Betting There’ll Be a Big Safety Net

Almost fifty years ago, movie cop “Dirty Harry” Callahan asked “Well, punk, do you feel lucky today?”  Sometimes Harry’s crooks chose wisely not to resist arrest, but others tried their luck and lost.  A lesson lurks there about avoiding mindless violence.  Harry possesses superior (fire)power—why fight back? Make a better decision because the only alternative is swift, violent retribution.  This line, shorn of the violent scenes, came to me reflecting on today’s readings.  The Second Sunday of Easter features readings from Acts, Psalm 118, I Peter, and the striking post-Resurrection scene with “doubting Thomas” in John 20.  Every Scripture offers a rich banquet, but this day particularly so. Even before we reach the Gospel we encounter “the stone the builders have rejected” which becomes the cornerstone and an account of the Church featuring the works of mercy.  It is this passage in Acts 2 from which Cardinal Ratzinger/Benedict XVI launches his discussion of communion ecclesiology in Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith (2005). The Church’s communitarianism—spiritual and material—constitutes, Benedict states, the true freedom found only in the Trinity (p. 58).

Thus “Do you feel lucky today?”—because God’s mercy comes only through the Church, why gamble on it being any wider?  Every reading today instructs us to make wise choices. I Peter makes this particularly clear: through mercy, God in Christ bequeaths us “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you who by the power of God are safeguarded through faith, to a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the final time”. Thus the communion of the Church is far more than mere material assistance, but a foretaste of the Trinity’s communion.  Don’t bet on finding this anywhere else (and, for any Schleiermacherian readers out there, this applies especially to our idiosyncratic experiences).  There’s no need to gamble on God’s mercy—we know where to find it. Better than Dirty Harry’s offer, too, because why issue a threat when God’s offer far surpasses anything we know?

Perhaps that rosy vision might seem too Pelagian.  “Come on, all you need to do is stay within the Church and presto! Mercy!”  No, the Gospel promises that God helps those who cannot help themselves.  This, of course, includes all of us. It becomes all the more important to remember that today is also Divine Mercy Sunday, a fitting celebration of God’s mercy following the Triduum.  While the novelty has not yet worn off, Divine Mercy Sunday likewise has gained a popular following in parishes and online.  Beyond the devotional practices—venerating the image, praying the Chaplet—the Divine Mercy tradition contributes an astonishing reminder.  St. Faustina records Jesus stating His mercy extends to all, especially those souls apparently furthest from Him.  “Let the greatest sinners place their trust in My mercy. They have the right before others to trust in the abyss of My Mercy” (Divine Mercy in My Soul, #1146). And “the greater the misery of a soul, the greater its right to My mercy” (#1182).  At one level this is not new—the Gospel like today’s reading teaches us the very same point about salvation in Christ through faith.  It is, though, a refreshing jolt to have this universal message conveyed through such a particular channel like St. Faustina. Her experiences are not merely spiritualized escapism. Like the early Church in today’s readings, actual corporal works of mercy must accompany prayer (#742).  Obviously we are a far distance away from “Do you feel lucky today?”, but also obviously the breadth of Christ’s mercy extends more widely than we know or admit.

An indication of my inner Augustianism is my stubborn refusal to recognize that I, the trained theologian, might have construed God’s mercy much more narrowly than St. Faustina, “merely” a nun in interwar Poland.  On the surface, the Divine Mercy seems like yet another expression of Catholic devotionalism.  One more image, one more set of prayers, etc.  Our elitism, though, should not blind us to Divine Mercy’s lesson:  that through the very particular, God conveys the very gift of His all-encompassing mercy.  Again, the Gospel already proclaims this.  Jesus does not merely offer salvation in some general fashion; He accomplishes it by being a Jewish carpenter from Nazareth who dies in a particular (and particularly awful) way and then rises on the third day. Thus “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”

