A Blessing, Not a Burden

Maybe only older folk like me can relate to this article, but frankly, I wish I would have taken this more seriously much earlier in life. Seriously, I can’t put any of this off any more; now is the time. It’s time for me to really listen.

What I’m talking about is the need to live each day as if it’s our last. Though most of us presume so, we have no natural, divine right to a long life: what we’ve experienced so far has been a gift, and we should be grateful for every, single day, even through sorrow, sadness, failure, and frustration.

Long ago, Thomas à Kempis, author of one of the most read books of all time, Imitation of Christ, said it well:

You should order your every deed and thought as though today were the day of your death. Had you a good conscience, death would hold no terrors for you; even so, it were better to avoid sin than to escape death. If you are not ready to die today, will tomorrow find you better prepared?

Blessed is the man who keeps the hour of his death always in mind, and daily prepares himself to die. Each morning remember that you may but live until evening; and in the evening, do not presume to promise yourself another day. Be ready at all times, and so live that death may never find you unprepared.

Happy and wise is he who endeavors to be during his life as he wishes to be found at his death. For these things will afford us sure hope of a happy death: perfect contempt of the world; fervent desire to grow in holiness; love of discipline; the practice of penance; ready obedience; self-denial; the bearing of every trial for the love of Christ. (New York: Penguin Books, 1982; 1.23)

Thomas was essentially saying that this kind of “end of life” thinking is not just for old fogies like me, but an attitude every one of us should have—should have had—every day of our lives. How we handle the normal hurdles of life, in partnership with Christ and by His grace, will be the criteria that will determine our passage from this life to the next. As St. Paul once wrote:

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body. (2 Corinthians 5:10)

And since we never know when this event might occur, we are called to be ready daily, and “watch, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Mt 24:42). It could be before you finish reading this blog.

Throughout history there have been hundreds of paintings, etchings, and illustrations, like the one to the right, of a saint holding and contemplating a skull. What may seem overly morbid is but a call for us to contemplate our death so that we can live our lives in readiness. As the author of Hebrews wrote: “Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).

The truth is, though, that most of us will live longer than this blog. Most of us will live for months, even years, maybe decades, on into an increasingly unpredictable future. How are we to manage this, for living every day as if it’s our last, for possibly ten, twenty, or more years — and not just for ourselves, but for and with our spouses and families?

I believe it helps to remember what the Church has long taught: that, as human beings created in the image of God, we are both body and spirit. Not mere biological beings, as the scientific materialistic atheists would tell us, destined to become nothing but fertilizer when we die, an insignificant element “in nature’s chain,” replenishing “Mother Earth” with what we irresponsibly took from her. Nor are we just heavenly spirits trapped in earthly bodies, such that the destiny of our souls is all that matters. Rather, we are both, which is why our faith has always emphasized the resurrection of the body: at death, our souls face a first, personal judgment; meanwhile our bodies remain in the ground, decaying, maybe for centuries, until our souls and our new resurrected bodies are reunited in the general resurrection on Judgment Day.

Living each day as if it will be our last means keeping our entire person, body and soul, in grace by grace, clean of sin and free from the attachments to this world that we gain through the senses of our bodies. This last statement is no easy task for us twenty-first century “frogs in the pot” of materialism. Most of us reading these printed words have never experienced life without utter dependance upon so many technical attachments. And I might suggest that if we find this idea hopelessly beyond our reach, it is because, again like “frogs in the pot”, we have become so acclimated to our twenty-first century world that we can’t imagine making the necessary sacrifices. Isn’t this why we sit in awe of a saint like Francis of Assisi who, in actuality, just did what he believed was necessary for him to live each day as if it was his last?

Nearly two thousand years ago, St. Paul exhorted the Christians living in Rome, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). Are we even able any more to identify to what extent we have conformed to this world? I guess I need to be careful here in using the collective “we”; maybe I’m the only one.

