Sometimes the good Lord gives us a chance to see the fork in the road before we even get there, so that we might have time to think it over. Such was the case when, in a span of a few weeks, I was confronted with two distinct views on death and two distinct ways of dying. In one was the illusion of self-mastery; in the other, the radical surrender of self.
But I’m getting too far ahead of myself, so let me start by saying this: I don’t always remember the homilies our parish priest gives, try as I might. I usually lay the blame for this not on myself but on my young children, whose outbursts draw the nonplussed stares of those outside the children’s chapel, looking in on us from behind encased glass as they might do with a lab experiment. It always seems like the glass, and the sound, is one-way—our observers are the detectives watching from behind the safety of silence and anonymity.
The truth is, though, that a good homily cuts through the noise, like a knife through warm butter. Our unassuming parish priest began his homily by explaining that a vessel that is already full cannot be filled with something else. “I’m not a scientist, ok, but one liquid can’t displace another—one must be emptied out.” He continued: “If your life is full of your ego, your ambitions, your needs and concerns, then it can’t be filled with anything else. [Pause here for the preacher’s rhetorical effect.] But the blessed Virgin Mary, our mother, emptied herself so that she could be filled with the Lord.”
Back now to the subject of death which, if we’re being honest, never really escapes our attention for long. One of our neighbors was mourning the loss of a loved one and asked if their child could spend some time at our house with our daughter who was about the same age. Naturally, we said yes, of course.
Towards the end of the two-hour visit, our daughter’s friend explained that the grandparent who passed “took some medicine to die because the pain was too much.” And just like that we had to explain to our six-year old child the intricacies of “right to die” legislation in California, as well as our objections to it as Catholics. Apparently, we weren’t going to get a reprieve until an older age when nuance and subtlety might smooth over the rough edges of our conversation. Maybe that was a good thing.
About a week after that unexpected and arguably premature conversation, I was jogging past the home of an acquaintance whom I knew to be ill. I hadn’t thought of him in months, probably because my mind was filled with other things—namely, illusions of grandeur and how they might be actualized. I noticed that a wheelchair ramp had been installed on his front steps, and I saw his wife unloading a Christmas tree from her car without him. I knew immediately something was wrong, and I remembered, sheepishly, or more accurately in shame, that this acquaintance—this neighbor I’d neglected—had been battling cancer for the better part of a decade.
I texted him—the fact that I had his number was another reminder of our malign neglect as sinners of the suffering that occurs under our noses—hoping for some explanation that would defy my visceral intuition. Instead, my fears were confirmed when my neighbor’s wife answered his text, explaining that he was in hospice. In just a few months, it appeared, he had gone from relatively stable to the end of the beginning—to the threshold of eternal rest with God.
As it so happened, the day after I learned my neighbor was close to passing I had a day off from work. With my wife, who works from home, we took turns preparing a meal for his family. It would be an overstatement to say that the work of our hands—chopping the vegetables, pouring out the contents of the cans, wrapping the trays in foil—emptied us entirely of our vain and mundane concerns. But the act of cooking brought us a step closer, I think. I was reminded of my in-laws in the rural midwest who, when we visit, wake up before dawn to knead dough and bake cinnamon rolls. The smell of them literally wakes me up in the morning.
When I knocked on this door that I had run and walked past so many times without ever entering, I was invited in. First into the house and then into the room itself where he lay, a rosary resting between his hands. His breathing was labored, but he seemed at peace. I sensed that, behind the curtain of death, he was still there. He was a unique individual with a life and voice and thoughts all his own—and nothing could rob him of that dignity. His dignity.
Needless to say, he had chosen the path of life from conception to natural death—fully aware that if he wanted to he could have ended his days on ‘his’ terms, with the illusion of self-mastery and control. But laying there, breathing, with his family nearby, I realized that he too had emptied himself so that the Lord could fill him up. His conscious decision to surrender to the will of God was a stark reminder to me that we are not our ultimate authors; we are not our owners. Our lives, as Bishop Barron often says, are not about us.
A close friend of mine, also a Catholic, once told me that she didn’t believe in the Resurrection of the dead. She believed that “our souls” go to heaven, but that the body merely decomposes. What about the risen Christ? I asked. That was Jesus, she replied, implying that God would not bother to resurrect the bodies of the lowly, just that of his only begotten Son. Looking at my neighbor laying in a rented medical bed, I thought of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in … the resurrection of the body,” and verses in Revelation:
I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God … I heard a loud voice from the throne saying “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people … He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain [for] the old order has passed away.”
It was a mistake to view my neighbor’s body and soul as separate, the latter the prisoner of the former. In this body he had walked, and smiled, and laughed, and held his children; in this body he had bathed at Lourdes. Even in his dying—even more so in his dying, perhaps—I felt and saw the inherent dignity of his body. I, like, St. John in the Book of Revelation, could see the new Jerusalem coming out of the sky—not to destroy the fallen world of matter and atoms but to preserve, restore, and transform it into the eternal glory for which it—and us—are all meant.
Many of the meanings of my neighbor’s sufferings—and of his bearing them with and through God’s grace—will be lost to me. But this one will not: In emptying himself for the Lord our God he, like Jesus, was teaching me how to live a good life and die a good death. An air of holiness was in the room with us—the Holy Spirit. Through it—and through my neighbor—God was showing me how to patiently await the Second Coming, the Resurrection of the Dead, and the Life of the World to Come. Amen.
Now that I’ve seen the fork in the road, I can prepare for it.