Next month the Church will recognize the centenary anniversary of another devotional expression of this same lesson.  The Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to three young children shepherding near Fatima, Portugal, in May, 1917.  Pope Francis will canonize them next month as part of the one hundredth anniversary celebration.  The Fatima apparition, appearing during the First World War and requesting spiritual resistance to Bolshevik aggression, resembles the Divine Mercy in its devotional popularity and scholarly skepticism.  On the other hand, St. John Paul II, clearly a scholar, expressed firm devotion to both!  The “Fatima Prayer”, requested by the blessed Mother to be added to the end of each Rosary decade, expresses the same sort of radical inclusivism we find in Divine Mercy.  “Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of Hell, lead all souls to Heaven, especially those in most need of Thy mercy.”  This is one of those instances where the literal interpretation is also the scariest:  that could mean anybody.  It is our fallen nature that pulls back, that hesitates.  We all know people—public figures as well as personal friends and acquaintances—who fit the bill “those in most need of Thy mercy”.  When we are honest with ourselves, we realize this include us, too.  This also dismisses utterly any lingering “Do you feel lucky today?” resentments.  We remain called through today’s readings into the Church and thus God’s great, unmerited Gift. Fatima and Divine Mercy remind us of another Scriptural reminder:  that God’s mercy through Christ extends far beyond our comprehension to those who appear much farther astray.  Yet we should not presume, betting on God’s mercy (Romans 6:1).

Guest blogger Jeffrey Marlett blogs at Spiritual Diabetes.

The Alpha and the Omega

“’I am the Alpha and the Omega’, says the Lord God, who is and who was
and who is to come, the Almighty [pantocrator]” (Rev. 1:8).

 “You judge your people with righteousness and new life abounds.”
Prayer of Dedication by Rev. James G. Kirk

This past February my husband and I spent two weeks in Sicily. Our “home base” for that time was stunning Cefalú on the northern coast, with its famous Norman cathedral built in 1131, commissioned by King Roger II. In the cathedral’s apse is one of the most famous mosaic icons of Christ Pantocrator. “Pantocrator” can be translated as “Ruler” or “Sustainer” of all, an idea that, if you peruse the internet quickly, you will see described as an apt image, borrowed from imperial Rome, for an imperial church. It is sometimes even translated as “king.”

But this Easter I’d like to propose that following Jesus, even as a king, is somewhat more complex than most Wikipedia articles and travel guidebooks suggest, and one way we can be certain of that is the widespread popularity through the ages of the Christ Pantocrator image. To put it more personally, I might be the Christian least likely to be attracted by empire in any place or in any form, so I don’t think that’s the reason I felt drawn to stop in to visit that Christ Pantocrator twice a day. I would guess it has been the same for other Christians who have been drawn to that image, either in Cefalú or many other places, throughout the Christian world.

Even a brief gaze at the icon begins to reveal its complexity. The Christ in Pantocrator images carry a book of scripture in his left hand. I am not an expert in icons, but I understand that if the book is closed, the image is technically a Pantocrator, and if the book is open to reveal a passage of scripture, as in Cefalú, the image is a slight variant usually called “Christ the Teacher.” Therein lies the beginning of the depth of the image in Cefalú: is this Christ merely the image of conquering Norman power in religious dress, or is he more? And if he is more, then what does he have to teach?

So Pantocrator sometimes translates as “king”. But what if the point of using it, like the imperial titles and slogans that are applied to Christ throughout the New Testament (“savior,” “prince of peace,” and so on), is to subvert imperial pretensions?  When we hear phrases like “all things,” we tend to think “all things human.” But the phrase is repeated enough in the scriptural witness that I do think it means all things. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 1:15-17). Aside from a line or two in Virgil, even the masterful propagandists of Augustus dared not make such claims.

How do we, limited as our horizons are, even begin to consider this idea that “in him all things hold together”? In Cefalú, the book Jesus carries is open to the Gospel of John 8:12, which reads in both Greek and Latin: “I am the light of the world, who follows me will not wander in darkness but will have the light of life.” A lock of Jesus’ hair is being gently blown across his forehead. The better guidebooks will point out this realistic detail as one of the great artistic triumphs of this particular image, and indeed it is dazzlingly that.

