On All Cylinders
by Fr. Jack McArdle
Everybody dies, but not everybody lives. Some people settle for existing, and, when they die, you will need a doctor to certify that, because there hasn't been much life there at any time. You could write on their tomb-stones "Died at forty, buried at eighty"!
I'm not worried about life after death, but it does concern me about how much life there is before death. I would much prefer to burn out than rust out. I get one shot at life, and I should give it all I've got.
"I shall pass this way but once. Any good deed that I can do, any good word that I can say, let me do it now, let me say it now, for I shall never pass this way again."
Each and every birthday comes only once, as the sands of time continue to flow, and no one can put a stop to the march of time. Life consists of many journeys. We travel from dependence to independence, to interdependence. Believe it or not, even if often said as a joke, life does begin at forty! Up till that time, the average person is 'building'; building a home, a family, a profession, a niche in society, etc. Under normal circumstances, the pressure should be off by forty, and the person should be free to give back something to life.
If life continues to be high-pressured, either the demands of the job are too much, or the person is over-ambitious to achieve. Stopping to smell the flowers would not be on, because time has become money, and some people can never get enough of that. Some people know the price of everything, and the value of nothing. Life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved. For some people, however, it is a relentless battle to be waged, a competition that must be won, and a process of self-aggrandisement that is endless. The end sometimes arrives as a heart attack on a golf course in their mid-forties.
Jesus came that we should have life, and have it to the full. He speaks about life in abundance. God wants us to enjoy his precious gift of life. He gives me nothing for myself. He doesn't give me my gift of speech to go around talking to myself! Life is something to be given away, to be invested for the good of others, and the reward of such a life is a life of eternal happiness with God and with all those whose lives have enriched the lives of others.
I remember processing with about eighty-thousand others towards the Heyshal Stadium in Brussels. The king and Queen of Belgium were there, as was Cardinals Suenens and Daniels. We were celebrating the centenary of the birth of Blessed Damien, the 'leper priest', who spent a mere fifteen years of his life in one of the remotest islands in the Pacific, ministering to lepers. It was a national holiday in Belgium, and all of the country had come to a stand-still for the occasion. Every branch of government, military, Church, and industry was involved in the celebration. As I returned from that Stadium, I was thinking that that was also the centenary of the birth of Hitler, and most of the world didn't even know that. Sic transit gloriam mundi! ("Thus passes the glory of the world").
The earlier part of our lives usually has to do with education. The word 'education' comes from the Latin word 'educare', which, literally means 'to lead out'. If you do not have the gift of music, you can go for piano lessons for the rest of your life, and you may not get past the one-finger playing of notes. The education process is to discover what gifts you already have, and to bring those out.
Unfortunately, very few of my generation experienced this, as we were all corralled into maths, languages, science, geography, etc., some of which were completely beyond us, because you cannot put in a gift, and you cannot develop a gift that is not there in the first place. Very few people ever become completely educated, in so far as it is reckoned that the average person lives their lives, and discovers about 25% of the gifts they've got. I do not have a gift for music, for art, or for technology. I discovered one gift I had, i.e., the gift of communication, and, through talks, books, tapes, videos, radio, and television, I have developed that gift to a fairly satisfactory degree. I do not regret the lack of other gifts, but I sometimes wonder if there is a talent or two there that will never be discovered.
Grandma Moses was an old lady in a retirement home. To exercise her arthritic fingers, a member of staff gave her a set of paints and brushes. Straightaway she began to produce masterpieces, and, if you wanted one of her paintings today, you would have to be in the millionaire bracket to put in an offer. I wouldn't be too uptight about the possible waste of talent, because none of us is going to discover the full package anyhow. I'll offer one example that does bother me. God gives us gifts, and he tells us what those gifts are by sending people to us, asking for assistance in a particular area. Obviously, the other person believes that I have what it takes to be of help in that situation. The problem begins when I come to discover my own talents!
