On Death

I’ve never been with a person when they die. I’ve never been there for the final breath. It’s an occasion that I’ve thought about many times before. One of those ephemeral times when we rest from our ceaseless activities and collide with the reality of death. Our gaze forced to contemplate mortality.  A moment where time stills. The air a little denser than normal. Emotions emanate a bit easier. Tears, even if not from sadness, flow. It’s a time of purging, and hopefully a time of peace. It’s a moment where we cast off spectacle, standing exposed.

And at the same time, its utter reality is mystical. We experience the metaphysical, the true fullness of nature. Supernatural – above nature. Faith gives us assurance, but the chasm still percolates with mystery. I just finished Anthony Doerr’s novel, All the Light We Cannot See. In it a character notes that visible light, the light that we see, only makes up a very small portion of all the light that exists. More reality exists than what is just visible. The mystery of death puts us face to face with this fullness of reality.

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Last week my grandma’s brother Roger passed away. A few nights ago my grandpa’s brother Ken passed away. They were both good men, and I’ve always respected and enjoyed seeing them, even if it has only been in brief spurts growing up. Their passings have given me a few reflections over the past few days.

My mother and I were sitting in Ken’s hospital room the morning of his last day. We knew Ken was going to die soon. It was surprising he hadn’t passed the previous night. This 94 year-old man had lived a full life, with roughly 4 times the memories and experiences that I’ve had. [And I think I’ve been around for a while]. He’d fallen in love, raised a family, experienced war, grown old. He outlived 99% of his friends. Everything that he’d ever experienced climaxed to this one final day, and I was one who got to share it with him.

Ken couldn’t talk. He was fairly unresponsive. But, he knew we were there. We greeted him as we entered and sat near his bed. And then my mom reached out and grabbed his hand, holding it tenderly. She told him that we love him, that he’s been a blessing to our family, and that God loves him too. The power of a simple touch conveyed a depth of love words couldn’t express. It was tender and simple, compassionate and natural. A capacity I can grow in.

We started to pray the rosary with him. We’d say it aloud and he’d listen, holding my mother’s hand. And though he was mostly unresponsive, he could still squeeze her hand. After we finished the first decade he reached up and grabbed my hand, holding it as we continued to pray. I’m probably definitely one of the least touchy guys around, [I generally hate hugs at the sign of peace] but in that moment it was right, it was powerful, it was perfect. Holding Kenneth’s hand was an experience of Jesus’ love. Overwhelming love. On a man’s last day on this earth, I got to experience a part of it with him. Fortunately, that’s a gift in the priesthood that I’ll get to share with countless others.

In this Year of Mercy in the Church, I understand a little deeper why visiting the sick is such an important corporal work of mercy. One that I haven’t had too much experience with yet. I appreciate the role doctors, nurses, and others have to play in this ministry. I appreciate the power of love that I see my mother demonstrate so well, especially with her care for my grandma. I think about the loneliness that so many face, as they prepare to face death, and the importance of us sharing that journey with them. I’m also grateful for God’s mercy and love in my own life, and for Jesus not letting death have the final word.

Finally, I appreciate God’s gift of sadness. Tears of a joy from a life well lived. When things are worth crying about, things are worth living for.

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And the stars looked down upon a happy man?

The stars looked down upon a happy man.  G.K. Chesterton wrote a biography on St. Francis of Assisi, one of my two closest saints (buy it here – it’s good). As I was reading it, that line struck me. The stars looked down upon a happy man. Two years later and it still strikes me. A man who grew up prosperous, knowing the thrills of the world, with a father who literally clothed him in jewels, a man who was magnetic and generous with his friends. But a man, though rich in appearance, had a heart unsettled. Uncharmed. Slowly his heart changed. Conversion. From that San Damiano Cross, when Jesus spoke to him saying “go and rebuild my house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins,” this was only one of a series of conversions (First Bio of Francis).

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My friends AJ and Terri graciously painted this for me last week

Francis abhorred lepers. Until he kissed one. He never felt poverty. Until he traded clothes with a beggar in St. Peter’s square. His heart slowly turned, through physical encounters of love and solidarity. It wasn’t until 9 or so years after his initial conversion that he began preaching to animals. And they listened? If all we need in life is what the world can offer us, then we would never have had a Francis of Assisi. Fortunately, we do. And through these small conversions of the heart, in little ways, Francis became the great saint he is. As his father took him to the Bishop of Assisi to charge him as a thief for giving away his money, Francis’ actions perplex me in such a beautiful when he answered, “Up to this time I have called Pietro Bernadone father, but now I am the servant of God. Not only the money but everything that can be called his I will restore to my father, even the very clothes he has given me.” And he took off all his clothes, except a hair shirt.

“He was penniless, he was parentless, he was to all appearances without a trade or a plan or a hope in the world; and as he went under the frosty trees, he burst suddenly into song.” – GK Chesterton

He suddenly burst into song? What Francis found was joy. He found the pearl of great price, Jesus Christ.  He found that Jesus was the only thing that would give him profound, authentic, and enchanting joy. And isn’t that deep down what all of us are looking for? A spark in our soul that fills us with vigor? The knowledge that we are greatly loved and that we have the blessing to share that love endlessly? The gift to the heart to burst out in song when everything else crumbles?

I pray that God might continue to grant me the grace to know joy more fully and the capacity to laugh more easily.

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This is Christian Joy.

I decided to try and write this blog to share and dialogue with you about the joys and questions that I’ve found in my life. I hope that through comments below, or maybe emails, or messages, that you can share insights, questions, joys from your life. I have many wonderful friends and acquaintances that I’m blessed with in life, and over the years we’ve gone and journeyed down different roads. But I think we have a lot to offer each other, especially as we come to the world from countless backgrounds. I hope St. Francis can continue to teach us through the example of his life. Pope Francis too. I hope I can share some of my joy from this beautiful life that I’m blessed with in seminary. And, I hope that your wisdom, and maybe even pains, can help to teach me about the great mystery that we live in. And maybe the stars will look down upon a few more happy men and women.

I’ll share my life with you. I invite you to share your life with me as well.

The grace of Lord Jesus be with all.