Keeping Death Daily Before Your Eyes

This weekend, there are many puzzle pieces to consider: first, we said goodbye to many students as they graduated. Second, another puzzle piece is that of 100th anniversary of apparitions at Fatima, which occurred yesterday. Third, today is Mother’s Day. Fourth, our readings this weekend speak very much on vocations to priesthood and religious/consecrated life. And there are probably many more puzzle pieces that I’m missing.

The thing that unites all these puzzle pieces is obviously … death! Now I can hear the objections: what a morbid a topic to discuss on such a celebratory weekend! But really, it’s not morbid. How often we describe funerals as “celebrations of life.” And our Gospel reading is one that is frequently used at funerals. If we think death is morbid and perhaps a verboten topic for such an occasion, then I daresay we really don’t understand death and definitely don’t understand the consequences of the Resurrection. We have not really obtained and practiced the virtue of Hope

What shall we do, Soul, what shall we seek? 
Have you not seen, Soul, how the brightest and most precious things of earth end? 
If death treats earth’s splendor so, who can resist it? 
That same death has his arrow directed at you. 
Were it not well to die to the world in life in order to live with God in death? 
Give me, O God, give me Your light, give me Your Spirit. … 
Nevermore will I serve a master who can die on me. 

These are the poignant words of the Duke of Gandia in 1539, better known as St. Francis de Borja. These words pinpoint the moment of his conversion. He was living a worldly life and serving the Empress Isabella during that time, and it fell upon him as duke and chamberlain to escort the casket of her mortal remains from Toledo to Granada Cathedral. He was assigned to declare that, when the casket was opened, this was indeed the body of the once beautiful Isabella. Yet looking at her body, he and the others were shocked at how quickly it had deteriorated. Upon his return, the Duke informed Charles V of his desire to enter a monastery. The Emperor did the same, both for a time. Both began to understand that there is something hereafter to which we must seek. Yet the pressing needs of the events of the 16th century, especially with the Ottoman Turks on the borders, brought them both back into service. But death would continue to tug on Francis de Borja’s heart to point towards heaven. After his father’s death four years later and then his wife’s in 1545, he entered the Society of Jesus. And became a saint.

When a loved one dies, and of course, I am thinking of my own mother on this Mother’s Day, there is a realization that there is more to life than this, than witnessing the mortal remains of a loved one, unmoving and cold, and perhaps even decaying. I shall never forget the day I touched her cold, lifeless body on the hospital bed. I wanted to say: this isn’t the person whom I love. That person is departed, gone, all too suddenly, and one walks around with the distinct feeling that she should be there by my side but isn’t. So where is our loved one?

And Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God, have faith also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” The Christian virtue of Hope isn’t one that says, “I hope I have a good lunch,” or “I hope I see this recent graduate again.” Rather, Christian Hope is that our loved one is in the Father’s house, the dwelling place with many mansions (mansions in Greek, not rooms). Death then becomes a threshold, a door, to that place. 

The actual door isn’t the death of the loved one, it is the death of the One who loves, Christ on the Cross. Everyone who participates in the death of this One will participate in the life to come. This side of heaven we only see a Body nailed to a tree. From the other side, what shall we see? I think we shall see the shadow of the Cross falling on all mankind, with the Resurrected Christ as the light source. We can’t know for sure, for if I went there to heaven and looked back at the world, I wouldn’t be coming back to tell you. The shadow of the Cross falls on all of us, more so on those who take to heart Jesus’ words, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” 

The more we surrender to the Lord and “prefer nothing whatsoever to Christ,” the more will the shadow of the Cross fall upon us. Especially when we truly embrace our God-given vocations. For vocations only make sense with the virtue of Hope at their very core. 

The first reading speaks of setting aside some men for service; the Church has often seen this as the origins of the Order of Deacons, although this passage doesn’t call it that. Vocations to the priesthood, deaconate, and consecrated life all need this virtue of Hope at their core for them to make any sense. Otherwise priests and deacons are mere social workers and monks and nuns are useless busybodies. Even motherhood (or fatherhood for that matter) need to point to heaven for their vocations to make sense. For if you raise your sons and daughters to be merely good men and women, you’ve only done a small fraction of your task. Getting them to heaven is the bigger part of your vocation. 

So how do we look past the distressing disguise of death and glimpse our destination? By doing what Jesus says, to store up treasures in heaven. We gain entry into those eternal mansions by placing our treasures there. For us monks, the main treasure we place is that of humility. I have often said that upward mobility for a monk is to go mow the lawn. To be content with the lowest place, to cultivate peace in our community (because original sin tries to pull us apart daily), to pray unceasingly, and above all, to never despair of God’s mercy.  

As I conclude, I want to point out some important features of our Abbey Church, relevant to the virtue of Hope. First, take a look at the image of Christ resurrected on our fresco. What’s in the way? You have to look around the crucifix hanging above the altar. It is the doorway of Christ on the Cross. St. Benedict tells us to keep death daily before our eyes. Otherwise we cannot glimpse heaven properly and prepare our life here on earth to point there. And second, take note where the monastic community sits in this church. They sit between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. The silence of Holy Saturday becomes our life. And from there we point the world to heaven. 

If you need help in cultivating the virtue of Hope, call on our Blessed Mother. For in the Hail Mary, we petition her to “pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” Why? Probably because we shall need her intercession to walk through this doorway (point to crucifix). She was always pointed towards our Father in heaven throughout her whole life, and she too did that through the Cross. Therefore, keep petitioning her by praying the Hail Mary! We need it to live in the virtue of Hope. 

Hail Mary ….