget about them.  Am I changed by this?  Does this event make me think more about my own death?"  The death of this young boy ought to bring to my attention the fact that death can come at any moment.  And yet, death always seems to come as a surprise to us.  Even when a person is in her nineties, her death somehow catches us off guard.  And yet, every day we open the papers and find a whole section dedicated to notices of death.  I cannot say much about all of those people in line yesterday at that wake, but one thing I can guarantee is that they are going to die.  But, I don't think that they were thinking about it.  Perhaps I wouldn't have thought about it unless I had sat down on that bench for a couple of hours.

Don't get me wrong.  The people in that line yesterday were doing a good thing.  And they were deeply sorrowed by the event.  They wept, hugged, consoled, and supported one another.  They are people who do all sorts of good things in their life.  They coach teams, volunteer for events, drive their kids to all sorts of practices and games, and some go to church.  But, are they thinking about the fact that they too are going to die and are they prepared for their own death?  In a few days, will they go back to life as usual until the next time they have to go and wait in that line?  Am I prepared for my own death?  Or will that day catch me off guard?

The last thing I am going to do in this life is die.  I know that.  It may occur when I am old or it may occur suddenly and without warning.  I know that today I am one day closer to my death than I was yesterday.  Am I more prepared for my death today than I was yesterday? 

Without faith, death simply marks the disappearance of our life.  We vanish.  In that case, there's not much point in preparing for death.  It is just an inevitable and random event that has no more significance than a leaf falling from a tree.  Or, perhaps without faith we still provide ourselves with some vague notion of an afterlife where people conosle themselves by saying, "He's looking down on us right now" or "She will live forever in our hearts."  We reduce the "afterlife" to the person's memory living in our hearts.  But, the fact is, our hearts are soon going to the grave as well.  Faith makes a difference.

The more we grow in faith, the more we do those things that prepare us for own death.  Bill--whom I mentioned above--was seen in the last days of his life, still praying the Rosary at night.  He was a man of Faith. He was a man preparing for death.  In many ways, the Church exists in order to help us to die well.  The question isn't, "Am I going to die?"  The question is, "Am I going to die well?"  Am I going to go before the judgment seat of God and be prepared--truly prepared--to give an account for my life?  When I die, will the last words on my lips be a prayer?  The best way to make certain of that is to be a man who prays now. 

The best way to die well is to live well.  The best way to live well is to live as a man who remembers he is going to die.  All of those people waiting in line yesterday reminded me that they too were walking towards their own deaths.  It didn't matter how old or young they were.  We are all in the line.  We can stand in that line with a certain sense of inevitability and hopelessness.  In that case, death is just something that happens to us.  Or, we can stand in that line with our eyes wide open and be fully engaged in the procession towards death and eternal life.  We can stand in that line as people who are going somewhere or we can stand in that line as people who act as though the line is all there is. 

As I just typed those words, I looked out my office window (it is 6:15 in the morning) and I saw Maria--an Italian immigrant--who is one of the older women who comes to our 7am Mass each morning.  As she passed by the rectory yard, she stopped and paused before the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  She blessed herself three times and made a small sign of reverence.  Why did she do that?  She did that because she knows that she is in line.

When we live by Faith, we live in the line with greater joy and purpose.  We live as people who are on our way somewhere.  We live with Christ now, we die with Christ, we rise with Christ, and we live with Christ eternally. 

Are you ready to die because that's the line you are in?

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