Thursday, November 5, 2009

It Is Appointed For Men (Part 2)

All provisionality makes us uneasy. And here on earth, as St. Paul reminds us, we have no abiding city. Time surely runs its course. And with time, so too does our life ebb away. Through the years, our vitality begins to diminish, the organism ages, our strength fails us. And finally – if we ever last long, we reach that age when we begin to realize to what extent life is but a puff of air. All we need do now is simply contemplate the ravages that time has worked upon us. Everything time may once have offered us – pleasures, successes, honors, prestige – will be but things of the past, things that used to be but not longer are. We may perhaps retain some memories of the “good old days.” But that is all they are, memories and nothing more, a little like those old snapshots of forty or fifty years ago. We take a look at them now and again, and we find them quaint. They reflect realities that were once desirable, realities which now after long usage have worn curiously thin. They are nothing but the insubstantial remnants of what once was.

Important realities are not those that vanish like this but rather those that last, that remain. They are not those that flit away and are lost forever, but rather those that persist when all else has passed away. I think we could learn a great lesson from our awareness of death’s inevitability. We could learn how to manage our lives. We cannot go through life with our eyes shut, refusing to look at the inescapable reality of death for no better reason that that it is not an event we relish the thought of. Such behavior is not worthy of men gifted with reason. On the contrary, it is a salutary experience for man to think about death. We should be vying to learn now how to face it when it comes, to face it with dignity, with integrity, with hope, and, yes, even with joy. This is the reaction proper to a man who believes that Jesus is God and that he once said: “he who believes in me, even if he die, shall live.” (Jn 11:25)

But please do not think it is easy to acquire this attitude that is to enable us to face death manfully. Do not think that faith, hope, and charity, the practice of a supernatural life, and all the pious considerations we may entertain about death produce an effect within us in an automatic way, the way some drugs remove feelings of depression and dark thoughts by inducing a state of euphoria in which everything takes on a rosy hue. It is something altogether more serious. In the Dialogue of the Carmelites, Bernanos puts the following words in the mouth of a grievously sick nun who has served God in her monastery for many years and who has already been told she is soon to die: “In all the hours of my life I had piously meditated on death, but now all that is of hardly any use to me at all.” And it is not superfluous to recall that, even if Jesus humbly accepted his death on the cross in obedience to the will of his Father with whom he was totally identified, it was nevertheless preceded by an agony in Gethsemane and was accompanied by that awful cry: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mk 15:34) It seems that Christ himself did not want to deprive himself of feeling the natural repugnance that all men feel towards death. By recalling Our Lord’s own experience of dying, I want to show that the Christian view of death – and even its acceptance – does not necessarily produce a joyful feeling when the actual moment comes.

When we reflect on death in a general manner, considering it in abstraction as an idea, we may not find it bothersome at all. Something similar happens to us whenever we think or write about something in general: for example, about evil in general, or about torture and hunger in general. However, when we consider death as a particular event, as an unavoidable personal occurrence that comes nearer to us with each passing day, as something that will surely happen to us when we least expect it, then we may experience that instinctive reaction of repugnance, of fear, because the separation of the body and the soul which have been created to form a united whole and to constitute an integrated human person is at variance with human nature. (And this is true no matter that death is a natural occurrence for man). Thus, death may even appear to us to be a perplexing event of dubious meaning. And at times it may even incite us to an act of protesting rebellion against God. In spite of knowing death is one more happening in man’s real life and that we will all have to die some day, we still find ourselves asking, “Why?” Why are we made to live if we have to die? Why did God make things this way?