But the lock of hair and the passage from John reminded me that light often represents the gentle presence of God but it rarely gets the credit that Elijah’s moving “gentle breeze” does. Both images suggest an all-encompassing and ever-present reality of God’s sustaining love to which we often choose not to attend and yet most of us wish to experience as fully as possible. Some have recently found the appreciation of the cosmic Christ in the everyday expressed poignantly in what is now referred to collectively as the Celtic tradition. In a meditation on an Easter pilgrimage she took in Wales, Rev. Mary Earle tells us that

[i]n Welsh, the ordinary word for universe is “bydysawd,” which means “that which is baptized.” All that has come into being—every particle of matter, every creature, every person, every star and planet—is encompassed in the pattern of Christ’s dying and rising…The Celtic Church, following the teachings of the early councils of the church, understood that this all-encompassing, uncreated Light of Christ, the Light that breaks into the tombs of our hearts and the graves of our bodies, is eternally present in all times and in all places.

I expect this is what the image of our Pantocrator meant all along to those not looking through eyes and hearts desiring dominance, a deeply benevolent sustainer of all who loves so much as to join us in darkness and help us find the gentle light in all. That is a far cry from the “peace through victory” that is a maxim of any form of empire. I once heard Daniel Berrigan say, in response to a question that was desperate with the desire for the United States always to win in all ways and at any violent cost, “Maybe we just need to change our idea of what winning means.” That sentence changed the course of my life, because I suddenly understood that domination is never true power, not at all related to God’s power.

So now I see this Christ Pantocrator with the blowing lock of hair and the words of light ruling more like the Celtic St. Melangell. The sixth century Irish princess fled her father and his plans for her marriage, becoming a hermit in Wales. She was given land for a monastery, as the story goes, by a prince who found her sheltering under her robe the rabbit he and his hounds were hunting.

So maybe it’s time to stop rolling our collective Catholic eyes at rabbits as a “pagan” Easter symbol (mea culpa). Maybe care for the most vulnerable creatures and recognition of our oneness with them—created by God for himself and from his love and redeemed together with all creation—is in fact at the heart of Christ’s resurrection and rule. And perhaps the righteous judgment that comes from our great Pantocrator is the ever-flowing gift of new life, even when we can’t quite discern either the light or the life in a particular situation. The Pantocrator images represent the constancy of God’s gentle sustenance, symbolized especially in this annual feast of Easter.

At the end of their pilgrimage, Rev. Earle writes that the pilgrims were given a poem by the Welsh poet, Saunders Lewis, one of my own favorites. They are lines which can serve as a daily reminder to stay attentive to the Uncreated Light who sustains all:

Cherish the dark’s obscurity
Look for the diamonds in debris,
Thank God for all His mystery
And LIVE.

Pamela Hedrick teaches Sacred Scripture and spirituality for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Merton – On Simplicity of Life

In the 19th century, such notables as Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Bronson Alcott conducted experiments in simple living.  In the 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi lived simply in order that others might simply live.  During the same century, Thomas Merton sought to embrace and live out the Cistercian monastic charism of simplicity of life, which is rooted in the Rule of Saint Benedict.  According to Merton, “The very essence of Cistercian simplicity is the practice of charity and loving obedience and mutual patience and forbearance in the common life which should be on earth an image of the simplicity of heaven.”[1]

As a Cistercian monk, Merton studied, wrote about, and sought to live out Saint Bernard’s understanding of simplicity.  According to Merton, Saint Bernard’s teaching on simplicity of life is valid for all Christians, not simply for Cistercians.  Reflecting on Saint Bernard’s teaching, Merton notes that when Adam and Eve fell from grace their pride was the birth of sin and the immediate ruin of human simplicity.  Duplicity (doubleness in self) then concealed each person’s natural simplicity.

