November is the month traditionally dedicated to reflecting on death. For those of us living in the northern hemisphere, this is an appropriate time to do this reflecting, for we are experiencing the season of fall. For us, the days are getting shorter, the temperatures are dropping, and the leaves are cascading from the trees. In the Church calendar, November 1 is the feast of All Saints, when we honor all those men and women who have gone before us in the faith—especially those not formally canonized. November 2 is called All Souls Day, the Feast of the Poor Souls, the Day of the Dead, or the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed. We remember in special prayer all the deceased who are “awaiting their entrance into the fullness of heaven.”
So today, let’s take a few minutes to reflect on death. As we know, nothing is more certain than the fact that we will die. Yet, for most of us, nothing is more uncertain than the time and manner of our death. In his Rule, the great St. Benedict counseled his monks “to keep death daily before their eyes.” (Rule 4.47) Was he suggesting something morbid? Not really. Perhaps Benedict believed what the poet Carlos Castaneda said about death: “Death is a wise advisor.”
How does our death advise us? Remembering our death can lead to a greater appreciation for the gift of life. Death reminds us how every single day is immeasurably precious simply because our days are limited. Anne Lamott writes: “My deepest belief is that to live as if we’re dying can set us free. Dying people teach you to pay attention and to forgive and not to sweat the small stuff.”
Death, paradoxically, is the ultimate mystery of life. What adds to death’s mystery is the fact that no one really knows what happens during death and after death. We Christians, of course, believe that death is the portal to everlasting life. But what exactly does that mean? Volumes have been written on what heaven is going to be like, but most are merely speculation. It’s good to keep before us the image Jesus used to describe heaven: a wedding reception. Wedding receptions are ordinarily times of joy, love, happiness, great food and drink, wonderful music and dancing, meeting old friends and making new ones, good conversation, and lots of laughter. If we truly bought into Jesus’ image of heaven, maybe we wouldn’t be so afraid of death.
To have some fear of death, of course, is only human. Even Jesus in Gethsemane was terrorized by his impending crucifixion and death. But sometimes the fear of death can lead to the denial of death. This happens when we refuse to think about death, talk about death, see a doctor, or even write a will—as if we were going to live forever.
Over the years, many people have said some wise things about death. I’ll close with a few I like:
1. “I think the dying pray at the last not ‘Please,’ but ‘Thank you,’ as a guest thanks a host at the door.” Annie Dillard
2. “The one who practices mercy does not fear death.” Pope Francis
3. “Death is not the enemy who puts an end to everything, but the friend who takes us by the hand and leads us into the Kingdom of eternal love.” Henri Nouwen
4. “When we die, we leave behind us all we have, and take with us all we are.” Anonymous
5. “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.'” Erma Bombeck
6. “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! ‘What a ride!'” Hunter S. Thompson
+ Did anything stand out for you in today’s reflection—perhaps one of the quotes?
+ How often do you think about death—especially your own death?
+ Has death ever been a wise advisor for you? If so, in what way?
+ When you find yourself fearing death, does anything ease your fear?
PS: A big “Thank You” to all who made this past weekend’s virtual retreat sponsored by the Sophia Spiritual Center in Atchison, KS. Twenty of us explored together “Spirituality: The Call to Holiness and Wholeness.” The wonderful participants were from Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas, Michigan, and Ohio. I was inspired by their backgrounds and their obvious goodness! And a special thank you to my contact person Donna Coleman for all she did to help make the retreat run so smoothly—especially by being my great DJ!
John Shea wrote, “The best way to prepare for death is to develop a capacity for surprise.” This hymn, based on St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 2:9, echoes that sentiment. It’s called “Eye Has not Seen” and it’s written by Marty Haugen.
I invite you to write a comment below. Our readers (and I too!) love hearing from you.