As we approach Holy Week, I though it would be good to reprise an earlier post with a few additions . . . My theology class at Cleveland Central Catholic was on the fifth floor of St. Michael School. One topic was death and dying. As one student entered the room, he commented, “Sister, do you know what it’s like to climb those stairs knowing that for the next forty minutes you’ll be thinking about death?” (This, despite the fact that most TV dramas deal with murder!) Usually, though, we find death depressing. Why not? On the surface it seems like it’s the end of existence, not to mention that it takes away our family and friends. No one leaves this world alive. As my father commented on his deathbed, “Someone has to go first.” We all can all depend on being harvested by “the grim reaper” someday. But I don’t intend this post to be morbid! Rather, let’s consider death as a rite of passage, a passage into a better kind of life.
I like the concept of death being a doorway through which we enter eternal life. Chances are, no one has come back through that door to assure you of the wonders that lie just across that threshold. Basically, all we have is Jesus’ word for it, and accepting it assumes that we have faith in Jesus. Without scientific proof of an afterlife, death can loom as a frightening fate: annihilation. A priest told a story to help us understand this mystery. He said that he and his twin brother were “wombmates.” When it was time to leave their safe, familiar home within their mother, his brother didn’t want to go. He feared what awaited them on the other side. Of course, in time they both found themselves in a new world surrounded by wonders. The brother was glad he ventured out. I’m encouraged by Steve Job’s last words: As he left this world, looking past those gathered around his deathbed, three times he mysteriously uttered, “Oh, wow!” We have hope that another world even more glorious than this one awaits us.
What did Jesus say? Things like “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them upon the last day” (John 6:54) and “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?” (John 14:2) More significant was what Jesus did. Not only did he resuscitate Lazarus, the daughter of Jairus, and the widow’s son. (And they all had to died again!) But after being killed and buried, Jesus rose and not just with earthly life but with the glorified life that he promised will be ours someday. No wonder St. Paul could exclaim, “Death, where is your victory? Where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 12:55) And as John Donne concludes his poem: “Death, thou shalt die!”
As Christians, we believe that our departed loved ones have only slipped into another world or dimension. Someday we will be reunited with them. In the meantime, let’s live to the hilt the days we have left and live in such a way that we will be ushered through the gates of heaven.
In my sympathy cards I include this poetic reflection that conveys that “Life Is Eternal”:
I am standing upon the seashore.
A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze
and starts for the blue ocean.
She is an object of beauty and strength,
and I stand and watch her until at length
she hangs like a speck of white cloud
just where the sea and sky come down to mingle with each other.
Then someone at my side says, “There! she’s gone.”
Gone where? Gone from my sight; that is all.
She is just as large in mast and hull and spar
as she was when she left my side
and just as able to bear her load of living freight
to the place of destination.
Her diminished size is in me, not in her;
and just at the moment when someone at my side says,
“There! she’s gone,”
there are other eyes watching her coming,
and other voices ready to take up the glad shout,
“There she comes!”
Some people claim that they died and came back to life. A friend of mine told me that after her husband died, one night she was sure that he kissed her forehead. What reassures you that you will live forever?
What do you imagine that Heaven will be like for you?
P.S. I’ve written a 16-page workbook to help children (and their parents) cope with the mystery of death and work through the grieving process: “Time to Say Goodbye.” If you would like a copy, contact me.
Mary Lea Hill, FSP Pauline Books & Media, $14.95
Sister Mary Lea admits to being crabby, and therefore seems an unlikely guide to understanding happiness. Still, she has produced a book that translates those nebulous beatitudes of Christ into something anyone can practice in order to be happy. Her tone is delightful, as though she is right beside you sharing her knowledge and laughing. In her own words, her book is “not a scholarly treatment of the beatitudes; rather it is a friendly stroll through them.”
In two-page chapters, Sister covers various and diverse aspects of each beatitude, like a bee flitting from flower to flower. As a bonus, she concludes the book by delving into the lessons Jesus delivered after the beatitudes according to Matthew’s Gospel. Throughout the eighty chapters, she introduces and illustrates points by drawing on childhood experiences with her family and her life in the convent. She sprinkles her text with worthwhile quotations and allusions to poems and fairy tales.
While being entertained by the author’s quirky sense of humor, the reader will imbibe ideas for living a happy and holy life. Each chapter concludes with suggestions and questions for personal reflection.