Merton explains that, for Saint Bernard, in order to reach the desired return to one’s original, natural simplicity, one must first develop simplicity in the sense of sincerity that includes the awareness of one’s shortcomings.  Next is simplicity in terms of humility, which involves self-acceptance as one dependent upon God for all things, especially one’s very existence.  For Saint Bernard, a further form of simplicity is that of the intellect.  Regarding intellectual simplicity, Saint Bernard stresses that the one thing necessary in life is knowledge and love of God and that the only way a person can truly know God is by loving God.  Additionally, as Saint Bernard indicates, there is also the matter of simplicity of will that manifests itself in one’s embracing the common will, which is the good of all.  For Cistercians, simplicity of will includes obedience of the monk to his abbot who, in monastic life, is considered Christ’s representative, and submission to one’s brothers in community.  Regarding monastic obedience, Merton reflects: “If we want union with God, let us obey our superiors and give in to one another, and seek to do what is profitable to others, not what happens to suit our own pleasure or convenience.”[2]

According to Saint Bernard, a person who embraces a life of simplicity is able to progress to the experience of union of his or her will with God’s will in a marriage of love.  In this union, which Saint Bernard describes as a kiss, the person who is immersed in God has no other interests or desires but those of God.  In such a mystical marriage, the person participates in God’s uncreated and utter Simplicity.

During his life as a Trappist monk, Thomas Merton strove to live out the Cistercian charism of simplicity of life. In his final years, as a hermit Merton took up residence in a cinder-block dwelling on the monastery property.  There, Merton developed a daily simple routine of prayer, study, some writing, preparing and consuming  meals, washing dishes, and cutting wood.   In the greater silence of his lodging in the woods, Merton sought mystical union with God.

Also during the latter part of his life, Merton became interested in the community called the Shakers.  The Shakers’ simplicity of life was what most attracted Merton to this celibate community.  According to Merton, the Shakers and the Cistercians were “born of the same Spirit.”[3]  In a letter to Edward D. Andrews, Merton wrote:

I am deeply interested in the thought that a hundred years ago our two communities were so close together, so similar, somehow in ideals and yet evidently had no contact with one another. … I feel all the more akin to them [Shakers] because our own Order, the Cistercians, originally had the same kind of ideal of honesty, simplicity, good work, for a spiritual motive.”[4]

Merton recognized in both the Shakers and Cistercians a lifestyle centered on the rhythmic interplay of prayer, work, and study.  Both communities looked upon work as a sacred endeavor, a participation in God’s ongoing work of creation, entered into for the praise and glory of God.  Both groups also shared a commitment to peaceful living and the sharing of goods in common.  The motto: “Hands to work and hearts to God” that Shaker foundress Ann Lee coined Merton deemed applicable to the Cistercian as well as the Shaker way of being.

In his writings, Thomas Merton stresses that the Cistercian and Shaker commitment to simplicity of life provides a clarion call to humans to embrace sustainable ways of being.  With respect to sustainable practices, I believe Merton would insist that all be done by humans in order to grow in greater union with God by loving all of God’s creation.  Finally, I am convinced that Thomas Merton would argue that any sustainable actions of the human community be entered into in order to live simply so that others, including Earth itself, might simply live and that simplicity of life is always a work in progress.

Sr. Marilyn Sunderman, RSM, Ph.D., is professor of theology and chair of the on-campus undergraduate theology program at Saint Joseph’s College.

[1] Thomas Merton, The Spirit of Simplicity (Trappist, Ky.: Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, 1948) 124.

[2] Merton, Thomas Merton on Saint Bernard, 143.

[3] Thomas Merton, A Search for Solitude: Pursuing the Monk’s True Life, Ed. Lawrence S. Cunningham (San Francisco, Calif.: HarpercCollins, 1996) 287.

[4] Letter of Thomas Merton to Edward Deming Andrews, dated December 12, 1960 in A Meeting of angels: The Correspondence of Thomas Merton with Edward Deming and Faith Andrews, Ed. Paul M. Pearson (Frankfort, Ky.: Broadstone Books, 20087) 12-3.

