I’ve had in my life a few friends and people I have been pastorally responsible for who, when they were dying, immersed themselves in deep gratitude. Gratitude—not that they were dying of course—but grateful that dying awakened them to life. They lived at the last knowing the preciousness of every moment. They also lived with the hope of knowing they would be with their God which bought them great comfort. Friendships developed with those I was to be with during this period at the end of their lives for which I have been greatly appreciative. They also began to appreciate their relationships and friendships.
Then there is the shedding of bad relationships and habits that I observed in these friends. Not so much ambitiously “making the most” of the remaining time, but summoning love toward life through each moment they had left. Not so much checking things off an extravagant bucket list, as admiring the symmetry of the bucket itself. Even in diminishment, enlarging the capacity to love. I don’t mean to glamourise dying. More often, that kind of heightened consciousness is impossible through trauma and pain. I’m inspired nevertheless by these friends and fellow Christians during the end of their life journey.
I’m reminded of Saint Benedict’s admonition to “keep death always before you” for the very practice of daily waking and reawakening to life against death. Anchorites took a scoop out of their graves every day for the same reason, or stitched their shrouds so that they might remember the “one thing necessary”—that they might love the gift of life. Being rich toward God seems to me to be more about consciousness than about bustling around the church managing God’s business.
Noticing the scent of lavender and earth and early morning and still being grateful for it at the end of the day. Noticing the other: taking risks in love for Love disguised as the unlovable. Should I ever be too sick to love, I hope I can remember these comforting words from Teresa of Avila. “Prayer is an act of love, words are not needed. Even if sickness distracts thoughts, all that is needed is the will to love.”
You know, when it comes to how we as humans face the end of our life on this planet fear seems to be the key emotion. That fear drives us to all sorts of odd behaviour and increase our pain towards the end. It is, however, also possible for fear to drive us to rather bizarre extremes in all sorts of areas of our life. For instance, if the fear of heights makes us stay in one place, or to never leave the house because we might encounter a tall building. Or if we can't go camping because someone might start a campfire to cook; this is a bit extreme, and it now is driving us to live life in an untenable way.
And if our fear of scarcity rules us, makes us believe we can't do things; we are now driven by a reality that is only a perception. You see, this could well lead us to agree with those that say, they are tired of churches saying what they cannot do. If you look deep enough, what we are fearful of admitting is that we are only limited by our choices. In other words, it is not that we can't, it is that we choose not to. And so, an almost non-existent threat now rules our lives.
This is how fear rules us. When Jesus says, "do not be afraid," it is likely that he was plenty smart enough to know we would be. He also was plenty smart enough to know that to rule something out of your life; you must know you have it in your life in the first place. We are convicted by the reality of our fear of scarcity every time we hear those words: "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." We are so afraid of this that we don't even want to look at it, or we reinterpret it in some really creative and self-serving ways, ways that make common sense, because, we are about common sense.
We are common sense people. Abundance does not seem plausible, so we are afraid. We've been trained that way. But, what are we afraid of? If we would really delve into that question, really look at it, more often as individuals and especially as a people, we would serve ourselves well. Because, sometimes our fears actually teach us something, make the scales fall from our eyes as we see the things we idolise; our health, our wealth, our status, and by so doing helps us to find life and experience life as never before, and in a richer way than ever before.
That is the trust, the faith that is described in Hebrews and in Luke today. It really gets at what we fear about Scripture, about this man named Jesus.
Because one fear we have, a real one, is that the Gospel is usually bad news before it is good news. We have to travel through both realities. The things we fear can teach us. But, as in all things, we can't live life in its fullness or get well, until we know and admit our affliction.