I have been giving Retreats for years, because I am always been called on to do that. I am writing this book in response to endless requests from friends that I put this material on paper. The guy who discovers his own gifts is the one who stands up at the party and insists on singing a song, even though he is the only one in that room who believes he can sing! On the other hand, there is someone else in that room, and everybody is calling on him or her to sing. That request must be taken seriously, and any sort of "Ah, I can't sing; I don't know the words of any song, etc.," should be seen as the untruth that it is, and the person can be seen as someone who doesn't appreciate a gift that God has given them for the sake of others.
I hate having to 'coax' and humour someone into singing, playing the piano, etc. I would ask them once, and if they don't respond, I would look for someone else. Jesus tells two stories of people who were entrusted with talents, and who were later called up to give an account of how they used and invested those talents. The greatest thanks I could give God for having a good voice, is to make it available, when asked, to those who want to enjoy it. To continue with the gift of voice for a moment, this can become a wonderful and very blessed form of ministry, when used at weddings, funerals, etc. I have heard songs at funerals that were most consoling, and songs at weddings that were uplifting and inspiring.
The word 'artist' covers quite a broad field. They are in the business of creation; of taking the orderly and mundane, and transforming it into a thing of beauty and a joy forever. How bereft our world would be today without our painters, sculptors, and designers. They have the ability to see what the non-artist cannot see, and they have the ability to translate that into reality. Some painting and sculptures have had a riveting effect on me, and they opened my soul to a beauty I had forgotten. These artists make a wonderful contribution to our world, and the world is much richer because they lived, and gave of what they had.
Life is fragile, handle with prayer. Life is not manageable. One heart attack, and it's all over. I own nothing. Everything I have is on loan, and God can claim it back whenever he thinks it is the right time. One of the ways in which I can get some grip on life is to break it down into sections of 24 hours. When I woke up this morning I was given a gift. It is a very rare gift that was never before given to a human being, and will never again be given to anybody.
It is the 25th day of January 2009. Because it is a gift, maybe that's why we call it the present. Written on the book are the words 'batteries included'. With each day comes whatever I will need to live that day. Jesus calls it 'our daily bread'. There is nothing that will happen today that the good Lord and myself won't be able to deal with. That goes for each day, with their many varieties of problems. One of those days will be my last, and, on that day, I will also get what it will take to go through the process of dying and death.
To live life to the full I must consciously accept the gift of each new day. I need to develop a constant sense of gratitude for each day as it comes. A pop star was interviewed on television recently, and among the questions asked was "Tell me something for which you are really grateful". His answer came as a surprise. "I am grateful that I woke up this morning". Each day has its own graces, its own opportunities, and requires its own 'yes' to life. A good life is a collection of days well lived. When you were born, you alone cried, and everybody else was very happy. You should live your life in such a way that, when you die, you will be very happy and everybody else will be crying! (Mark Twain said that we should live our lives in such a way that, when we die, even the undertaker will be sorry!).
I have a choice. I can waken up in the morning with a growl "Good God, morning!", or with a prayer "Good morning, God!". My daily bread is measured to my needs. I may be confined to bed, I may be quite limited in my mobility, or I may have quite demanding responsibilities in the course of this day. If I take this day as a mini-life, and try to keep things within the day, it may be much easier than I expected. If, of course, I am back in the past with guilt, or off in the future with worry, then today will be a real burden indeed. By keeping life within the day, I am dealing with manageable portions of my life, and not trying to resolve everything in one day.
All I can do is do my best, and that is all that can be expected. Life is not something that happens to me, as if I were some sort of powerless robot, with no say in how things are. Hilary Pole was a physical education instructress in Birmingham some years ago. At age 27 she developed a rare muscular disease that completely immobilised her. The only movement she had in her whole body was sixteenth of an inch with her big toe. A Cambridge professor devised a sort of Morse code typewriter on which she began to practise. She wrote poetry, and all of her poems were about the joy of living. She received an OBE from the Queen for her endeavours. One of her poems includes the following lines. "You ask me if I'm sad or bored, or if my life it is abhorred. And I tell I am not; that I can now accept my lot. I remind your sadly shaking head, it's my body, not my mind, in bed". I cried because I had no shoes until I saw a man who had no feet. Never stop thanking God for the gift of life, for the gift of today, and for the gift of now………"
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