Book Review – 33 Days to Morning Glory, by Fr. Michael Gaitley, MIC

Michael E. Gaitley, MIC’s book 33 Days to Morning Glory is an instructional guide for consecrating ourselves to Jesus through Mary. In this book, Father Gaitley provides us with a means to ponder Marian messages that bring us closer to Jesus, creating “a new way of life in Christ” 1 – a way to sainthood.

Before we proceed, let’s discuss what it means to consecrate ourselves to Jesus through Mary. When we go through the 33 day self-retreat, we learn how to dedicate our lives to Jesus through the assistance and prayers of His mother, Mary. We give her all our prayers, worries, anxieties and dreams, and she fills us with God’s grace. As we consecrate ourselves to Jesus through Mary, we give our lives to Christ, lived under the tutelage of Mary. Who’s closer to Christ than Mary? What human understands the heart of Jesus better than Mary? Therefore, what better guide to have in searching for Jesus, than Mary?

In the introduction to the book, Father Gaitley speaks of his own first time consecrating himself to Jesus through Mary and found it to be a life changing experience. I can attest to the same thing. Back in 2012, when I did it for the first time, I was in the process of studying for my Master’s Degree in Pastoral Theology. Uncertain of my future, I placed myself in the Blessed Mother’s care. Since then, God has done some wondrous things with me. I now teach Theology, write children’s books with a Catholic view, blog about morality and virtues, and I speak on the Catholic faith.

Do you want to do some exciting things for the Lord? Okay then. Here’s how Marian concentration to Jesus through Mary works, using Michael Gaitley’s book:

  1. You start the retreat 33 days prior to a Marian feast day (There is a full list of them contained within the book). It just so happens, that if you start your retreat tomorrow, you would finish it on May 13th, the 100th anniversary of the apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima.
  2. Each day, you read a passage from the book, accompanied by a short prayer. Michael Gaitley divided the book into four weeks, with each week covering a Marian Saint. In week 1, we learn about the life of Saint Louis de Montfort, who created this lovely tradition of consecrating ourselves to Jesus through Mary. In week 2, we learn about Saint Maximilian Kolbe, who helps us to truly understand the Immaculate Conception. In week 3, we learn about Saint Mother Teresa and how she tried to satiate Jesus’ thirst for souls. In week 4, we hear from Saint John Paul II about how much he loved the Blessed Mother. For the last five days of the retreat, Michael Gaitley summarizes the material covered in the first four weeks and prepares you for your own consecration to Jesus through Mary.

As part of the preparation process, Father Gaitley strongly encourages receiving the sacrament of Reconciliation, and receipt of the Eucharist at Mass on the Marian feast day. After Mass, you recite the Consecration Prayer. You can opt to use one of the consecration prayers that Father Gaitley provides in his book. Once you have done all of that, you are consecrated to Jesus through Mary. It’s that simple!

Every year, I re-consecrate myself to Jesus through Mary by re-reading this awesome book, and by receiving the sacrament of Reconciliation, and then attending Mass on the Marian Feast Day. Every time I read this book, I pick up on something that I did not notice in the past. It’s as if each year, I have little epiphanies that help me to know Jesus and Mary much better.

If you would like to consecrate yourself to Jesus through Mary, then order your copy here.

Virginia Lieto teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online. She is the author of children’s book Finding Patience and blogs at www.virginialieto.com.

 

1 Gaitley, Michael. E. 33 Days to Morning Glory, Stockbridge: Marian Press, 2011, Print. p. 20

Merton – On Silence and Solitude

Silence is a key theme in Thomas Merton’s life and writings.  During the first Eucharistic celebration in which Merton participated, he was very moved by the silence that was integral to the experience.  In 1935, Merton attended a Quaker meeting and was impressed by its silent nature.   Regarding his first visit to the Abbey of Gethsemani in 1941, Merton reflected that the silence there enfolded him and spoke more eloquently to him than any words possibly could.[1]  During his twenty-seven years as a monk at Gethsemani, Merton frequently took solitary walks on the extensive property there and quietly contemplated the beauty of the nature that surrounded him.  Encounters with birds, deer, frogs, and landscape such as ponds, knobs, and thick forests sent Merton’s spirit soaring because, for him, nature was a window on God’s incredible creativity.