Yet it is not true to say that God made man in this way, subject to death. He had other plans for man. Revelation teaches us that “God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things that they might exist and the creatures of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them” (Wis 1:13-14). So death was not part of God’s original plan for mankind. Immortality is not an essential quality properly belonging to human nature. Yet God conceded it to man from the very beginning. God created man immortal. Adam was endowed with the preternatural gift of immortality. He was empowered to live forever. According to God’s plan, man would have attained glory after his sojourn here on earth without passing through death. The plague of death (together with many other plagues) was introduced into the world through sin: “Therefore, as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, so death spread to all men because all men sinned.” (Rom 5:12) Death is the destruction of man, whose soul was created to be the substantial form of a particular body. Both body and soul constitute a human person. Both body and soul were created to be one, to be united to one another. Death, the separation of the soul from the body, does violence to human nature. It is the result of and also the price to be paid for an act that goes against nature: sin. The Book of Wisdom continues to tell us more about death: “God created man for incorruption, and made him in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy, death entered the world, and those who belong to his party experience it’ (Wis 2:23-24). And we all belong to his party because we have all sinned in Adam. And thus, death will ultimately overpower all of us. With the exception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, all human beings carry the mark of sin. And consequently the mark of death. Thus, in the Summa Contra Gentiles, St. Thomas Aquinas talks about the “necessity of dying,” an expression that is certainly peculiar, and yet full of significance, because we necessarily have to pay the price for original sin and for our personal sins, and that price is death.

It was Jesus Christ who, through his passion, death, and resurrection restores the order and harmony that sin had destroyed. Christ never knew sin and he overcame death. Thus, St. Paul was able to exclaim: “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” (1 Cor 15:55).

Death, therefore, is not the end, but the real beginning. It is not a door that is closed, but rather one that is opened. And even if death has not lost its natural repugnance, the Redemption has robbed it of its wickedness and transformed it into the threshold of our hope. The attitude of an atheist facing death is very different from that of a believer, of one who has faith.

At times, these two attitudes are diametrically opposed. This essential difference in attitudes is succinctly expressed by Blessed J. Escriva in The Way: “For others, death is a stumbling block, a source of terror. For us, death – Life – is an encouragement and a stimulus. For them, it is the end; for us, the beginning” (no. 738)

It is significant to note that in all the Masses celebrated for those who have died, the Church talks to us about life and not about death. Her liturgy for the dead is a canticle of hope in the resurrection and in everlasting life. It is not a despairing lament over what has been irretrievably surrendered. The liturgy gently lead us to remove our attention from what we have just lost and to lay it to rest upon what we have just acquired, because life is changed, not taken away (this is how it is phrased in the Preface for the Masses for the Dead). A temporal life is transformed into an eternal life, a mortal life is changed into an immortal life. St. Paul could then write to the suffering Thessalonians: “Do not grieve as others do who have no hope.” (I Thess 4:13)

God’s revelations concerning life and death should not become for us a dead word or a dry and useless piece of intellectualism. To avoid this, it is now necessary to assimilate all those revealed truths not only with the intellect but also with the will, if I may express myself in this manner. If we accept death as a punishment that accompanies sin, if we accept the consequences triggered off by our conceited pretensions to becoming equal with God (“You shall be like God!”), then we may still manage to be serene when faced with death’s awful atrocity. We shall attain peace only when we have paid the price of the debts incurred by us.

Now is the appropriate time for us to consider those words of Jesus on the Cross. They would situate us where we will be enabled to acquire a more total, more positive, and more exact perspective on the nature of life and death. You do surely remember those words of Christ who, at a precise moment at the end of his agony on the Cross, said: “I am thirsty.” “Then,” St. John’s quotation continues, “one of the soldiers, wetting a sponge with a vinegar, held it up for him to drink. After having drunk the vinegar, Jesus said: “It is finished; and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (Jn 19:30). For Christ on the Cross, at this very moment, death is the culmination: everything has been consummated. After the last prophecy that referred to him had been fulfilled, everything was then accomplished. There were no more loose ends to tie. There was nothing more to be done. What significance would it then have had if he had continued on earth with his mortal life, when he had already accomplished everything, when he had already fulfilled the mission for which he became man? For Jesus, death was the completion of a task. But for others it may be otherwise: it may be an aborted effort, an unfinished job, a commission neglected, a task that could have been completed but was not. We should never lose sight of this possibility, because it could indeed happen to anyone of us if we do not try hard to avoid it.

