[Scroll down to previous posts if you missed the letters A, B, and C of my "Sinner's Lenten Alphabet."]
D is for DEATH. Whoa. She’s jumping from “Coffee and Cheerios” to "Death." But isn’t life like that? One minute it’s about Cheerios and the next it’s about a phone call from the nursing home and your heart skips a beat and you wonder if your mother is dying. Or you see something on the news about Afghanastan and you instantly say a prayer for your son who’s over there flying helicopters for the Army. And as much as we love our children and our parents, the older we get, it’s hard not to be a bit nervous when we go in for our annual physical exam. That’s when our mortality stares us in the face.
In 2001 I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer. My first reaction was to clean out my underwear drawer. Who wants strangers—or even your children—going through those things after you’re dead? Thankfully the cancer was cured with surgery, but it was definitely one of those God moments I will never forget. I found that my greatest concern in the face of death was, “who would take care of my mother?” And that was a good, human concern. But along with that I found myself wanting to be as much at peace with God—and others—as I could.
It’s an ancient spiritual tradition—not only during Great Lent, but always—to live with an awareness of death. St. Benedict said to “Keep death daily before your eyes,” and, simultaneously, to “Look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.” Which is why Great Lent is a good time to re-focus our thinking about death.
I’ve wondered about those prisoners on death row who order rib-eye steak and their favorite dessert for their final meal. I’d like to think that if I knew I was dying tomorrow, I would be hungry for spiritual food—eager to partake of the treasures of Heaven—and no longer interested in my favorite earthly foods.
Most of all, if I knew I was dying, I wonder if I’d be more—or less—motivated to get a book published, to live on the beach, to travel to Italy. But wait, I am dying. We all are. So, how do we balance these desires for earthly pleasures with deeper longings for the things that matter more?
The movie, “The Bucket List,” did a good job, I think, of showing some of this balance. Yes, Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson’s characters did pursue the “earthly pleasures” on their bucket lists—sky diving, traveling the world—but in the end, they also healed relationships with people they loved.
Just this past week or so I got together with two friends (separately) whom I had hurt. One had also been hurt by others and was struggling with forgiving them. Fortunately both friends forgave me. One of the conversations in particular reminded me of how much pain I had inflicted on myself by remaining angry with people at times.
Watching this video from “The Bucket List,” and listening to Tim McGraw sing, “I gave forgiveness I’d been denying,” reminded me of the importance of living each day as if it were my last.
What would you do today, if you knew you were going to die tomorrow? Are there people you need to forgive, or ask forgiveness from? Would you give your money to the poor, buy that dream car you've been wanting, or find some sort of compromise? Would you go to church, even if you’re not sure you believe in God? Would you finally confess that sin that's been eating at your heart for years? What would your bucket list look like?