And Then There's Death
by Fr. Jack McArdle
I did a video some years ago, called "Death, a Fact of Life". The opening shots were intended to grab attention. The first shot was a birth scene, where the baby was seen being born, and the cord was cut. The scene that immediately followed this was the straps being pulled up from the coffin, after it was lowered into the grave. The intention was to make a point. Life is a journey from one birth to another birth. I am born to die, and the very moment I am born I have taken my first step towards death.
There is a journey from the womb life, to the womb of life, to the fullness of life. Once life begins, it never ends. If I drew a line along a wall, and off to the horizon, and then marked two X's on it, a few inches apart, it would help illustrate the fact that I spend a tiny part of my existence in the body. The body is not me. I am living in the body for a few short years. Then I will leave the body, and go on to the next stage of life. I have a donor card for the body, when I am finished with it, and anyone is welcome, who can find any parts that are still useful, after I have finished with them! What is left is called "the remains", because that is what will remain after I have gone ahead to the third and final stage of life. The body is like the booster rockets on a space shuttle. They give propulsion, and direction, and are then discarded, when they fall back to earth. When I am launched, as it were, the body can then return to the clay from which it came.
A man was strolling through a cemetery with his little four-year-old daughter. She pointed to the tomb stones, and asked him what they were for. He was really puzzled how best to explain something like this to a four-year-old. "These were people who lived in those houses down there, and then, one day, God asked them to come and live with him in his house." There was a moment's silence, and then another question. "And, daddy, did they go off to live in holy God's house?" "Yes", said the father, hoping to end the discussion. Then the little girl's eyes lit up, as she looked up at her dad and said, "And guess what, daddy, I bet you when they went off to live in holy God's house, this is where they left their clothes."
And, you know something, she was spot-on. This is where they left their clothes, which they don't need now. I will never go into a coffin. The body I now live in will probably end up in a coffin, but, by then, I will have gone ahead, to become what I was created to be. It is after I pass through the second birth, which we call death, that I will become what God created me to be.
There were grubs crawling around in the bottom of a pond. They were talking, and wondering whatever happens to those among them who have crawled up the stems on top, and have never returned. They wondered what it might be like up there. They made an agreement with each other that the next grub to climb the stems of the lilies would return to tell the others what it was like up there. Sure enough, after some time, one felt drawn to the surface. He climbed to the top, and out on a leaf on the lily-pond. It was so bright here, so bright and so warm. It had been so dark and cold down below. Suddenly, something started to happen to him, as he began to change, to open out, to discover that he had two beautiful wings, that he had actually become a beautiful dragon-fly, which he was created to be, in the first place. He had no idea of this, as he thought he was supposed to remain a grub, or a caterpillar, all his life. He flew back and forth across the pond. He could see them below, but they could not see him. There was no way he could get back to them. After a while, he gave up trying, because, he concluded, "Even if they could see me, they would never believe that a beautiful creature like me was ever one of them!"
There is a very wide gap between one stage of life and the next. Imagine if an unborn baby could hear you clearly, as you speak to it. The frustration would be that not one word you could use would mean anything to the baby, with its little intelligence. Ireland, Dublin, water, light - not one word you could use would mean a thing to the baby. We sometimes hear it said that no one comes back to tell us what it's like. I think it would be a waste of time, because it would be like the dragon-fly, and the grubs, or you and the unborn baby - the gap would be too wide, and, in the words of St. Paul "eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of people to imagine what God has in store for those who love him."
Life itself can be very uncertain. Death is the only part of life that is sure and certain. What do we do about it? Face up to the reality now, and make that reality part of how I live my life, or keep it away out there in the future, and hope that God changes the way he does things by then?! Keep my head down, and don't even think about it, until it approaches me? One thing is certain : We shall all die one day. "I shall die one day" can be too close for comfort, and so it's safer to keep it in the plural.
An elderly husband and wife were chatting, and they made a pact. When one of them died, the other would mourn for only a limited time, then collect the insurance money, and have a really good holiday. After a while, the man said. "Mary, do you know what I was thinking? When one of us dies, I think I'll probably go to New York."! Notice it's always the other people who die all the time. Some day ... some day ... it will be my turn ... 'the bell tolls for thee'.
There was a rich man one time, who heard of a priest who was reputed to have a hot line to God. The man came to him with a most unusual request. He asked the priest if he could find out for him if he would definitely go to heaven when he died. The request was unusual, but the offer was tempting, because the man offered to make a very generous contribution to a new church being built. The priest agreed to take on the task. After a while, the man returned to ask him if he had received an answer to his query. The priest said he had. When the man asked what the answer was, the priest told him that he had good news for him, and he had bad news for him, and he asked which news the man wanted to hear first. The man was taken aback somewhat, but he asked for the good news first. The priest told him that, yes, he was going to heaven when he died. The man was delighted, and he felt that, with this good news, what could possibly be bad news after that. The priest replied "The bad news is that you are going to-night"! It's strange, isn't it, that the second part should be seen as bad news? Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die!
Life in the womb is preparing the baby for life on this earth, just as life here now is in preparation for the third, and final stage of life. In some ways, it could be said that death is the greatest kick of all, and that's why it's kept until last. For the mother, that first birth is sometimes followed by post-natal depression, just as the second birth is followed by bereavement. There is an exact parallel between both events. A worthwhile life was described thus by someone :When you were born, you alone cried, while everyone else was very happy. Live your life in such a way that, when you die, you will be happy, and everyone else will be crying. Or, as Mark Twain put it, "Live your life in such a way that when you die, even the undertaker will be sorry!" Life is a constant struggle, a continual tension between what I want and what I need, between what I want to do, and what I ought to do. If you ever waken up some morning, and your life is the way you had always wanted it, the way it ought to be, don't move - just stay where you are, and wait till the undertaker arrives!
