Life’s meaning in the shadow of death

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The month of November brings us closer to the harshest reality that we, as human beings, can ever face: death. Who wants to talk about death? As soon as a conversation starts on this subject immediately an eye brow is raised or even a gentle move to change the topic altogether is done.

Hardly anyone likes to talk about death. Yet, death is amongst us. And this I say it as a first hand experience. Working in a hospital for practically fifteen years has been constantly teaching me that death is a reality to grapple with. From my life experience so far I have seen people dying of basically all ages. Moreover, although every death has its particular causes and circumstances yet, where death sets in, grief and suffering run into the situation life a rainfall. How many people got destroyed because of a death of a loved one!

Nevertheless, it would be very harmful if we just try to live and pretend as if death does not happen. Whether we believe or not we need to prepare for our death. Starting, of course, from the hereditary side such as the settling of the will and improving our relationships with those around us before it is too late. Hospital experience has been continually showing me that when we do not nurture and take care of our relationships with each other death comes and rips us apart even more.

Going back to the point I have mentioned before, namely of the futile attempt to conceal death, Pope Francis has a very interesting reflection regarding this crucial existential issue. In his video message to the participants in the 4th World Meeting of Young People, organized by Scholas Occurrentes and World ORT, the Holy Father harped on the apparently ironical notion that, it is death that allows life to remain alive!

During his video address the Pope said that the end goal is what permits a story to be written or a painting to be painted. Having said that, one needs to be smart enough as to be attentive to each small purpose of everyday life, much on the same lines as the end of each word as well as of each silence. That is why the Pope encouraged the students in Mexico City with these words:

“It is the end goal that allows a story to be written, a painting to be painted, two bodies to embraced. But watch out, the end goal is not found only at the end. Perhaps we should pay attention to each small purpose of everyday life. Not only at the end of the story – we never know when it ends – but at the end of each word, at the end of each silence, of each page that is being written. Only a life that is conscious of the fact that this exact instant will end works to make it eternal”.

In simple words, Pope Francis is telling you and me to view each day, with its multifarious works, all having their aim, as a fruitful build up for life’s meaning. Yes! Life’s meaning is erected daily by being consistent into what is really beautiful, true and good! Furthermore, life’s rapid end makes it more precious to be lived responsibly and never carelessly.

In Pope Francis’ speech one notices the healing aspect of death since the latter takes away from us the false idea that we are omnipotent. He said: “Death reminds us that it is impossible to be, understand, and encompass everything. It comes as a slap in the face to our illusion of omnipotence. It teaches us throughout life to engage ourselves with mystery”. Notwithstanding this shocking fact, death opens us for its salutary dimension too. Death presents to us an Omnipotent God who can handle it! Hence, Pope Francis said: “This gives us confidence to jump into the void and to realize that we will not fall, that we will not sink, and that there is always Someone there to catch us. Both before and after the end”. So, death redeems our life’s meaning by reminding us that if we are open to God our life is never wasted but redeemed in order to flourish eternally!

As he reflected more deeply into this ever-current subject the Holy Father said that our fragility before death more than letting it destroying and despairing us we have to let it unite us more and more in order to be there for each other in times of distress death brings into our mortal lives. He said: “The ‘not knowing’ part of this question results in fragility that opens us to listening to and meeting other people. It is that rising above the commotion that calls us to create something, and urges us to come together to celebrate it”. We do this, first and foremost, when we celebrate somebody’s life during a funeral Mass. When we get together in a prayerful setting we are affirming the life of that person as well as the nearness we offer to each other, particularly to the families and relatives of the deceased. In these terrible situations, supporting each other in the face of death is our best answer in affirming and proclaiming the validity and inalienable value of human life in all its phases.

Faced with a “world that worships autonomy, self-sufficiency, and self-realization” that highly negates a “place for the other”, it is important that we counter this “culture that forgets death [to then begin] to die within”, by asserting “the three deaths that, by emptying us, fill us with life!” In order to live a fruitful life in the shadow of death let us remind ourselves of “the ‘death’ of every instant”, “the death of the ego”, and that “the death of one world gives way to a new one”.

By taking Christ as our model we can make our own his life saving message, as beautifully explained in Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical on Christian love, Deus Caritas Est:

“Love is indeed ‘ecstasy’, not in the sense of a moment of intoxication, but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God: ‘Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it’ (Lk 17:33), as Jesus says throughout the Gospels (cf. Mt 10:39; 16:25; Mk 8:35; Lk 9:24; Jn 12:25). In these words, Jesus portrays his own path, which leads through the Cross to the Resurrection: the path of the grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies, and in this way bears much fruit. Starting from the depths of his own sacrifice and of the love that reaches fulfilment therein, he also portrays in these words the essence of love and indeed of human life itself” (no.6).

In, with and through Christ life’s meaning shines in the shadow of death whereas death [itself] is swallowed up in victory (1 Cor 15:54), that is the everlasting triumphal success of eternal life!

Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap

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