Monday, October 31, 2011
On death and dying
Every once in a while, it is healthy to set aside some time to ponder about where our lives are heading, and to really appreciate the fact that our life here on this earth is going to end some day. I think it was Woody Allen that said that he’s not afraid of dying. He just doesn’t want to be around when it happens. I wonder if he speaks not just for himself but for quite a lot of other people as well.
I’ve read about it in books and other people’s reflection when they describe the change in the seasons from Autumn to Winter, how the seasons themselves are nature’s reminder to everyone that life doesn’t remain static, but is on a constant change, where one season gives way to another. I guess, I am blessed to be able to experience this for myself now that I am in Washington DC, where we are in the middle of Autumn, and everywhere I turn, I see nature’s reminder that life is in transition. The leaves are all turning colour, as can be seen from the enclosed photograph of a tree that I passed on the way to school on Friday. The cold that is seeping into the north east of America is telling the leaves that it is time to stop the chlorophyll manufacturing that goes on in the leaves. This withdrawal causes the green chlorophyll to be stored in the trees, leaving behind the other non-green chlorophyll that gives autumn its characteristic colours of gold, red and orange. Soon, all these leaves will fall too, leaving nothing but the denuded branches to survive the harsh and cruel cold of winter.
The Church also has her own ways of reminding us of the transience of life around this time. On Tuesday and Wednesday, we celebrate two very special liturgies that serve as timely reminders of our fragility. On November 1, we observe the Solemnity of All Saints. It never fails to remind me that this is what we are all ultimately called to become, and this is really God’s grand plan for us all. We celebrate that there are millions who have gone before us who really have gone through life’s arduous journey and passed with flying colours. We don’t know how many such saints there are, but we know that there are many. Many more than there are canonized saints, for sure. For all we know, some of them are our very own blood ancestors who in God’s eyes, have lived the faith well, and have joined their lives with the life of Christ in the most concrete of ways.
Is it a high celebration? It certainly is, and there is great call for it to be. It is a celebration of heaven’s entire population whose cause for its existence is the generous and overflowing love of God. And it also reminds us that we are not alone in this journey of ours, no matter how few friends we may actually have. These unseen friends of ours are the saints who are constantly in God’s presence, and are praying for us so that our journey in life becomes as fruitful as theirs. They pray that we will make the right choices in life; that we will choose to love rather than hate; to respect rather than disdain; uplift rather than trod down; that we will put God before all else in life, and to know that no life on earth is not worth living. And they know that these choices are not easy choices because they consciously made those choices in their lives. So, though they are no longer with us, All Saints’ Day is really a celebration of life; a celebration of the Church Triumphant, as the Fathers of the Church called them.
The next day is another celebration of the Church as well, but that of the Church suffering or Church Expectant. These souls are in their purgative way to be readied for the beatific vision that awaits them. Too little has, in my opinion, been preached about the beauty and richness of the theology of Purgatory. If heaven is sublime, and it is, purgatory is next in terms of sublimity. It gives all who are there in that state of purification the greatest promise that heaven is indeed a blessed assurance. It is a day to remember at Mass all our deceased relations and friends whom we have shared many things with. With some of them we have shared joys, sorrows, meals, interests, surnames (as family) and our beds (as spouses) as well. Their passing from this life has left us with many a lacunae in our own lives. Our prayers and works of mercy carried out with their intentions become them our way of joining hands and hearts across the barriers that life and death have formed.
Some say that the Catholic Church is rather morose, citing these celebrations as dark and somber. I suppose if one were to use the wrong lenses to look at these celebrations, one could be left with a searing sense of ennui and languor. But what we need are the correct lenses so that the image of life that we get from these celebrations are uplifted and enlightened. I hope this blog entry gives this hope to all its readers.
Indeed, as the leaves on the branches of the trees outside my window turn from green to amber to gold, they will soon all fall to the ground when the last vestiges of life get sapped from them. The season is truly changing here. It was German theologian Karl Rahner who said that in this life, all symphonies remain unfinished.
To Rahner's erudite reflection I venture to add this - as we we live our lives, let us try as best as we can to harmonise with those unfinished symphonies so that the completed chords can join with the choruses of angels in their unending symphony of praise.