(The Nationalist, 17 November 2006)
Old age is God’s school of teaching us to let go. When we were young, we were strong and confident; we never thought of death. In middle age, we were vigorous and felt in control; we had more authority, perhaps through promotion. When we move into old age, we find things gradually slipping away from us; our bodies tire more easily and don’t recover so quickly. Relatives and friends die one by one, and we may feel lonely and friendless.
We find it hard to accept the fact of ageing, its consequences and implications, such as our increasing dependence on others. We want to be independent, but reality tells us that we are becoming progressively more dependent.
We can grow old gracefully or – to stretch a point – we can grow old disgracefully. The first is by accepting reality, calling it by name and befriending it. The second is by trying to live in denial, or by becoming demanding and selfish, using moral blackmail to get our way.
The Christian faith is not afraid to look death in the face. It doesn’t say, ‘Joe passed on’ or ‘Mary is no longer with us’ but simply ‘They died.’ It doesn’t use fancy language to take the sting out of it. Some people are afraid of death; mostly they are people who were afraid of living in the first place.
The Christian faith teaches us that death is not the end but a turning point. In the funeral Mass, we say, ‘Lord, for your faithful people life is changed, not ended. When the body of our earthly dwelling place lies in death we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.” Beyond death lies resurrection; after every Good Friday comes Easter Sunday. At Mass we say: ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”
Christ has freed us from sin and death through faith and baptism, and so we can face the impending reality of death, even though we do not know the day or the hour, the manner or the place – only the fact. (One of the paradoxes of life is that the only completely certain fact about it is death.)
We can face it with courage, not running away from it, because of our faith in Christ’s death and resurrection. When his doctor told the 44 year-old Saint Francis of Assisi that he did not have long to live – he had TB – Francis said, ‘Welcome, Sister Death.” It brought him closer to what he had lived for, life with God.
A good preparation for death, a way of making friends with it, is to reflect on the seven sayings of Jesus on the Cross:
“Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” – forgive your enemies.
“Today, you will be with me in paradise.” – keep hope alive.
“Woman, behold your son; Son, behold your mother.” – settle your affairs, make your will.
“I thirst.” – I still have needs; don’t forget me.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – at times I will feel abandoned.
“It is finished.” – accept the end gracefully; don’t fight it.
“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” – trust in God.
For those in a hurry: ‘Instead of frightening me, death is the most ardent desire of my heart, the summit of my happiness.’ (Saint Pio of Pietrelcina)