Monday, November 25, 2019

What does faith look like?

One of the things that a priest is privileged to is the entry point to the times of a person’s life at critical junctures of life. At birth, a priest is there to baptize a child for his life in God to begin and to flourish.  When a person makes that decision to enter into a life-long covenant in marriage, we are there to receive those vows on behalf of God and the Church, and at Confession, the priest tends to a person’s most vulnerable state when he humbles himself and puts pride aside to admit of his brokenness and frailty and mistakes.  These are all very very privileged places to be, partly because one needs to be trusted enough to hand over one’s life to another in trust.
A quote from the late Cardinal Francis George, who was the Archbishop of Chicago when he died.
But one of the greatest privileges that one can have as a priest is to be called to a person’s last moments of life on earth. It is undoubtedly when one is most vulnerable, most weak, and most helpless, where earthly help is concerned.  But it is also where the greatest help and aid can be given to a human being, because the help that one needs at that time is supernatural, and it touches faith.  “What does faith look like?” one may ask.  

We use the phrase ‘faith’ rather loosely and often don’t tag it concretely.  When things aren’t quite concrete and tangible, they can end up being ethereal, and as a result, can also not influence much of our daily life.  But faith is power, and power is also something that is unseen until it is harnessed and applied in life.  If faith is power, what does this power enable us to do?

One of the most important things that faith must enable us to do is to surrender.  Spouses in marriages will agree that if there is little or no faith in the love of the marriage, there is also very little courage or effort in surrendering oneself to the other.  This surrender takes on the form of being kind, patient, forgiving when wronged, going the extra mile in loving actions, etc.  When there is not faith in the other, and in the love of the marriage, one becomes less willing, or not willing to live out those virtues. Rather, one will be calculative, parsimonious and unwilling to put those values and virtues into practice.  

Living this way requires of one to die to oneself. There is a constant need for this dying to self in marriage daily, and this doesn’t only apply to people in the married state.  Because every single one of us have the tendency to live lives that are self-centered and ego-centered (a residual of original sin), this dying to self is something that is similarly required of every single person.  When we die to ourselves, to our egos, to our needs, to our pride, we are in effect handing over our lives.  To whom?  To God. Faith then takes on a concrete form, when we are handing over our lives, in love, to God who is love.  

But handing over our lives in surrender to God isn’t the ultimate handing over that we need to do in life.  The ultimate handing over to God is to hand over or surrender our deaths to God, and that surrender is most crucial for us as God’s sons and daughters.

Whenever I am called to minister to a person’s last remaining days on earth, oftentimes in a hospital, I realize that I am also witnessing this handing over.  It is never the same, and it is often an indication of how much of handing over of oneself one has done during one’s lucid and healthy moments of life.  The peace that one experiences at this liminal moment in life is often predicated on the kind of peace one has given out in life. Suffering and pain experienced at these moments are not to be seen as one not having peace.  Oftentimes, the family thinks that when their dying loved one is in some form of pain or suffering, that the person is not at peace. This is when it would be most prudent to look at Jesus’ last moments of life on the cross on Calvary.  There was tremendous suffering and it was definitely excruciating (ex-crucis, from the Cross) for Jesus, but he was at peace, because he was surrendering his death to the Father whom he knows not only is a loving God, but is love itself.

In this most liminal of moments in our lives, it will be our last time that we will be dying to the self.  It will be the most unselfish thing that we can do, because we will be giving up the most precious thing that we have – our lives. Our faith takes on a very concrete form because we are saying that we have faith in the promise of God’s mercy, God’s love and God’s heaven.  Just think of how the many martyrs of the Church had shown such tangible faith at their dying moments when their persecutors made demands of their faith, asking them to renounce their faith, but instead they chose to give their lives up for God.  

Not all of us are called to be such martyrs with our blood, though some of us may pray for this grace.  But all of us will be called to give up our deaths when our time comes.  The Church has named St Joseph as the patron of a happy death, but there are so many ways we interpret what a happy death is.  It surely cannot be only defined as when a person manages to make a good confession just prior to taking in one’s final breath.  Let’s be honest - of the numbers dying each day in the world, the ones that get that privilege make up only an infinitesimal percentage.  

A happy death then needs to be understood as a willingness to hand over our deaths in the way that Jesus did – with no regrets, with no unfinished business, and with a joy that looks forward to what comes after.  But we will only be able to do this well if in our daily lives we are also willing to die to ourselves.  

Our task in life is to die before we die, so that when we die, we will not die.  

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