Perhaps it’s the melancholy of the season, with its falling leaves and fading daylight, or perhaps it’s the fact that I live in a cemetery surrounded by tombstones, or maybe because I’ve officiated at a number of funerals in the last few weeks, but recently I’ve found myself wondering about the circumstances of my own death, musing over when and where and how I’ll draw my final breath.
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I wonder . . . will it be many years from now, or in the near future? Will it occur at home, in a hospital or in some other public place? Who will be with me when my heart stops beating, or will I die alone? In which season will I die, and what time of the day will it be? What will be the specific cause of my death? Will it be sudden or predictable? Will it be peaceful or painful?
Of course I don’t have the answer to any of these questions. The circumstances of my death are known to God alone, and I trust completely in His infallible decision-making ability. And please be assured, dear reader, that in reflecting upon these questions I do so not with a morbid, frightened spirit, but peacefully, more from a sense of spiritual curiosity than anything else.
I remember hearing that in the Middle Ages monks kept a human skull on their desk as a constant reminder of their mortality. Now, though you might not want to employ that particular technique, and while you might not prefer to dwell on the specific details of your death, I do think it’s helpful and healthy to remember that indeed, someday, you will die.
The Scripture passage referenced above is really insightful; it’s one of the most provocative verses of the Bible. If we number our days aright – in other words, if we recall that we are mortal and that our time on earth is limited – we gain true wisdom. There are two particular lessons we can take from our close encounter with mortality.
The first is to recall that someday we will be held accountable for the conduct of our lives on earth, and that the inescapability of that judgment should motivate us to lead good and holy lives. Think about Jesus’ description of the Last Judgment found in St. Matthew’s Gospel, when the Lord will separate the sheep from the goats. (Hm . . . which group will you be in?) And recall, too, that St. Paul taught that “We shall all stand before the judgment seat of God; each one of us will have to give an account of himself before God.” (Rom 14:10,12)
It seems that there’s something in human nature that makes us behave differently when we know that we’ll be held accountable. In the classroom we study a bit harder when final exams are approaching. On the highway, we watch our speed when we spot the cruiser parked alongside the road.
The same is true, or should be, of our moral, spiritual lives. If we recall that someday we’ll stand directly before God, one-on-one, and answer for our time on earth, doesn’t it change the way we behave? Shouldn’t we spend more time cultivating our knowledge and love of the Lord in prayer and worship? Shouldn’t we be more determined to keep the Commandments, trying to avoid temptation and sin in our lives? Shouldn’t we try harder to love one another, to treat one another as brothers and sisters in the human family, to be a bit more understanding, gentle, patient, kind, generous and forgiving with one another?
It just seems to me that if we kept the reality of our final judgment before us all the time, everyday, the depth of our spirituality and quality of our moral lives would grow exponentially.
The second lesson we can learn from the reality of mortality is the need to keep a sense of perspective about the trials and tribulations of everyday life and not to spend too much time worrying about things that really don’t matter.
When I walk around my cemetery for exercise and prayer I think about that a lot. Each one of the hundreds, the thousands of people buried around me had some problems and difficulties in their daily lives, each one knew moments of sadness and sorrow, defeat and discouragement. And yet their time on earth was so brief, and now they’re gone. It’s always my hope and prayer that the good folks buried in the sacred ground of our cemetery had holy and peaceful lives, that they enjoyed life, and that they didn’t waste too much time chasing after material things and fretting over the little anxieties and problems they encountered.
It’s not to say that we can casually discount the importance of our time on earth, or irresponsibly ignore the challenges and problems that come our way. But it is to say that we need to keep some perspective, that in the bright light of eternity the problems and worries of today just might not be quite as traumatic as they seem at the moment.
During the month of November when we reflect upon the lives of the saints in heaven, and pray for the poor souls in purgatory, let’s remember that someday, maybe someday soon, you and I will be included in that number. That thought shouldn’t frighten us at all, but in fact it should help our earthly pilgrimage to be productive and peaceful.