Death and dying are things that many people don’t like to talk about or think about very much. The saying that there are two things that are certain in life – taxes and death – is probably very true, but still, the topics of death and dying seem to be taboo. Yes, this holds true even for Catholics who believe in the promise of the resurrection of the dead.
As a priest who had been in the parish and active in ministry for the ten years before coming over to the States, I was constantly reminded of how fragile life really is, especially if I was the presider at a funeral liturgy, and even much more so if I had journeyed with the person before his death. If there is one thing that I miss in active ministry it is funeral masses. To be sure, weddings are lovely and beautiful, but I am still quite unconvinced that many couples really are deeply aware of the true vocation that marriage really is, and what God is really calling them to as a sacrament. It’s a common lament among priests – that much as we can talk and instruct and guide couples about marriage and its deep meaning, many of them are just too polite to ask further, or too caught up in the ‘romance’ to be awed by God’s part in this relationship. Most of the time, the deeper significance of how God is present to a couple in marriage comes much later in their married life. I guess this is where marriage enrichment programmes like Marriage Encounter come in. Apart from marriages, there are baptism liturgies and first communion liturgies, which are part and parcel of parish life that I do miss as well. But I must say that it is the funeral masses that I find most meaningful and also most challenging to ‘celebrate’ well, and yes, something that I do miss.
Why this is felt strongly by me is because I have come to see that very often (of course there are exceptions) it is when we are at these ‘life border’ situations that we come face to face with death, especially with the death of a close relative, a spouse, a child, a parent or a dear friend, that something opens up. At these liminal-space moments, one can hardly turn one’s gaze away from just how fragile life really is. Many a time, I have found that these are moments where a person becomes receptive to life, to love, and to reality. Life as it is lived now at this breakneck speed provides too many ways to escape from the depth and meaning of life. I am not a party pooper, but if our life is just one big party after another, one high after another, one thrill after another, one titillation after another, it is when these are brought to a halt that one begins to see another side of life that asks one to search for meaning and depth. These times are the tender entry points for God to enter through a portal of one’s life which hitherto may have been stubbornly closed shut, and where the words “mercy” and “forgiveness” had hardly been on the list of one’s everyday vocabulary.
I have found that when I spend some time at funeral wakes to speak to family members, that they begin to “loosen up” their view that the Church is ‘stuffy’ and ‘officious’, much more so when the death was a result of an apparent suicide. In a multi-cultural and multi-religious society like Singapore, particularly in some races, there will be a very mixed crowd that gathers at the funeral liturgy, and this becomes a most excellent time to broach the topic of the gift of Divine Mercy that Jesus is for all of us. There is bad form and good form at these liturgies, and bad form would include saying that the deceased is now an angel; or that God needs Grandma more than we do now; or that Aunt Sally is now a saint in heaven (because we are not the Congregation for the Cause of Saints), among other things. Good form is preaching about the promise of the resurrection, the need to continue to pray and offer up penance and petition for the soul of the deceased, the hope that our Christian faith gives us, and the meaning of the many liturgical symbols that one sees surrounding the casket and in the sanctuary. They all give great hope for us at the time of separation and grief.
Ultimately, it is mercy that we have been given by God to have enjoyed life (because God could very easily choose not to create us, but he did), and it is mercy that makes it all possible for us to be united with him after we have lived our lives on this earth.
Some of us are not as blessed as others. Most of us have been surrounded by friends who love and support us in life. But some of us may have people who are just bent on making our lives miserable and full of suffering. What does the Christian do when one is plagued with these “itches that cannot be scratched”? I think one of the greatest things we could ever do to those who do harm to us, those who hate us, those who curse us, those who wish evil on us, those who misjudge us, is to pray for these people that they will receive God’s mercy. Cursing them would be to lower ourselves to their level, and certainly not something worthy of Christian action. Jesus told us to bless those who curse us, and forgive those who curse us. This is perfection in God’s eyes, and we should all aim for perfection. Anything less would be an insult to the One whose image and likeness we are made in.
How should we best prepare for death? By being merciful, because this hones our ability to be appropriate receivers of Divine Mercy when it is shown to us. We can’t get ready overnight. We need a whole lifetime of priming so that when it comes our time to receive God’s Mercy, we will recognize it for the amazing grace that it is.
It’s a bit like getting the centralized heating working when the cold winter approaches. Now I know that this is something Singaporeans would never associate themselves with but bear with me. Here in DC, the warm summer days are over, and temperature is dropping each day. Mike, the Maintenance Manager of our “castle” shared with me how the central heat gets working in winter. There are miles of radiator pipes that send the steam generated from the boiler in the basement throughout each room, each hallway and each bathroom of this immense place. Apparently, this needs to be done slowly, in increments of half hour segments for about three weeks before it can be fully operated, because a sudden surge of super-hot steam through pipes that were not used for the past nine months would surely cause them to burst.
As Mike shared this with me, I immediately saw its link with mercy. We need to keep opening our pipes of mercy regularly, offering them to others, so that when God’s mercy comes full at the end of our lives, we are ready to receive all that God wants to give us.