To wisely live a life well-lived

I wanted to write a few more thoughts I’ve had lodged in my cranium after posting my resolutions for 2012. This is not a short post, but I find that since leaving Facebook I have much more time to think and to write. This week I’ve been thinking about (of all things) bucket lists and regrets. I began to think about them after reading this post on AMS Daily and watching this video.

I’ve never watched the movie The Bucket List though it has been highly recommended to me. I’ve never allowed myself to get caught up in such a concept as I thought the exercise would be setting myself up for a massive letdown. Plus as a father of three any time I have for my own list is pretty limited. I willingly made that decision that my resources (time and money) would be sacrificed as my own in order for them to be utilized by my kids. I don’t say this to be some sort of martyr. I say it willingly as a parent. Yes, my wife and I had dreams and things we wanted to do when we were courting and first married. But having started out poor and burdened by student loans we learned right away to make due with little. Instead of taking cruises, buying McMansions and lots of “things”, we focused instead on getting out of debt and living well within our means so that we’d have something extra for the kiddos. This does not mean there aren’t things I’d love to do or places I long to see. But a lot of them pale in comparison to the hugs I get each day from my smiling daughter, the laughs and “exploding” fistbumps I receive from my 2nd grader, or my joy in watching my high schooler compete at a high level on the baseball field.

Before I get to my actual bucket list I want to set a parameter or two that my lists items are meant to fulfill. I don’t want to fall into the trap of listing things such as “read all of the works of Shakespeare” that may sound impressive for the sake of impressing. Primarily these things are going to help me meet this one goal: To have lived a life well-lived.

There is a Jewish Proverb that says “There are three things a person should do in one’s lifetime: plant a tree, have a child, write a book.” All three resonate with me as a prescription for living a full life. Who among us does not want to beautify the world somehow?

Plant a tree. There is a single tree at this point in time growing on our property. It’s in the front yard and was brought home on Arbor Day by our oldest when he was in the third grade. It was nothing more than a stick about a foot long. It is now almost eight feet tall and with each successive spring Nolan’s red dogwood tree is covered with more purplish-pink blossoms than the year before. Over the next few years we’ll be planting two more trees as the younger children grow.

Have a child. The drive to continue our species is strong. “Be fruitful and multiply.” And even if we do not ourselves have children there are things we can do for coming generations of man. And that leads us to…

Write a book. We all want to leave behind some memory of ourselves and the things we learned for future generations. Whether by writing an actual book, compiling stories in a journal/email, or bending the ear of a grandchild, niece or nephew, all of this is deep within our essence.

The other goal I have for this list is that all of them aid me in basking in the Glory of God. To immerse myself in a tradition and a culture that calls me beyond the limits of my routine and shows me instead heaven and earth in all the glory of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This does not mean I’ll not honor the small or the modest, but I do wish to avoid the trivial. In other words you won’t find on this list “being the all time champion in Words With Friends.” Please also note that none of these involve the regular use and distraction of a mobile phone.

Go to Rome.
The Eternal City. The city Livy tells us was founded by two twin brothers Romulus and Remus, who not only were abandoned by their parents and put into a basket floating down the River Tiber, but were discovered by a female wolf after the basket ran aground and nursed to health by the same wolf. The city is the center of Roman Catholicism and the location of St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and the home of much of the rest of the greatest of pagan and Christian civilizations. This is not a place I will go for a few days to a week. Based upon my conversations with many friends who’ve been fortunate to go I will want at least a month. And if I finish taking in all Rome has to offer with a few days to spare, I will make the journey to Tuscany and finish the rest of my trip drinking wine and watching the sun set.

Visit the Great Cathedrals.
The greatest gifts the northern Europeans gave God and their own descendants were the great cathedrals. Any words I would attempt to utter here could not do them justice. Whether Notre Dame or San Chapelle in Paris, or the cathedrals of Germany including the wonder that is the Cologne Cathedral, to be in such a place whose architecture was designed to lift our eyes, minds and souls towards the heavens has always been a goal. Puritanical American churches don’t do this. Sadly, many modern Catholic churches do not either. I will be attending a wedding at St. Cecilia’s Cathedral in Omaha next month, and while that church is gorgeous to my middle-of-the-United-States eyes, it offers but a small taste of the grandeur in Europe.

Now I will also say that if I never make it to Europe there are other means to experience this upwards glance towards heaven. A favorite shrine I visit often is The Holy Family Shrine, about 30 minutes away via I-80. Sitting in the glass sanctuary on top of the hill and looking westward towards the sun as it sets over miles and miles of vast prairie is something I love to experience. I’ve also enjoyed visits to The Cathedral of the Plains (St. Fidelis), near I-70 in Victoria, Kansas. And lest I forget, my favorite non-man-made open sanctuary is The Badlands in western South Dakota.

Pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago

Go on a pilgrimage.
The pilgrimage is older than Christianity itself and has its roots in the Old Testament in which pilgrims went up from the towns of Israel to the great feasts celebrated in Jerusalem at the Temple. Outside of going to the Holy Land there is another way to make a pilgrimage: take a long walk. And not just a walk by yourself, but taking one with a bunch of people (strangers and friends) who have nothing in common with you but the fact that they are also taking the long walk. This was portrayed recently in the movie The Way with Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez. In fact the pilgrimage I want to walk is the same one: the El Camino de Santiago , or Way of St. James. I recently found the book To the Field of Stars: A Pilgrim’s Journey to Santiago de Compostella by Kevin Codd in the bargain bin at my local Catholic bookstore and aim to read it by this spring. To meet this goal I means having to take a third trip to Europe and doing so before my knees give way to old age. But if I can only go to Europe once this just might be the item I’d choose above the others.

Works of mercy.
Had I not been called to be a husband and a father I believe I’d have been a monk, a missionary, or both. When I was little I always admired those who lived their lives for others, especially the poor, in foreign lands far from their homes. I’m over forty, and I still feel a twinge of that calling. The poor, disabled, hungry, sick, blind, widow and the orphan: these are the real treasures of the Church. Since hearing Katie Davis tell her story in a radio interview and again in her book I’ve felt that call once more. I felt it when reading the story of Fr. Tom Hagan in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Haiti. For now, while unable to visit in person and put my own hands to the plow I find other means to support those on the frontlines. But of course the poor are among us locally, and a vital part of “living a life well-lived” is to find a way to help the least of these. And so I continue to serve the occasional day at the local soup kitchen, but look to any of the myriad of other ways to fulfill the other corporal and spiritual works of mercy that abound.

Take a Poustinia.
Poustinia is a Russian word that literally means “desert.” The concept of a poustinia is that a person goes apart from their community to fast and pray in solitude for 24 hours or more. The only book taken to poustinia is Scripture and one immerses themselves in the Word of God. Added to this is fasting on bread and water. The intention of poustinia is “always for others, for the needs of the Church, the world and those who have asked us to pray for them.” You can read more about poustinia here. I only became aware of the concept last year, but am interested in making at least one. While I’ve gone on silent 2-3 day Ignatian retreats, I really want to make a longer retreat and am looking to do so here and/or here. Of course I would also love to buy some secluded land somewhere in South Dakota with a cabin and do my best imitation of Thoreau and do nothing but write. But in the meantime I figure one of these retreats or a poustinia will be the more likely and affordable option. And what is more valuable than prayer, really?

Make peace with God.
One of the oddest phrases that I heard once I became Catholic was “to die a good death.” To die well. We even have a Patron of a Happy Death in Saint Joseph with a full-blown novena and everything! But I can now think of no other goal more striving for in this life. Since we’re all going to kick the proverbial bucket, we might as well do it in style: prayed up, having given our final good confession, anointed with the holy oils of the Last Rites, full of grace and at peace. That is the way to begin the ultimate pilgrimage, which of course, heaven is.

The last thing I wanted to touch upon in all of this is the subject of regret. Last year I read a post that listed the top five regrets of the dying gathered by a woman who worked in palliative care. They are:

  1. “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
  2. “I wish I didn’t work so hard.”
  3. “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”
  4. “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”
  5. “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”

The most common regret of all was #1. #2 was primarily the regret of males, but increasingly women are citing it too, I suppose because of more and more women being breadwinners in the family.

Another way to look at these regrets is that by turning them around you can see how they tie into a lie that the devil, the world, or even we ourselves, tells us over and over.

  1. “You can’t be happy without the approval of others.”
  2. “Your greatest fulfillment lies in your career.”
  3. “God won’t help you stand up for what’s true and good and right.”
  4. “You don’t have time to spend with those you love—look at all the important things on your to-do and your bucket lists!”
  5. “Stop trying to find God’s purpose for your life and just do what people expect of you.”

So there you have it: my bucket list and the list of regrets to avoid. Do I still want to do other things such as take a tour and see a ballgame at Fenway Park? You bet yer sweet bippy I do!

As Estevez’s character says to his father in The Way: “You don’t choose a life dad, you live one.” But the #5 regret shows us that happiness is indeed a choice. In this way we are able to choose the life we’ll lead.

I choose to live my life as it comes. I pray I live, and choose, wisely.

[Hat tips to Mark Shea and Jennifer Fulwiler for their hand in inspiring me to think upon these things.]

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5 thoughts on “To wisely live a life well-lived

  1. This is a beautiful and admirable list… Thank you for sharing it that others may be inspired.

    -p.s. – I saw Vivaldi’s Four Seasons performed in the Sainte Chappelle… One step closer to heaven!

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    • Thank you for the kind words and for stopping by. And “Wow!” on your experience at the Sainte Chappelle! I almost added to my list the experience of seeing a great show in person or piece of music performed live. In the past 18 months I’ve been able to see two of my favorite pieces performed by a symphony: Beethoven’s immortal 5th and his 9th – the Ode to Joy. And a year ago I experienced Les Miserables on stage and was blown away. To have seen Vivaldi in such a setting must have been amazing beyond words.

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