Recently while in Toronto, my wife Angie and I, visited the graves of some relatives, who are interred in a mausoleum. At each we would stop and say a brief prayer. On the way between the graves I noticed that some people had purchased multiple burial chambers, some of which were not occupied. In one that we passed, there was (I assumed) a husband who had passed away, and next to his grave, was a space reserved for his still living wife. What caught my eye was that on the grave for his wife, there was already a plaque showing her name, date of birth with a blank space left for the date when she dies. This stopped me in my tracks. Even though we all know that everything passes and our time is limited, to see such a stark confirmation of one’s future death, was unsettling to say the least. But then I thought, why should I feel that way?
In many societies, cultures and especially the major religious traditions, there is a deep understanding that death is part of the cycle of life. Death marks a change not an end. As Catholics, when we pray the Credo, we say that we believe in “the communion of saints” meaning that all of those living and those who have moved to the next life, are all part of one mystical community: the body of Christ. Yes you might say, that’s all fine, but its one thing to agree with something intellectually, but a whole other ballgame to fully live it. Quite so!
It’s particularly difficult today in our youth-obsessed culture to contemplate death. There is tremendous pressure on both sexes, often at work and at home, to come across as youthful, vigorous, energetic, with the implication that ageing, slowing down is bad; something to be avoided and staved off at all costs. (And of course companies foster these notions, encouraging us spend billions of dollars trying for “the perfect look”.) Yes, of course it’s healthy to look after ourselves, eat properly, exercise and so forth. Like the planet on which we live, everything we have is a gift and meant to be cared for and respected. But carried to extremes, it can cause us to have a distorted view of reality. Becoming overly fixated is unhealthy for us body, mind and soul.
So what’s the answer? It’s certainly not that we should go with a fatalistic approach: “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die” type of ideal. That can also be both destructive and unhealthy. As is often the case, there is an answer in the gospels where Jesus directs many people “go in peace”. But what does this really mean? It means we should not be dominated by fear and anxiety, though there are and will be plenty of opportunities for both. In other words we are to live a life of faith; knowing that we are on a journey, where death is not the end but the start of a new life. As the Jesuit priest, Teillard De Chardin so aptly put it, “we need to realize we are not physical beings having a spiritual experience but spiritual beings having a physical experience”.
Also we shouldn’t let what we view as our flaws: our weight, our looks, our addictions, our tendency to say the wrong thing, and so on, dominate our existence. God makes use of what we consider imperfections. Clearly, we must try to improve, be better people, and love one another more. But do so in the full knowledge that God made us and loves us complete with our “imperfections”, and that the humility our weaknesses help engender, can make us more open and closer to God.
Thomas Merton said that to be a saint, which he thought we were all called to be, was merely to become yourself. So rather than wait until our life is over to R.I.P. (Rest in Peace), perhaps we could make a mid-year resolution to start right now and L.I.P. (Live in Peace).