Hopefully you won’t find it morbid in me to admit in these circumstances that even before my pastor smudged my forehead Ash Wednesday, I’d been thinking about death, and really heard the words “unto dust you shall return” this year.
Two days later, on the first Friday in Lent, I attended the funeral of a truly good lady – a pillar of our neighborhood and parish – and afterwards was in a near-miss accident myself. In the event the incident was minor, but for one disquieting second seemed like it might be my call to glory.
I’d like to tell you these intimations of mortality had inspired me to great vigor in my observance of Lent or purified me of some worldly attachment, but the same old cobwebs hold me back. I haven’t even tried to improve my health habits, because you can’t cheat death. William Safire once wrote a terribly funny column about fitness crazes, pointing out that you can jog and lower your risk of heart attack by 75 percent, or eat vegetarian and lower your risk of breast cancer by 30 percent, but your chance of dying remains constant at 100 percent.
Death comes, but in a Christian community there is hope, and survivors are accompanied in their grief. At my neighbor’s funeral last week I was close enough prior to the processional to hear our pastor – himself choked with tears because the deceased woman was beloved for the kindness she showed everyone – whisper to the widower, ashen in his sorrow, “This is a hard one, Jim. But I’m here. And look, the former pastor is here, and the deacon is here and your friends are here and we are all going to get through it together.”
They did get through it. After the Mass the widowed man gave the most touching eulogy I ever heard. Summoning an inner strength that showed him to be deeply sad but not shattered, in unprepared remarks he said he would miss his wife terribly because of her remarkable goodness, and then he took to unabashedly praising God for the gift of her life. She was gone too soon – only 57 – and yet there was no recrimination, only gratitude that he had known her at all, appreciation of their life together, and resolute confidence that they would see each other again in God. Sorrow untainted by regret, and with a promise of future joy.
If Jesus had been there in bodily form (for of course he was present in the Eucharist), he might well have testified that he had not seen faith like that anywhere in Israel! I had the sense I was in the presence of something sad but very holy. I’d attended to comfort my neighbor, but instead he comforted me with the witness of his muscular, radiant faith, which he’d shared with his wife and their kids and their neighbors and anyone at all who ever crossed their paths. I thought immediately of Pope Benedict’s remark that “the one who has hope lives differently; the one who has hope has been granted the gift of a new life.”
Maybe it’s not the most appealing slogan, but because of the hope that is in us, the Catholic Church is a great place to die. I don’t want to try to face the passing of my loved ones without my Christian family around me, accompanying me, “getting through it together,” and looking with faith toward heaven. When the moment comes that I am cleared for departure as my dad might say, I claim the Church’s intercession for my soul and her consolation for my kids and loved ones.
Rebecca Teti is a wife and mother who writes for Catholic Digest and other publications.