There is really no way around it.
A little over two years ago, I was taking in a game at Dodger Stadium when my heart began to flutter and race. I had, at times, felt it skip a beat, but on that night it kept going and going. I alerted the ballpark staff and was quickly taken to the first aid station. Not long after that, I was whisked away to the hospital by ambulance. Thankfully, the doctors were able to stabilize my heart rhythm and I went home the next day. I have been more or less fine since that night, but it was a startling wake-up call.
Last month, I was shocked to hear of the death of an old high school baseball teammate. From the little that I know about his situation, it sounds like he died suddenly and without any warning. He was in his late 30’s. It got me thinking about my grandfather, who passed away in his mid 40’s.
As I write this, there is a Category 5 hurricane barreling toward south Florida while millions of people in Texas still try to figure out how to clean up after their own storm and the resulting floods. Several people drowned in and around Houston.
Scrolling through my Twitter feed today, I saw a story from the L.A. Times warning that “an 8.2 mega-earthquake” could strike at any time. Thousands would die, they said. Tens of thousands injured. Hundreds of thousands—maybe even millions—displaced from their homes. Even if the big one never comes, however, there’s always the chance of a wildfire!
Each of these things is a reminder that one day I am going to die. There is no getting around it. Whether my body fails suddenly or slowly on its own, whether destroyed by earth, wind, fire, or water, I am going to die.
Throughout my life, I have been a worrier. I have to work hard not to worry about every little thing. When I hear stories of death, my first reaction is to let my mind race and consider the possibility that I might soon be headed for the same fate.
I recently came across a series of tweets by a religious sister who has begun to keep a skull on her desk. Her tweets are accompanied by the hashtag #mementomori, or “reminder of death.”
It is going to happen. I cannot worry it away. I cannot eat healthy enough or work out enough to avoid it. Yes, I could stand to eat healthier foods and exercise more often, but that only does so much. Even vegan crossfit fanatics die.
I might as well prepare for it.
So much of my time here on earth is spent on things that do not have any eternal impact. Whether I am wasting an evening aimlessly browsing though Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube or obsessing over the latest sporting event, I find myself far too often distracted by little things. All too often, I concern myself with my own comfort. I live my life searching for the easiest path. I fill my time with small things to avoid the responsibilities of the Christian life.
The rich young ruler famously asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” After Our Lord reminded him of several of the Ten Commandments, the ruler replied that he had observed these things from his youth. Then Jesus replied, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to [the] poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
In the daily readings for September 7, Jesus, a carpenter, instructs Simon (Peter), a fisherman, where to cast his net. Simon obeys and catches enough fish to fill two boats. The story ends with Jesus announcing to Simon and his crew that “from now on [they] will be catching men.”
Throughout the Scripture, God calls us to complete and total submission to his will. When we examine the lives of the saints, we see people who gave up everything to follow Jesus. St. Teresa of Calcutta left her home in Albania to serve the poorest of the poor in India. She denied herself, took up her cross and followed Him. St. Damien of Molokai dedicated his life to the lepers in Hawaii, eventually becoming one himself. He did not try to save his own life; he gave it up serving others. These are just two of countless examples of people who put away their own ambition and gave everything to follow Christ.
This is how we prepare for death: We give everything we have for the sake of the Kingdom of God. We die to ourselves. We follow the two greatest commandments to love God with all of our heart, soul and mind and love our neighbor as ourselves.
How do we love our neighbor as ourselves?
Now, clearly not everyone is called to the same work as St. Teresa or St. Damien. Each of us has our own vocation. In our roles as lawyers, doctors, teachers, parents, spouses, or children -- in each daily task -- we have the opportunity to serve God and others. As Christians we must discern God's will and then do it.
Death is a scary thing. It can strike anyone at any time. But the fear of death should pale in comparison to the fear of a long life of self-preservation and distraction from the needs of others. Jesus makes clear the consequences of the self-indulgent life.
I should be clear that I am not claiming that everyone should be preoccupied with death and dying. But most of us put the fact of our impending demise out of our minds until we are forced to confront it. Neither of those approaches prepares one for a happy death. Rather, we should take each reminder of death as an opportunity to evaluate our daily lives and consider whether each action serves God or self. It is an opportunity to repent of our sins, big and small. Thankfully, God’s mercy and grace are abundant. It is never too late in this life for the sinner to turn things around, abandon himself and his sin, and follow Jesus.
As for me, I am comforted by the fact that Our Lord gives us a roadmap to follow and the grace to follow it. May I be ever mindful of my upcoming death, not out of worry, but so that I will be prepared to answer for the things I have done.