How, then, to avoid it? First, we must never forget that this life set apart by itself has no meaning whatsoever, since then, given the reality of death, it would amount to living for nothing, which is in clear contradiction with reason. Therefore, we must necessarily seek its meaning in the afterlife, in that other life which escapes the dominion of time because it transcends temporarily.

Consequently, here on earth is our opportunity, the only one granted to man so that he may freely decide what his eternal lot may be. In some manner we may say that each one of us has been given the very same option that was originally given to Adam, the Father of the human race. Like Adam, we may choose to unite ourselves with God forever through faith and obedience, believing in his words and doing what those words indicate, accepting and loving the plan designed in his infinite wisdom for our present and future life, or we may decide to reject that plan because – like Adam – we too may think that we are fit to decide by ourselves the course our life should take without counting on God’s will for us.

In any case, it is nevertheless good for us to know that things are what they are, whether it pleases us or not whether we like it or not. And it is a fact that this life exists with relevance to the other life, such that everything a man thinks, desires, says, does, or omits in this life is related to his definitive destiny in the hereafter. Every single temporal human act has repercussions of eternal consequence, whether positive or negative.

The entire world is subject to God’s creative and redemptive plan: consequently creation gives glory to God through the salvation of all men. Thus, all human destiny is inextricably bound up with the redeeming task of Christ. Man is not only the beneficiary of the Redemption, he also co-redeems with Christ. This is true to some extent because, on the one hand, man’s cooperation is needed if Christ’s redeeming action is to benefit man himself, and, on the other hand, with reference to the Mystical Body, man is obliged to cooperate for the good of the entire Body. This means that he must help in the redemption of others. He must help the greatest number possible to attain the salvation Christ has obtained for all men.

In this context our life can be considered as our personal participation in the passionate drama of salvation staged in this great theater of the world. It is not for us to choose the role we wish to play. It has been assigned to us. And our task is to study our role well in order to perform it properly. Death marks the moment when each actor makes his final exit from the stage, as his part in the play comes to an end, and his presence on stage is no longer required. Then there will no longer be the possibility of interpreting our role again in the hope of improving on our previous performance, of correcting our mistakes, of learning our lines better and taking our performance more seriously. In the end, what will count most is not that we will have been given a magnificent role to play, the role of a star performer, but rather that we will have played our part well, whatever it be.

Throughout these pages we have been reflecting on the reality of death. And we have learned a principal lesson: this life on earth that passes away is not really as important as that other life that will last forever. It is that other life that is really worth all our efforts. During the reign of King Henry VIII of England, the Duke of Norfolk tried to convince St. Thomas More to give in to the King’s wishes and to submit himself to the royal will. If he did so his life would be spared. However, Thomas More replied, “Is that all, my Lord? Well, the truth is that between your Lordship and myself there is very little difference: I will die today and you tomorrow.” In fact, that is what happened. The one death came not long after the other. But Thomas More is now a saint. More played the shorter role, but his interpretation of the part assigned to him in the work of redemption was worthy of the greatest reward. It is a man’s love for God manifested in the fulfillment of his loving will that measures the degree of perfection attained by each man in performing his role. And since death marks for each the end of time, and with it the end of all pain, suffering, or misfortune, the best thing to do is to acquire eternity in exchange for brevity, and not lose eternity for the sake of a bit more of wasted time that runs away like water through our fingers.

And it does us well to know that if we are not capable of learning this particular lesson, then any other lesson we may team in this life will be totally ineffective.

“…just as it is appointed unto men to die once and after this comes the judgment, so also was Christ offered once to take away the sins of many.” Hebrews 9:27-28

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