The Death of a Family
I just spoke to one cousin dying in hospice in Ohio, Betty, and we are preparing to attend the funeral of another cousin, Rob, in St. Louis. Betty seemed in good spirits, and asked me if I knew they gave you morphine by mouth now. I didn't answer, but I do know. It's called Roxanol, and eases the discomfort dying cancer patients feel. My older brother is with her, for which I am glad.
The cousin closest to my age, dear Patty, has just left Betty's bedside to go back to bury her brother tomorrow. I literally cannot imagine what Patty is feeling, losing two siblings to cancer at the same time, and being thrust into the role of decision maker and organizer of it all. In my mind we're still kids at the lake they camped at every summer. There were grownups to sweat the details. Having buried our parents, somehow we became the grownups, ready or not.
I can't help but observe that as the members of the family die, there are precious few to replace them. And the handful of cousins of my own children are scattered and virtually unknown. We are creating a world without brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts or uncles. That may seem to be irrelevant to this essay, but it isn't. More than individuals are dying. I am watching a whole clan disappear forever. Although I know this is worldly thinking, it grieves me bitterly.
Suffering, death. Usually, small, and private; sometimes big enough to be called a disaster. These loom large in the experience of survivors, and are, for many, a test of faith.
I can honestly say that my faith is very weak, but suffering or disasters have never been what has shaken it. My faith is weak simply from lack of tending and being overgrown by sin.
But as for death, I have an idea that it is all a matter of perspective. I imagine Heaven's Newspaper. Its headlines are very different from ours, because it is reporting on what's really important, what has eternal consequences.
What are these headlines? What gets stuck back on page 234,062? (Heaven's Newspaper covers a lot, but then, there's plenty of opportunity to read it.) I think the headlines are things like, Wilberforce Beadle Goes to Confession after 10 Year Wait. Or maybe, Rudolph Blucher Thinks of Jesus, Gives Up Seconds on Spaetzle. Maybe on page 10, Mary Amberson Makes Perfect Act of Contrition In Plane Crash. An earthquake kills a a hundred thousand, and the headline (way back on page 15,433) Thousands Moved to Contribute to Relief, Here are Names.
Father Benedict, in his Rule, makes a charming statement that angels carry reports to God about us every hour. What is "news" to us, is unimportant. If I won 36 million dollars in the lottery, the headline suggested by my angel would be, Illinois Man Exposed to Tremendous Temptation.
The Simple Answer to Suffering and Death
It isn't news in Heaven that people die. It astonishes me that here it is, especially if a large number of people happen to die at once. There is a place where no one dies, and children do not suffer. Its name is Heaven. We do not live there yet, so we have what we have on Earth. Many cry as if they think we deserve Earth to be turned into Heaven at our demand, and many become angry with or even lose their faith in God because he does not grant their wish right now.
All in good time. The above paragraph is as clear and consoling to me as I can wish for. What people really want is Heaven, which is good. They're not there yet. All they need to do is to make sure they seize it.
Death in Perspective
In the 911 attacks, 2,996 died. 280,000 died in the 2004 tsunami. Numbers somehow make a difference to us, but 151,600 die unnoticed each and every day anyway. Just a few less than the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. If there were the equivalent of the Haiti earthquake every day somewhere, our news reporting apparatus would collapse. But solely because the usual daily toll is scattered around the globe, in singles and small groups, those deaths are not newsworthy.
I do not find numbers impressive. That is why disasters do not shake my faith. They are statistical anomalies, although relief to survivors is another matter. The truth is, everybody dies alone, apparently mostly at random, and it is alone that we face the dread Judgment. Why then, should I be troubled by a disaster? Life is a gift, but it is not ours to dispose of. God has our end well in hand.
Thy eyes beheld my unformed substance;
in thy book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.
(Psalms 139:16 RSV)
We are also reminded of the brevity of life, which is supposed to teach us wisdom.
As for man, his days are like grass;
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.
(Psalms 103:15-16 RSV)
If we are brothers and sisters in nothing else, it is that we all face death. The thought that we are fellow adventurers into the apparent negation of everything we hold dear ought to make us kinder toward one another.
Jesus on the News of the Day
In Luke's Gospel, there is the story of two tragedies, headline stories, so to speak, that people asked the respected rabbi to explain to them. Jews had been killed by the Romans while making their sacrifices, and a tower had collapsed, killing eighteen.
Jesus dismisses the headlines the people were seeing. He did not call for organized resistance to the Romans, or demand tougher building standards for towers. He is reading the headlines from Heaven's Newspaper, which focuses on the spiritual aspect of the two calamities, the fate of souls in an unexpected stroke of doom.
There were some present at that very time who told him of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish."(Luke 13:1-5 RSV)
The victims were not any worse than the people confronting Jesus. There is nothing to keep anyone from sudden and unexpected death. The important thing was the spiritual message, that the living repent. That was the headline in Heaven's Newspaper, perhaps listing the names of a few who followed Jesus's demand. In Heaven's newspaper, the actual collapse of the tower isn't even mentioned.
Dying well. That's what's important. My cousin Rob is said to have died comforted by the sacraments of Holy Mother Church. What a consolation for us who will soon follow! Repent! That was Jesus's command. Life is fragile, and fatality stalks us. Not all of us will have the luxury of time to do the things we should have done.
May the headline in Heaven's Newspaper be that you, gentle reader, died in a state of grace, fortified with the sacraments of Holy Mother Church.