Two weeks back, I was startled to read an article in America magazine by a very well known and successful female Catholic scholar, writer and psychologist who admits that as she ages her fear of dying increases. She experiences surges of anxiety and finds them very dispiriting. She is a woman of deep faith but that does not remove the fear.
I think that most of us can agree that we share a less than enthusiastic reaction to our approaching death (and let’s remember, death is approaching for every single one of us!) She was not talking about the vast number of deaths that are simply hideous and the horror, dreadfulness and the desolation that so many human beings suffer as victims of disease, accidents, natural disasters, war and cruel torture. Her fear of death even applies to those situations where the person is surrounded by loved ones and relatively comfortable. She speaks of the desolation and agony of a disintegrating self, an intense sadness arising over giving up one’s part of the ongoing drama of daily life.
I was very saddened by the article. I believe it is perfectly normal to fear the process of dying but not the fact of being dead. We are created for eternal life. We have been redeemed by Jesus Christ. In death, our faith tells us we enter into an unimaginable, extraordinary existence of joy forever. The wonders that are beyond the door to eternal life are worth infinitely more than any burdens we have carried in this life.
The oft repeated cliché is, “the only thing in life about which we can be absolutely, totally certain is the fact of our death.” That statement is true and it challenges us to prepare for our death a little more realistically.
Onward through that door!
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I really like the feast of All Saints and enjoy celebrating it. One reason is because the Feast of All Saints is a big tent feast. Everybody is in it. We are all together. While we haven’t achieved eternal life, we are certainly candidates for it. We are on our way, and most important today is that we are on our way together.
Another reason why I like the feast is that I grew up in a parish named All Saints. My mother was in the parish when it started in 1907. It was a young diverse Catholic community out on the northern edge of Houston and about three miles from downtown. Today, All Saints would be considered an inner-city parish but it has a lot of life. Gentrification has made it young again.
We are a very mobile society and over the course of several decades, Catholics might live in a good many parishes. That is understandable but there is a certain sadness to it, since it causes so many of us to be spiritually rootless.
All Saints was a marker in my life. My mother, father and three siblings were buried from that church. I made my First Communion, Confirmation and celebrated my first Mass as a priest at the altar of All Saints. Later, as a bishop, it would be the first church where I would celebrate the Sacrament of Confirmation. To me, All Saints in the Houston Heights is a sacred place that provided me with clear markers for my spiritual journey.
All Saints! Such a crowd. Think of it- millions, millions, and millions of men and women who faced an unbelievable range of difficulties and burdens in this life but maintained their faith in Jesus Christ or lived good lives according to their consciences. Not all the saints are saints at this moment. All of us are, however, on the journey to sanctity and we are on that journey together!
Special thanks to the young saints at my parish, St. Theresa’s here in Austin, pictured above.
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Yesterday I mentioned that people who find themselves embarrassed in discussions following a death should NOT be. Everything that needs to be conveyed can be handled by a hug, a kiss, or a simple expression of sorrow. But, time marches on. When we see our friends following a recent death, there is no need to be fearful of engaging in a simple, relaxed conversation about the lost friend or relative.
That person is dead. That is the simple reality, and the person in mourning already finds him or herself in the process of moving on. To discuss the good qualities of the deceased, to verbally celebrate that much-loved life is relaxing and encouraging for everyone involved.
Two things mix well in dealing with death: laughter and tears, and they are not contradictory. If you work at this, you will see that your friend may very well be laughing and crying simultaneously, and both reflect an element of reality. Neither is to be shunned.
It is regrettable, that while we are all joyful with the birth of a healthy child, we find it difficult to celebrate or discuss a friend’s journey into eternal life, which we hold as unending joy. Birth and death: the bookends of our life on this planet, live together and should not be feared.
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