In 1968, while in the Himalayas, Merton spoke of his several retreat days there in the following way:  “I appreciate the quiet more than I can say. This quiet, a time to read, study, meditate, and not talk to anyone is something essential in my life.”[2] Furthermore, at Polonnaruwa (in Thailand) close to the time of his death, Merton was completely overtaken by the profound experience of gazing into the silent, knowing faces of the Buddha sculptures there.

For Merton, silence is a basic human need.  Silence cleanses the spirit; it heals and rejuvenates one’s being. According to Merton, without some level of chosen silence, language becomes a clanging cymbal; it is mere sound and fury!  Regarding the necessity of silence, Merton asserts: “If our life is poured out in useless words, we will never hear anything, will never become anything, and, in the end, because we have said everything before we had anything to say, we shall be left speechless.”[3]

In his writings, Merton discusses exterior silence as the absence of sound which can lead to interior silence that entails the stilling of thoughts, desires, and judgments.  Entrance into the quiet of interior silence prepares one to commune with God in solitude. In solitude one is alone in conscious awakeness to God.  One is in tune with the Logos who emerges from the solitude of the Father and the Spirit, who is the solitude of love between the Father and the Son.  In solitude one, becomes absorbed and immersed in the immense and fruitful silence of God.  According to Merton, solitude is a “country whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.  You do not find it by traveling but by standing still.”[4]

Hermits testify to the truth that solitude has meaning and value.  In the following ways, Thomas Merton refers to his experience of solitude in his hermitage on the property of the Abbey of Gethsemani:

Steady rain all day.  It is still pouring down on the roof, emphasizing the silence in the hermitage and reinforcing the solitude.  I like it.[5]

 

I really need the quiet, the silence, the peace of the hermitage. [6]

 

I am just beginning to really get grounded in solitude, so that if my life were to be on the way of ending now, this would be my one regret.  Loss of the years of solitude that might be possible.  Nothing else.[7]

Merton understood the silence and solitude of the hermitage as privilege and responsibility.  From his hermitage, Merton reflected on the nexus of solitude and loving his fellow monks:  “I can see that there is a fruitful and happy obligation on my part of love them here in the hermitage and pray for them, and to share their burdens in solitude … to believe that I can be for them a source of healing and strength by prayer.[8]

According to Thomas Merton, all who are serious about their spiritual lives need the experience of some degree of silence and solitude, which are not luxuries but, rather, necessities  in life.  In one of Merton’s prayers, he states: “In solitude I have at last discovered that You have desired the love of my heart, O my God, the love of my heart as it is.[9] In solitude, one disappears into the loving, fruitful silence of God and is transformed by the experience!

Sr. Marilyn Sunderman, RSM, Ph.D., is professor of theology and chair of the on-campus undergraduate theology program at Saint Joseph’s College.

[1] See Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1968) 321.

[2] Thomas Merton, The Asian Journal, Eds. Naomi Burton Stone, Patrick Hart and James Laughlin (New York: New Directions, 1973) 158.

[3] Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York: Farrar Straus & Cudahy, 1958) 91.

[4] Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1949) 58.

[5] Thomas Merton, Love and Living, Eds. Naomi Burton Stone, and Patrick Hart (New York: Farrar Strauss & Giroux, 1979) 4.

[6] Merton, Love and Living, 294

[7] Thomas Merton, Learning to Love: The Journals of Thomas Merton vol. 6, 1965 – 1967, Ed. Christine M. Bochen (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997) 33.

[8]Merton, Learning to Love, 365.

[9] Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, 121.

Living a Good Life and Seeking a Good Death

 

In the final post in our series on the Mystery of Death, we reflect on how our earthly pilgrimage prepares us for death. 

