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    A View from the Pew

    Living into Dying 

    What do the dying teach us? They teach us how to live. How we live characterizes how we die. For people of faith, the way we live into our dying can be summed up into how much of our lives we give away. Our kenosis, the emptying of oneself to become entirely free to love without reservation, becomes the labor and sum of the Christian. The dying know this in a very real way as their bodies turn away from food, drink, medicine, natural functions, conversation and activity. They cleave to the physical life only inasmuch as they prepared to leave it at any given time.  

    As I sit with my dying aunt and watch her withdraw from life throughout these past four weeks, I marvel at the power God gives us in free will. We can actually choose how well we die by how well we live. Our minds and hearts control so much of what our bodies do, even in our dying. The body accommodates the will to live and the will to die. An ordered spirituality indemnifies how we receive the end of life, even throughout a painful illness. As we grow in mature grace and spiritual adulthood, we elect to choose life to the full through our self-emptying. A tall order in these times of individuality and comprised corporality. The world tells us to consider ourselves first and live for today. In the life of a Christian, we belong to God, attempting always to empty ourselves to become free in the service of the world. In other words, we give our lives away. The marketing industry indulges self-indulgence; the Christian walks in the opposite direction. The road we choose in life determines the journey we pave brick by brick toward the new Jerusalem. We live into our dying on a daily basis and make decisions that verify particular outcomes.

    Every day, I take a couple of stretch breaks and walk down the hall from my aunt’s room to visit a few of the residents. I visited one of them several days ago when she smiled and waved and welcomed me into her lovely room. ‘Welcome to my home,’ she smiled and invited me to sit close to her. I discovered a vibrant 95 year old woman with macular degeneration, hearing impairment and legs that will no longer allow her to walk. Married for 27 years ‘to the most wonderful man in the world’ and widowed at an early age with five children, Louise told me that she considered herself ‘one of the most fortunate women alive’. Her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren visit her daily. They come to Mass in the nursing home chapel with her on Sunday. Her son lectors. Her daughter serves as a communion minister. She loves her time in the Chapel ‘where I feel close to God’ and prays daily ‘thy will be done.’ She told me that she finds beauty in trees and considers them ‘friends of God’ because they ‘give us so much and ask for so little’. The day she called 911 to take her to the hospital when she became sick, she bid her favorite tree goodbye in her yard. ‘I knew I would never see that tree again. But like a good friend, I see it every day in my mind’s eye, even though I can no longer see trees.’ I stayed and talked to her for a long while. When I left her room, I felt refreshed and renewed. This woman, even at 95, still nurtures everyone she encounters. To coin a phrase, she walks by faith and not by sight, living her life to the full the best way she can by being gracious and hospitable, by being her best self. Just imagine the homecoming this woman will receive when she reaches her ultimate goal, Zion, our true home.

    In today’s homily at Emmanuel, Fr. Joe talked about the stages that motivate a baby to walk. They discover they can turn. They discover they can crawl. They find a solid piece of furniture and pull themselves up to stand. And finally, they let go of a parent’s hands to stand alone to walk toward the parent as they take that first uncertain step. The parent knows that they must let go in order for the baby to gain independence and the child must let go of the parents hand to take the step. Fr. Joe used that paradigm to describe our sojourn of faith. God holds us, allows us to walk on our own, fall a million times, skin our knees and bruise our hands as we take more and more steps on life’s journey. Processing toward the ultimate Christian goal requires an adult faith as we live into our dying, walking step by step, with faith, toward Christ, who emptied himself and gave his life away for us as he lived into his death and resurrection. Why would we do less?