Monday, May 16, 2011

Preparing for death by dining with the world

In the past two weeks, I have been having very close encounters with death in more ways than one. A dear friend from my primary school days who just entered a seminary in the Philippines as a late vocation died hours after a terrible automobile accident. The mini-van he in was hit by an on-coming bus. He suffered the worst injuries.

Just last week, I anointed an elderly parishioner in the hospital and it was only half an hour after I left the hospital that she passed away, with her family by her side.

A close friend’s mother has been in a coma after suffering a stroke whilst overseas, and lies in a hospital bed till today, hooked up to a machine that monitors her vitals constantly. Fed by a Ryle’s Tube daily, the family had been told to ‘be ready’ at various junctures.

When life presents itself with a variety of death and close-to-death scenarios, the inevitable question that flashes across the mind’s eye is something that prompts one to ask “how does one really prepare for death?”

For those of us who have constantly and consistently declared that Jesus is our way to eternal life, the answer must be found in looking at what Jesus did to prepare for his own death, as he has to be our model for life. We are told that before he died, he had supper with his disciples. Perhaps therein lies the key to the proper preparation for death, no matter how it may come to meet us.

But it is not simply the act of having a meal with loved ones that prepares us for death. It needs to be a meal within the context of a giving, where we, like Jesus, dare to give of ourselves in the most generous of ways. At that meal at the upper room, where the Eucharist was instituted, Jesus showed us the depth to which he was willing to go by giving us his body and blood. And he entrusted this to his disciples as an act to be kept giving and giving – to all, so that sins may be forgiven.

How does one become generous in the context of a meal? By eating with anyone and everyone, without reserve, and without condition. I have met wonderful examples of expansive sharing in people who dare to invite strangers to dine with them at feasts like the Chinese New Year reunion dinner and I have read about such families who offer a place at the family Thanksgiving dinner table to the homeless, simply because it is sad to be happy when someone is not.

The image of heaven that we get from scripture is often associated with a meal where, as Isaiah says, there is a banquet of rich food and fine wines. And if we are to really be prepared for this meal, we need to be also be prepared to eat with everybody. The good, the bad, the undeserving, the annoying, the irritating, all the different races, those of importune circumstance, and yes, those whom we do like and show favour to as well. The problem that most of us are plagued with is that we are not quite ready to sit down and eat with all. And that is when we are not quite ready for heaven.

I believe that it is when we are constantly pushing our limits and removing our borders to share with those who are the most difficult to share with, most difficult to love, and most difficult to understand that our lives become training ground for heaven.

How does keeping a comatose patient on a hospital bed make us ready? By not imposing the phrase ‘quality of life’ using worldly standards. It is when we dare to look beyond the Ryle’s Tube that brings liquid food through the patient’s gullet into the stomach, when we make that choice to speak to the infirm even though we get no answers back, and when we know that giving love means more than getting back love in return, and when we define ‘dignity’ in the broadest terms possible. These ready both the patient and we, the caregivers, for heaven’s banquet that will surely include people beyond our ken.

One more thing that really prepares us for heaven’s banquet is when we participate in the Mass regularly. At each Mass is a melting pot of people who come from all walks of life, and one can find at each Mass the pleasant and the peeved, the joyful and the cynical, the humble and the self-righteous, the holy and the holier-than-thou. But we don’t make judgements because we leave that to God. It is his meal anyway, and he invites all. It is when we make ourselves the judge that makes us not yet ready for heaven’s banquet.

I recall the story of how a priest once asked a young man why he wasn’t going in for Mass on Sunday and stood outside the Church instead. He said “Father, there are just so many in there who are sinful and prideful, pharisaical and hypocrites”, to which the priest said with a smile “oh, then please come on in – there’s always room for one more”.


  1. I like that one too (room for one more prideful, pharisaical, and hypocrite) and almost used it on my husband, but then I guess I would be prideful, pharisaical and a hypocrite! Very much like the poignancy and message of the post. Our pastor priest also preaches we need to love everyone and forgive everyone if we want entrance to heaven.

  2. ‘’ We are told that before he died, he had supper with his disciples. Perhaps therein lies the key to the proper preparation for death,…………’’ – it would seem that to Jesus, death is the most everyday of everyday things – and why not, for as St Augustine said, only death is not uncertain.

    It’s been commonly said that we are born toward death so your take on the preparation for death is very valid. However, if we look to Jesus at this moment, we see that his words and actions, ( though very ordinary ) have a certain deliberateness and intensity. I feel that he is keenly living each precious moment !

    We live our lives in a succession of present moments. Our present moment quickly becomes our past and the future ( the next present moment ) rapidly becomes the present . If we never stop to live the present moment, one day we will run out of present moments and realized that we have not lived at all - for death is not part of life, death is the end of life. We believe that Life is his gift to us. We would be looking a gift horse in the mouth if we fail to live in full awareness of this .