 

For many of us the last year will go down as one of the worst in recent memory. A contentious election cycle (the ripple effects of which are still being felt) left most Americans with a sour stomach. But as tough as all that was, for many the year was particularly upsetting for one reason: 2016 was “The Year That Killed (almost) Everybody.” Not really, of course. People die every year – every day, in fact. But last year a lot well-known people died at what seemed like an alarming rate. Thanks to social media, the news of every one of those deaths was immediate and ubiquitous. Suddenly our own mortality seemed as close as our Facebook feed. Much was written about the silliness of “mourning” celebrities, ridiculing the idea that 2016 was somehow “cursed,” and “stealing” celebrities away from us. In hindsight, I think the whole conversation missed the point. Death is a reality none can escape, and in a world where news is shared in seconds, it’s not a matter of suddenly soaring numbers, but of our increased awareness that this life doesn’t last forever.

The “celebrity death” that most impacted me kicked off last year’s mythical “trend.” On the morning of January 11, I awoke to the news that singer David Bowie had passed away the day before, following a private battle with cancer. The news left me strangely shaken. Bowie had been my companion through years of teen angst, college coming of age, and independence-seeking young adulthood. His music was the soundtrack for a large segment of my life, and even as my tastes evolved and I moved from “fangirl” to appreciating a wider musical landscape, Bowie was always in the background. Wherever I was in my life, in whatever season or circumstance, if a Bowie song turned up on the radio I put on my red shoes and danced the blues, without missing a beat. Like an old friend not often heard from, but always kept in one’s heart, David Bowie and his music were just always there. Until, he wasn’t.

On December 10, 2013, my mom, Dolores, passed away in the hospital. She didn’t have what you’d call a “good death,” in that she was in some distress at the end. Details aren’t necessary, mostly because three years haven’t eased the pain or erased the memory of that evening. I’m not naïve to the fact that suffering is part of life, and too often an aspect of the dying process. Still, watching someone you love suffer is hard, and it’s okay to admit that and to feel it. To dwell on it, though, disturbs one’s mental and spiritual peace, and gets in the way of the good memories and the love we continue to have for those who’ve passed. Bingeing on thoughts about that suffering, having regrets, and second-guessing one’s participation in the dying process (Was I truly present at the end? Could I have done something to prevent the suffering – or even the inevitable?) leads us away from experiencing the death of a loved one – and Christ’s presence in this experience – in a truly Christian way.

This post isn’t about a rock star, or “the year that killed people,” or even my mom. It’s about living a good life that puts death in the proper perspective. It feels strange to say it, but David Bowie’s death exactly two years and one month after my mom’s put me in touch with the reality of the Communion of Saints in ways I never expected. Bowie indulged in all the excesses a rock n’ roll lifestyle affords (quite a different one from my cradle-Catholic mom), until he “settled down” in the last 25-30 years of his life. His music was provocative, sometimes incomprehensible, but always infused with a sense of the Supernatural. Bowie sought God in his music, but I think his search was fraught with obstacles – many of his own making. How his search ended on that Sunday in January, I don’t know. I pray for him every day, though, as I pray for my mom and so many other souls who have passed. Taken together, I think that reflecting on the “God-haunted” life of a stranger, and the “God-seeking” (as imperfect as it often was) of my own mother awakened in me a new urgency to live a Christ-centered life, while hoping for a Christ-centered death – for myself and for others.

We shouldn’t dwell on death in a morbid way that consumes us, frightens us, or becomes obsessive. God wants us to live a good life (striving toward virtue, avoiding sin, and being in right relationship with Him and our neighbors), while being mindful that this life is not our ultimate end. God wants us to live a good life, and hope and pray for a good death.  That seems like a contradiction, but it recognizes that this life is a journey, not a destination. Our lives should reflect our hope for an experience of death that leads us to the joy of Heaven. A good death isn’t simply (or exclusively) one free of pain – though that’s a worthy prayer! A good death (for the Catholic/Orthodox Christian) affords us the Sacrament of the Sick, receiving the grace and comfort needed for passage into new life. A good death offers the opportunity to “make our peace” with loved ones, say our goodbyes, and allow family and friends to be with us. A good death is one in which we are mindful of the nearness of the Lord, so that when He calls to us, we will have the grace to respond, “Yes, Lord!”. We should hope and pray that we, and those we love, experience peace and comfort, lack fear, and gratefully anticipate the warm embrace of our Father when it is time for us to go.

