There are many spiritual writers who have posited that embedded in our DNA there is, as it were, a yearning for and a longing toward greatness. Gurus like Teilhard de Chardin and thinkers like Simone Weil have said that we have inside of us a very deep longing to submit ourselves in obedience to a higher power. If we do not do this, we will end up the other way – being pompous, self-interested, self-serving, and living in a very small world. It is when we endeavor to submit ourselves in humble adoration of true greatness that is beyond the self, that we can overcome the constant temptation to live only for the self, and to secretly yearn to be adored through our stories of success and recognition.
The early Christians may not have developed this notion well in terms of pithy statements, but they certainly lived it well. Many of them got it right when they longed for martyrdom as an aim of their Christian living. For them, apparently, martyrdom was something normal, and not extraordinary. It was a sure-fire way to show how determined one was to attain heaven at all costs, even to the extent of losing one’s earthly life in the process. Psychologists these days will have plenty to say about what martyrdom complex in an individual may reveal in terms of achievements and personal grandiosity, but by and large, it has always been acknowledged that the foundation of the Church had been laid by the blood of the martyrs.
Martyrdom when understood in a healthy way and lived out in our current times often does not need to include the shedding of blood. Perhaps one of the least appreciated and easily misunderstood martyrdoms is that of dying a happy death. I have written and pondered in this blog-site about what dying a happy death encompasses, largely because our Catholic culture has its patron saint, St Joseph, who is the patron of a happy death. But it bears repetition and a re-visiting to appreciate in a new way what in essence a truly happy death is as far as the Christian mind is concerned.
Perhaps what needs to be debunked first is that a happy death excludes tragedy, suffering and pain of any sort. A superficial understanding of a happy death seems to have the misguided notion that one should just fall into a deep slumber and without the slightest experience of suffering or pain, have one’s heart stop beating and drift off into the bliss of heavenly eternity. If this is what marks a happy death, then perhaps the majority of the human race, and definitely very very few canonized saints had not had a happy death at all. It’s more a rarity than a reality, which then makes the prayer for such a happy death something closer to a figment of our imagination, or wishful thinking.
But a happy death needs to be seen in what has to be the blueprint of what a truly human life is, and for us, this is the life of Jesus our Lord and Saviour. His death a blueprint? Does this mean that I should be dying after being beaten and scourged, stripped and bleeding, hanging and shamefully naked from a cross?
Lest we get carried away with our imagination, it is what Jesus bore in his heart and what he carried deep within that marks what his death gave us. His amazing ability to not blame and shame and victimize those who hated him is what gave him the ability to surrender everything back to the Father in love and humility. In that grace-filled act, Jesus handed over his death for the salvation of the world. One spiritual writer describes it so well when he said that one of the things that makes Christ’s death is so special and saving is that he didn’t carry the cross and then send them the bill.
A happy death is thus marked by what we do not do, rather than what we do. Suffering is part of the package of life that we have been given, and how we handle it exposes where we get our energies from. If we are bitter, angry and want to make others pay for this, we will emit out from our hearts a bitter energy, an angry disposition and the need to send everybody the bill for our pains and sufferings and anguish. But when we become transformers of these energies and instead of bitterness send out kindness, instead of anger give out forgiveness, and instead of sending others the bill of our sufferings give out love and charity, we truly become the presence of divinity in the world around us.
To want to live this way answers the deep and often silent heart deep within each of our authentic selves that bears the divine DNA of God through our baptismal identity. We may not realise this, but to want to hand over our deaths in a life-giving way and to end our lives in holy surrender and not with bitter regret is something that we all share as God’s children. This is what handing our deaths over to others means at its deepest level. It means that we are willing to let our own deaths, firstly our little deaths each day, and then our one great act of dying at the end of our lives, to be something that energizes others and empowers others to love and live well. But as Christians, we need to do this with a consciousness that shows that we are richly influenced by Christ and not by our own egos and vanity. This is perhaps the real hard task of dying well, and dying happy. It requires us to put our faith at the forefront of both our living and our dying.
When done well, we give over our lives to those we leave behind an energy and a vigour that has a lasting value and power that is beyond ourselves. The ‘happiness’ becomes something that is passed on to those who live on in this world so that they are similarly empowered to be co-transformers of the world to help to make ‘God’s kingdom come’.
Being aware of this constantly means that it doesn’t matter if we die of a debilitating illness, a traffic or industrial accident, or through the sheer carelessness of another human being. These things do happen in fact.
One parting note about dying well also necessarily means that we leave very little unfinished business tended to in our lives. This ‘business’ refers to words and gestures that we know should be shared with those who will stand to benefit from them most, and these parties often are not necessarily our loved ones, but includes those who are also the thorns in our sides. Our dying well necessitates a deliberate reaching out to them in love, charity and patience – acts that will no doubt stretch our hearts in love. But we will only be able to do this with a conscious choice because Jesus first stretched out his arms on the Cross becoming the saving conduit between heaven and earth.