Pondering eternity



One evening while looking at a photo, I had a tense-yet-serene experience of what it would feel like at my own death. Abdullah Barry, a Muslim hospital chaplain in New York City, says: “We live in a society where people need to be educated not just about life but also [about] death.” Paraphrasing Abdullah, we can say that we Catholics need to talk about life, but also about death.

For St. John Paul II, “death is a single event, consisting in the total disintegration of the unitary and integrated...self, [which] results from the separation of the soul from the corporal reality” (John Paul II, 2000). It is the separation of our souls from our body.

Pondering our own death can be challenging and scary, yet, joyful. Death is rightly devastating for those who grieve the loss of a loved one. Death is hopeless if we don’t have the Christian view of life under the light of Jesus’ Resurrection – a life beyond physical death with God in eternity! Thus, it is worthy to talk about death! So, let me share what I’ve learned about life and death from my chaplain ministry to the sick, the dying, and their families and friends in preparation for the liturgical Feasts of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day.

First, chaplaincy has helped me to see what is essential in life. Second, I have learned the importance of having one’s life truly rooted in God, which is most essential. A life rooted in God is necessarily anchored on Jesus, and on the daily experience of the salvific fruits that come from his Cross and Resurrection; especially the gift of hope. We need to immerse ourselves and every Christian practice in Jesus’ cross and resurrection.

For instance, we need to immerse ourselves in the live-giving Grace offered by Christ in all the Church’s beliefs and actions, especially in the Sacraments, instead of just going through the motions. The first brings hope, the second despair. Anything we do to enrich our spirituality must be anchored in Christ. If not, our spirituality might be a self-seeking satisfaction and not a God-centered effort. Do we have hope or despair rooted in our hearts?

Third, I have learned the importance of having a strong support system – family, a pastor, a Church community and friends. A strong support system is based on personal and communal relationships in which people talk to each other, pray together, build bridges of reconciliation when needed, and intentionally spend time in each other's presence. I have met people with strong family relationships, others who reconciled with the dying before death, others who died without family because of family choice, and others whose family dynamic is dysfunctional due to individualism – the idea that the individual needs are more important than the group, including family and Church. At the moment of death, only the quality of mutual love and forgiveness among family members and friends will count.

Fourth, people who feel fulfilled seem to have a peaceful death. Fulfillment is the feeling of integrity that comes from what we have or have not accomplished throughout our lives. The ultimate fulfillment is the experience of integrity in Christ (i.e. the sense of having let Christ put together the disintegration left by sin). We are not called to make a difference or  leave a legacy, or to be relevant in history. We are called to integrity (holiness) in Christ and to accomplish the desires He has placed in our hearts. Is there something Christ would like you to accomplish before your death?

Fifth, it is important to have advance directives that convey our wishes in case we are not able to do so. One option in our state is the “A Catholic Guide to Health Care Directives” published by the Indiana Catholic Conference.

On All Saints and All Souls’ Days, we might ponder on what St. Benedict wrote in the 6th Century: “Keep death daily before your eyes.” Maybe our lives will also be fixed on what is essential in life – God, family, Church community, friends and our fulfillment. What do you think?