Saturday, September 25, 2010

In Days of Old

Yesterday was my sixtieth birthday. Wow! I have a childhood memory of my mother turning forty. At the time I thought she was pretty old and now I have exceeded that number by twenty. My father was only twelve years older than I am when he died.

When I was an adolescent, I remember a certain day when I suddenly became aware of my mortality. The thought of dying brought a feeling of panic over me. Death will eventually come and there is no way to avoid it. At times, I felt that death could come at any minute, but I survived those feelings, at least up to this point.

I remember realizing that even should I avoid accidental death or terminal disease, eventually I will end up knowing I am on my death bed. Having not yet reached my teens, I took some comfort in the hope that dying was many years away. Now that I am sixty, it doesn’t seem so far off.

Three people I know personally died this past week. My Aunt Ethel Mae was my father’s youngest sibling. My family had the privilege of helping her celebrate her one-hundredth birthday in August of 2009. At that time, she appeared to be a great health for her age. She was still extremely active and interested in life until a heart attack slowed her down earlier this year.

The former pastor of our sister parish died on Tuesday. My wife and I attended the visitation for Father Bill earlier yesterday evening. He was a kind and gentle man, eighty-one years old and a priest for over fifty years. In addition to his duties as a parish priest, Father Bill was chaplain of a local health facility for the aged and disabled where he impacted many lives. He was loved and respected by area residents, both Catholic and non-Catholic alike.

A schoolmate a year younger than I also died this week. I did not know him well, but remember him from our high school activities. The circumstances of his death are not known to me, but I find it disconcerting to see obituaries of people younger than me dying of natural causes.

Our faith tells us death is not something to fear. Rather we should be excited at the prospects of eternal life with Our Lord in heaven. Our frail human nature, however, makes us want to put it off as long as possible. A priest giving a homily asked the congregation for a show of hands on how many wanted to go to heaven. Nearly all raised their hands. Then he asked, “Who wants to go right now?” All hands went down.

Comedian George Burns enjoyed some of his greatest success very late in life. He was booked to work on his 100th birthday, although failing health did not allow him to do it. I remember a talk show host, perhaps it was Johnny Carson, asking him about his longevity. As a consummate professional entertainer who prided himself on original material, Burns said he wasn’t going to die because, “it’s been done.” He was certainly right about that. Everyone who has ever lived has either died or will at some point, including George who died in 1996.

The fear of death is shared by many. True faith replaces fear with anticipation, but faith does not always come easy. Our sensual existence does not render clear understanding of spiritual reality. Despite the assurance we receive from the Word of God via the Church, doubt often creeps in. We want to believe, but we are spiritually challenged.

French philosopher Blaise Pascal thought some people do not have the ability to believe. He urged them to live their lives as though they had faith because by doing so, they had nothing to lose and everything to gain. If the possibility of eternal life with God in heaven exists, we need to live our lives in such a manner to get there. If we don’t, the potential loss is beyond measure. On the other hand, if heaven does not exist, and we live as though it does, the loss is minimal.

I wonder how many of us who attend Mass and receive the sacraments faithfully, do so following Pascal’s reasoning. We have doubts, but don’t want to take any chances. The body language of many people in church seemingly demonstrates a disconnect from true belief. They don’t seem to be really tuned in. It is so easy to go through the motions while our thoughts are somewhere else. Without a deep understanding of what the Mass is, the repetitive form of the liturgy can be conducive to wandering minds. To avoid becoming robotic Catholics requires some effort on our part.

Our faith must be nurtured so that it may grow and flourish. Older people may be more inclined to take faith seriously because they begin to think about their mortality. As my ninety-year-old uncle quipped about his regular Mass attendance, he was “cramming for his final exams.” The trick is not to wait for impending death or a serious crisis before turning to God.