But Thomas even piled it on harder when he wrote:

Unless a man’s soul is raised, set free from all attachment to earthly things, and wholly united to God, neither his knowledge nor his possessions are of any value. So long as he esteems as precious anything outside of the One, Infinite, and Eternal Good, he will remain mean and earthbound in spirit. For whatever is not God is nothing, and is to be accounted nothing. (Imitation of Christ, 3.31)

Okay, pretty tough stuff! A bit outside of what we normally encounter on our day-by-day stroll through the local coffee shop, on into work, and then a snorting snooze in front of the computer monitor. I’d say that when most of us hear something like this, we let it pass on by and then off the primary monitor of our brain. As I get older, though, I’m trying to force myself to stop and ask: “Wait a second: what might this universally accepted spiritual writer know that maybe I don’t? Is there something he’s trying to say that maybe it’s time I listened?”

So, how attached is my soul to earthly things? Thomas was just repeating what our Lord, and nearly every New Testament writer, had said: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:2). But since, according to God’s providence, we may be gifted with decades of living, we must be good stewards of these bodies, also, so that our whole being, body and soul, can flourish in faith, hope, and love.

This reminds me of a quote from Evagrius Ponticus (345-399 AD). Though he was a monk, living long before any of our modern entanglements, what he wrote still makes good sense, at least to me:

A monk should always act as if he was going to die tomorrow; yet he should treat his body as if it was going to live for many years. The first cuts off the inclination to listlessness, and makes the monk more diligent; the second keeps his body sound and his self-control well balanced. (Philokalia, Vol.1 (Faber and Faber, London: 1979), p. 53)

For this to happen (As I discussed in my book, Life From Our Land), we must provide the bodily goods (food, liquids, clothing, shelter, etc.) we need so that our entire person can thrive. At the same time, we must strive to become less attached to unnecessary external goods because, like the weeds and uninvited critters that take over our gardens every year, attachments can conspire to overpower, subdue, and conquer us, body and soul.

In this morning’s Office of Readings, the Second Reading is from a sermon by pope Saint Leo the Great (400-461 AD). In the context of discussing the nativity and incarnation of our Lord, and our responsibility towards creation, he commented:

For we are born in the present only to be reborn in the future. Our attachment, therefore, should not be to the transitory; instead, we must be intent upon the eternal. Let us think of how divine grace has transformed our earthly natures so that we may contemplate more closely our heavenly hope. We hear the Apostle say: “You are dead and your life is hidden with Christ in God. But when Christ your life appears, then you will also appear in glory with him”, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit for ever and ever. Amen.” (Sermo in Nativitate Domini 7, 2. 6: PL 54, 217-218. 220-221)

The biggest factor, however, in determining what specific actions we need to take — daily or for years to come — is to recognize that salvation is not an individualistic quest. We need to remember, especially for those of us in the final years of life, that we are not in this alone. We are called to be faithful individuals within our marriages, families, neighborhoods, communities, and especially within the Body of Christ, the Church. Our call to love our neighbor as Christ loved us means we are called not only to be ready ourselves, but to do all we can to help our spouses, our family members, friends, and neighbors live today as if it were their last day — to be ready spiritually to meet God: Are they living in grace? Are their souls pure? But this means recognizing that we and our neighbors, families, and spouses may be living together for a long time!

How can we help each other, while not becoming burdens to each other? Certainly, we’re called to help and care for each other, yet we can’t presume on this — we can’t merely assume that if we get sick or disabled, our children will pick up the slack. A glutton or a hoarder robs from the bodily needs of others, eventually becoming a burden on them through neglected health and accumulated attachments. And when he or she dies, such a person leaves behind an irresponsible burden of unnecessary goods. This means each of us ought to live healthy, simple, selfless lives, so that if one day we have no choice but to be a “burden”, we will be as little of a burden as possible — maybe even a blessing.

[This article was a revised reflection on a portion of Chapter 14 in my book, Life From Our Land (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2015), p. 160f.]

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