I’ve been to three funerals this week, and then we have Covid. The Anniversary of 9/11. Watching my parents, friends, and other relatives age and wane. Lots of time thinking about death.
No one knows when the second coming of Jesus Christ will happen or what it will look like. Though countless predictions and dates have been made, we really have no idea. But one thing is certain: We are all going to meet Jesus when we die – so our very own personal second coming is rather soon for each and every one of us. I have a doctor friend who always says in a very professional and serious manner that it has been proven – conclusively, scientifically, and without exception – that life is 100% fatal.
Earlier this week I was having a conversation with a colleague (at a funeral no less) about how without a firm deadline in the calendar, nothing seems to get done. We were talking about all our little half-finished projects and all the things we still want to do and be present for – and we acknowledged together how death is truly the ultimate deadline! So, how do we prepare to die? What does it look like to be poised and ready to meet our maker?
Our tradition, and truly all the great spiritual traditions, will tell us that part of getting ourselves prepared involves suffering some dying right now; dying to our need for clarity and security, surrendering our agenda, our need for control and trusting that God knows our needs and knows better how to meet them than we do. Maybe that is what Jesus meant when he said we need to lose our life so as to gain it. Henri Nouwen once remarked “One of the most arduous spiritual tasks is that of giving up control and allowing the spirit of God to lead our lives.”
But our ability to let go and let God lead our lives is directly proportional to our trust in God. Trust was not some feature out at the edge of Jesus’ teaching. It was its heart and center. Childlike surrender in trust is the defining spirit of authentic discipleship – it is the single most characteristic that prepares us best to open our hearts to our maker – in this life and the next.
Jesuit priest John Kavanaugh writes: Long ago, when I spent a month working at the “house of the dying” in Calcutta, I sought a sure answer to my future. On the first morning I met Mother Teresa after Mass at dawn. She asked, “And what can I do for you?” I asked her to pray for me. “What do you want me to pray for?” I voiced the request I had prepared for this moment for a long while: “Pray that I have clarity.” She said “No.” And that was that. When I asked why she announced that clarity was the last thing I was clinging to and had to let go of. When I commented that she herself had always seemed to have the clarity I longed for, she laughed: “I have never had clarity; what I’ve always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust.”
Religious language is by necessity always metaphorical language because the mystery of God is so beyond our grasp. To that end, here’s a little metaphorical story that might help us to embrace the unknown and trust in the goodness of our creator as we each approach our “ultimate deadline.”
Once upon a time, a set of twins were conceived in the same womb. Weeks passed, and the twins developed. As their awareness grew, they laughed for joy, “Isn’t it great that we were conceived? Isn’t it great to be alive?” Together the twins explored their world. When they found their mother’s cord that gave them life they sang for joy, “How great is our mother’s love that she shares her own life with us.”
As the weeks stretched into months the twins noticed how much each was changing. “What does this mean?” asked the one. “It means that our stay in this world is drawing to an end,” said the other. “But I don’t want to go,” said the one. “I want to stay here always.” “We have no choice,” said the other, “but maybe there is life after birth!” “But how can it be?” responded the one. “Don’t we shed our life cord? How is life possible without it? Besides, we have seen evidence that others were here before us and none of them have returned to tell us that there is life after birth.”
And so the one fell into deep despair saying, “If conception ends with birth, what is the purpose of life in the womb? It is meaningless! Maybe there is no mother at all.”
“But there has to be,” protested the other. “How else did we get here? How do we remain alive?” “Have you ever seen our mother?” said the one. “Maybe she lives in our minds. Maybe we made her up because the idea made us feel good.” Thus, while one raved and despaired, the other resigned himself to birth. He placed his hands in the trust of the mother.
Hours passed into days and days fell into weeks, and it came time….both knew that their birth was at hand and both feared what they did not know.
And as the one was the first to be conceived, so he was the first to be born. The other followed after. They cried as they were born into the light. They coughed up fluid, and they gasped the dry air; and when they were sure that they had been born, they opened their eyes and they found themselves cradled in the warm love of the mother. They lay open-mouthed, awestruck at the beauty of the mother that they never could have imagined.” (Author anonymous)
May we all go into the unknown with a spirit of trust in our loving Mother God and courageous, self-giving, words of surrender on our lips. No matter how many years we live, life here on earth is but a short stint in the school of love. We live forever – so “Let’s Roll”
In closing, a prayer from Thomas Merton…
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.