Friday, April 20, 2012
Is death the end?
This afternoon I said a prayer over a woman dying in a hospice situation. She has deteriorated rapidly since my last conversation with her. It was moving to see a hospice nurse massaging the side of her face while a family member sat nearby. As a priest my life is no stranger to death. I see it all....from the tragic deaths of young people to the peaceful surrender of true saints. I have even been present at the exact moment of death on three separate occassions. I think it might be helpful to revisit what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say on the topic: # 1010-" Because of Christ, Christian death has a positive meaning: 'For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.' 'The saying is sure: if we have died with him, we will also live with him.; What is essentially new about Christian death is this: through baptism, the Christian has already 'died with Christ' sacramentally, in order to live a new life; and if we die in Christ's grace, physical death completes this 'dying with Christ' and so completes our incorporation into him in his redeeming act. St. Ignatius of Antioch said: 'It is better for me to die in Christ Jesus than to reign over the ends of the earth. Him it is I seek-who died for us. Him it is I desire-who rose for us. I am on the point of giving birth...Let me receive pure light; when I shall have arrived there, then shall I be a man.'" What St. Ignatius is saying is that only when he is in the kingdom of God with Jesus will he be complete. Many people forget this. Dr. Peter Kreeft in a talk titled "the culture war" emphasizes how modern philosophies forget that the kingdom of God was never intended for here. This is the training ground. Now geneticists are trying to bypass Adam and Eve and bypass death. Even the disciples were slow to respond to this teaching. They kept expecting Jesus to establish an earthly kingdom. "You have died, and your life is hidden now in Christ" Those words of St. Paul are words for us to ponder. They form the basis for men and women who leave the active life of the world and choose to live in monastaries where they seek the Lord "day and night." Theirs is truly a death to the world. Priests and religious who take vows of celibacy also point to the reality of a Kingdom to Come. Marriage and family are tremendous goods but priests and religious sisters freely renounce the good of marriage in choosing to live a life of chaste love in imitation of Jesus. This too, is a death, and, I might add, is something still greatly misunderstood by the modern world. Priests and religious sister point to the kingdom that will never end. Hopice workers and volunteer provide a tremendous resource to families coping with the death of a loved one. The constant vigilance, care, support is a source of great strength at a time of need. They are quite adept at predicting the approaching death of a loved one and may suggest that families have conversations on important topics like forgiveness,etc. For me personally, the two experiences that have touched me most deeply in ministry are death-bed experiences. The first was the death of a 23 yr old young man who was dying of Leukemia. He was in some agony and discomfort when suddenly his face became radiant and peaceful, he sat up in bed, opened his eyes, and fall back into the pillow and into the hands of God. The second experience was at St. Joseph Living Center in Willimantic, CT. I must confess, I did not go lovingly or willingly at first....Having been called out the night before and getting weary of being the one to always get called I was having what you might call an "attitude problem." That's ok-I went anyway-and that has made all the difference in my life. I entered a room with a family gathered around their dying mother. Rosaries were being said, and family members were crying. I said the prayers for the sacrament of the sick and began to leave when something inside me said, No...don't go....I stayed.....I began to say the prayers for the commendation of the dying. This involves scripture passages and the litany of the saints. At the end there is a prayer which reads: "And may you meet the living Lord Jesus, your redeemer, face to face....." Just as I finished the word face the woman, named Alma, let out one last breath. I turned to sister and said, "Sister she just died!" She point a finger over her lips and said "Wait!" I said "Sister, I know it, she just died!" Indeed she had. Apparently she was waiting for that final blessing from a priest. I went into the chapel at the Living Center and wept. I couldn't believe that all the angels, saints, and holy people we had just invoked were in that room. I will never downplay the power of a priest's blessing because I now know it is the blessing of Jesus Christ, and I will always be grateful for the sacrament of the priesthood. This Easter, remember, death is not the end. We await a glorious inheritance at the wedding feast of the lamb with Jesus, Mary, all the saints, and all our departed loved ones. In the meantime we are to heed Jesus' words who said "I have come that you may have life and have it in abundance." The abundant life is death to the world and a big Amen, Yes to the Lord of Life who has come to give us eternal life "where every tear will be wiped away."