Having a good death isn’t just about the dying process and the moment of death. As believers in the Communion of Saints, we know that the souls of those who’ve died continue to need our help as they are purified by God. Through prayer, sacrifice, and celebration of the Liturgy we commend to God’s mercy the souls of all those who have died, both the saintly and the committed sinner. The death of David Bowie convicted me of the necessity to pray especially for those who didn’t know God, lost faith in Him, doubted or even rejected Him. As I said earlier, I don’t know the state of Bowie’s soul at the end. But I pray with confidence that the God who isn’t limited by time hears my plea for a flood of Divine Mercy to be poured into the souls of all His departed (even if doubting) children, that they would recognize the Lord’s voice and embrace His mercy. This is what God asks of me and of you: to pray, trust in His mercy and have hope.

Praying for the souls of those who have died is good (and necessary) for them – but it’s also good for us. It reminds us that they’re gone from our sight, but not gone forever. Prayer keeps them close to us, in our minds, in our hearts, and on our lips as we speak their names to the Father of Mercy. Praying for the dead helps us maintain a healthy outlook on death as that mysterious, scary, but inevitable doorway to Life. The Communion of Saints – those of us praying through our pilgrimage here on earth, and the saints already in Heaven – are the family of God, and our prayers are joined together in praise and petition. Thus, praying for the dead draws us more closely together as a family.

Death shouldn’t be a morbid obsession, but a reminder that this life is a pilgrimage, and death the last signpost before reaching our destination. Instead paralyzing us with fear, death should shape how we live our lives. Mortality needn’t be a cloud over our heads, but should move us toward a deeper our relationship with God. Our lives should be an invitation for others to experience the joy of loving and being loved by Him. Therefore, as urgent as it is for us to pray for those who have died, we must also pray for the living who don’t know God, who doubt Him, or who are so wounded and hurt (for whatever reason) that they turn away from Him. When the opportunity presents itself – and the Spirit moves us – we may share our experience of God’s love with them. But when it’s not possible – or prudent – to explicitly share the Gospel, we should fervently pray that God will soften hearts, heal wounds, open minds, and rain down His mercy on them, and all of us.

A rock star, a mom, a torrent of celebrity deaths, a year that seemed to have been orchestrated by the Grim Reaper himself, and the mercy of God at the end of this life. I’ll admit this is an odd mix of thoughts for considering living a good life, and having a good death. But God meets each one of us where we are, in our pain and in our joy; in fond memories of a loving mother…and in our Spotify playlists. God speaks to us of His abundant mercy and love in the suffering of our dear ones, and in the song that cries out for a sign that He is real. I pray every day for the soul of my mother, because I love her still and I want her to rest close to the heart of the Lord she remained faithful to until the end. I pray, too, for the rock icon who touched me so deeply with his art, and stirred in my heart the hope that he – and many others among my own family and friends who’s hearts somehow grew cold with doubt – experienced a flood of warm and healing Mercy. I pray that I’ll live my life a little bit better every day – more Christ-centered, more loving and merciful. I pray that each day I’ll be more mindful that while death is no picnic, it is the means by which Christ to leads us to the Feast of the Lamb. Let’s pray for the souls who have gone before us, for ourselves, and for each other. And let’s do our best to live a good life, and ask God for the gift of a good and holy death.

 

O Lord, I am the image of Your glory * which is beyond description, * even though I bear the marks of transgressions. * Have mercy on Your creature. * O Master, in Your compassion cleanse me. * Grant me the home I yearn for, * and again make me an inhabitant of paradise.

~From “Great Panachida, Office of Christian Burial (according to the Byzantine Rite) in the Church.” Prayer of the Deceased.

Ann Koshute teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Programs.