A cow and a pig were out for a walk one day. The pig was very depressed, and the cow asked the reason why this was so. The pig complained that nobody liked him. Whenever they spoke about him, their language was quite offensive. Someone was said to eat like a pig, another was said to snore like a pig, while a mother told her son that his bedroom was like a pig-sty. "They never use language like that, when they speak about you", said the pig. "When they speak about you, they use very respectful language. For example, they speak about a milking parlour. It's all so proper and correct." "But there's a good reason for that", replied the cow. "look at all I give them. I give them milk, butter, cheese, and cream." "But what about me?" asked the pig. "I give them bacon, ham, and pork." "That's right", replied the cow, "but there's a vast difference in the giving." "How is that?" asked the pig. "I give it to them while I'm still alive", said the cow. "They have to kill you to get anything from you." God gives me nothing for myself, not even the gift of life. Anything I keep to myself during life, when I die, it dies too.
If the unborn baby could think, it would be terrified of dying, because it is moving out of the only world it knows. Once there were twin boys in their mother's womb. After some time, they became aware of the cord, and, after further discussion and examination, they decided that their mother must really love them, because she was sharing her very life with them. Some time further on, they became aware of changes occurring in themselves. They noticed tiny nails appearing on their fingers; they noticed little eye-brows, eyelashes, etc. They wondered what this could mean.
Then one of them suggested that they may be getting ready to be born. The other little guy cringed, and said "I don't want to be born. I want to stay where I am." "But we have to be born", said the other little guy. "We cannot stay here all our lives." "How do you know there's any life after this? Have you ever seen any one that was born? Did any of them ever come back to tell us what it's like?" "There just has to be life after this. If this is it, it makes no sense at all. I honestly believe that we are here preparing for the next stage, whatever that will be." "But how do you know there's a mother? What does she look like? Have you ever seen her? I bet you we only invented her for our own security." And so, the argument went back and forth.
One was already a little atheist, while the other was a man of faith, which, in simple English, meant that he believed something, but had proof for nothing! And finally the time came, and they were born. When it was safe to do so, they opened their eyes, and found themselves looking up into the face of their mother. They looked at each other, as if to say "Weren't we very foolish. There was no way we could ever have imagined what this was going to be like. It is now obvious that we had to be born to get an idea." And so it is with us, now. We can argue and argue till the cows come home, but we will really have to pass through the next birth before we'll have any idea what it's all about.
Another way of looking at it, is to imagine seeds sown in the ground. They lie there, unaware of what is happening above the ground. They actually have to give what life they have, and then they die, but they could never imagine the whole new life that has emerged above the ground. How could the acorn recognise itself in the oak tree, or the tiny mustard seed understand that the large tree could ever come from something as tiny as it? For new life in spring, there has to be death, and as we admire the daffodils, and all the other beautiful spring flowers, we can easily forget that there are empty, lifeless shells, shrivelling away under the earth, and it is from those deaths that this new life has come.
When someone dies, they don't go away, they simply go ahead to the next stage, and we are certain to catch up with them. Death is like the horizon out there. The horizon is the limit of my vision, even though I know there is so much more out there than that. Parents are in the park with their children. Some of the kids run ahead, over the brow of the hill, where they hide, waiting on the parents to catch up with them. There has been a lot written in recent years about the near-death experience. It is called near-death, because it is the experience of someone who was clinically dead, but, thanks to electric shock, or some special machine, the heart was set going again, and, so they continued to live. Many of these people speak of that experience in very clear and definite terms. The one thing that all such accounts seem to have in common is the fact that family members who had gone ahead were seen to approach, as if to welcome - and then the person was revived. The common feeling they all seem to share is a great feeling of disappointment, because they had begun to experience an extraordinary level of peace, and the joy up ahead seemed very real, indeed. They felt cheated to have been revived, and all of them say that any fear they had of dying is totally gone.
One of the great experiences of death must be to get out of the body. We know no other kind of existence, and so we cannot possibly appreciate just how restricting the body really is. We are so limited in our ability to see, hear, understand, or act. We are subject to so many pressures, emotions, and simple pains and aches. St. Paul called the body a prison, and he longed to be free. Imagine having an over-view of everything, where I can see myself in relationship to everybody and everything on this planet. People today try to alert us to some of that, when they speak about our responsibility for the environment. To see myself within the context of the greater plan of creation. I used this image in a previous chapter, but I'll refer to it again.
There is a scene of rare beauty, a picture that stretches the length of a wall here beside me. A cloth covers it, and but for a hole of about one inch square, I cannot see the picture. The tiny part I can see, a few trees, and some grass, is my contribution to the whole. At the moment of death, the cloth is swept away, and I will have my eyes and mouth wide open in amazement for all eternity at the beauty, and the sheer joy of knowing that I was, and am part of this. Another image I have used already is the idea that I am standing in a tall cardboard box, with sides so high that I cannot glimpse over them. At the moment of death, the sides of the box fall away, and I look around with gasps of wonder at a beauty that was there all the time, but I was unable to see it. At the moment of death, the eyes of the body close, and the eyes of the soul open, and, for the first time ever, I really can see. "I can see clearly now" is a fitting chorus for people at that moment of death.
E-mail this article to a friend
Come 'Ere Till I Tell You copyright © Fr. Jack McArdle. All rights reserved.