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Making a good death

August 31, 2017
Father Mark Doherty

Which is it? Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art? It no doubt goes both ways. What’s interesting is the regularity with which certain themes come up time and again. Take, for example, death.

Can you guess what story I’m thinking of if I give you this brief description: the protagonist of this story has a keen awareness that death is on the march and it won’t spare anybody. He goes around trying to get people to take the reality of death seriously, but nearly everyone he speaks to is too caught up in petty pursuits and squabbles. They put up ‘enchanted’ walls of distraction to keep from having to listen to and heed the protagonist’s warnings that they should quit squabbling over fading crowns and face the real music, the sound of death on the march.

Your first guess at an answer may point in the direction of a certain television program that’s currently wrapped up its next to last season. The clues do indeed point in this direction. But you may also be thinking of Plato’s “Republic,” where the philosopher Socrates, fresh from attending festivals “down below” that highlight the reality of Hades, seeks to get his interlocutors, especially Thrasymachus, to treat the question of death, well … with deathly seriousness. Life, Socrates tries to persuade Thrasymachus, is all about preparing to make a good death. Needless to say, Thrasymachus is not persuaded.

Maybe you were brought to mind of the Gospel narrative, wherein Jesus, who seems to have an uncanny awareness and steely-eyed view of the reality of death, attempts time and again to get his apostles, disciples, and all the regular Joe’s and Jane’s with whom he interacts to take seriously the reality of death and judgment. Count the number of times Jesus makes mention of death and judgment. You may be surprised at just how often he brings the topic up. Then go and take another look at the behavior and attitude the apostles and others manifest along the way. You have the apostles bickering over who gets to sit on what throne; you have a rich young man who’s too preoccupied with his possessions to accept an invitation to follow Jesus. There’s the kings and governors who are so preoccupied with their positions that they completely miss the drama playing out right before their eyes. Then you have a whole cast of characters that’s so busy obsessing and squabbling over other people’s sins that they don’t seem to have any time left over to take a look at their own. And then there’s Peter, who hears what Jesus has to say and straight-up rejects it. No clarifying questions; no effort to understand. Just walls, very high walls, going up.

Or maybe you’re brought to mind of your own life, and the multitudinous ways by which you seek to deflect, dodge and deny the fact that death is coming for you, too, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. There are so many enchanted fantasies we cultivate to dodge reality. So many walls go up. None will be high enough to keep death out.

But that’s good news, because Jesus both tells us and shows us that it is precisely by making a good death, by, paradoxically enough, making a genuinely good life, that he will transform our death into a newer and deeper life than we could fathom. Jesus does not simply promise to resuscitate us. He declares that those who accept his Lordship will be resurrected on the last day and brought to a kind of life the depth of which no eye has seen or ear heard.

The Lord offers us eternal life if we trust him and lay our lives down for love of him and our fellow man. Let us not let another day pass without putting aside the deflections, tearing down our walls, and inviting the Lord to take full possession of our lives. Let us say yes to him today, for maybe death may come a-knocking this night.

Doherty_Fr. Mark - web 100x125Father Doherty, who serves at St. Peter and St. Anthony parishes in San Francisco, is studying moral theology at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland.

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