D is for Death (and Life)

To my children,

I have been dying for a long time, but until recently I did not wish to talk about it. But lately, and with the passing of my forty-fifth birthday, I’ve begun to embrace the reality faced by us all. The reality of the grave: ashes and dust. The way I figure it is we’ve all been dying since we inhaled our first breath. We’ve also been living since that time. The kicker here is that while we’ve been dying continuously and without a break in the process, have we been living non-stop as well? It seems to me that the goal would be that when we take our final breath the life-to-death meter (or ratio) would read 1:1. Since most, if not all, of us probably do not live to our fullest all of the time the first number is likely smaller. For example, if I “lived” with gusto half of my time on earth I will finish with a .5:1 ratio, or 1:2. Or…to use a vernacular I appreciate, I will have hit .500. So I would argue that when we die we want to have hit for the highest average we can. In baseball lore a .200 hitting average is known as “the Mendoza Line”, and is generally accepted as the threshold for a poor batting average. So what should our baseline be for our life’s average? That’s a subject worthy of debate at another time, but it’s not my focus today. Certainly we should aim higher than the Mendoza Line at least.

It has been quite awhile since I last wrote something in my series “A to Z”. Six months in fact. It’s taken so long because I’ve known all along that when it came to the letter “D” that Death would be the subject. It has proven to be more of a drain plug than I’d imagined. I waited, however, knowing that when the time was right I’d rush to sit down as the words poured forth. It seems that today is that day.

But instead of talking about death, a subject so vast and so nuanced that it would take volumes (and ironically my lifetime) to compile, I’m going to turn it on its ear a bit and talk today about life. Specifically, about living. Not just existing. Living.

I’ll begin by a favorite Scripture passage and a line from a movie:

Go thy ways, then, eat thy bread with a stout heart, and drink wine to thy contenting; that done, God asks no more of thee. Ever be thy garments of white, ever let thy brow glisten with oil; live at ease with the wife that is thy heart’s love, long as this uncertain life is granted thee; fugitive days, here beneath the sun. Live thou and labour thou under the sun as thou wilt, this thy portion shall be, and nothing more. Whatever lies in thy power, do while do it thou canst; there will be no doing, no scheming, no wisdom or skill left to thee in the grave, that soon shall be thy home. (Ecclesiastes 9:7-10, Knox Bible)

“You don’t choose a life dad. You live one.” –Daniel Avery (actor Emilio Estevez) to his father Tom Avery (played by his real life father, Martin Sheen) in the film The Way.

the_way

While I realize this was the son advising the father, it is also my advice as a father to his children. We can get so hung up on all the planning and testing and studying and climbing of whatever ladders we perceive necessary to climb that we neglect the most important thing: living. If you’re going to climb any ladders at all let it be the one used often as a symbol for ascending to God. Jacob had a dream about just such a ladder in Genesis. A 12th century Carthusian monk named Guigo II used the ladder as a symbol for the four steps necessary for lifting our hearts and minds to God in prayer and communing with Him.  Ecclesiastes is not advocating a life of meaninglessness and sloth. We are to eat. To drink. To love and love well. To work hard for our portion in life, and use all of our faculties to their fullest and gusto whilst we live. We take nothing to the grave. We are to expend ourselves.

To live that way would be to live opposite those empty souls T.S. Eliot describes in his poem The Hollow Men:

The Hollow Men #5, by Howard Penning

The Hollow Men #5, by Howard Penning

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

This is not the way I, or you, should wish to live, or be remembered.

*****

Recently your mother and I attended a small gathering of friends. Jim and Kim hosted a “Pope Benedict XVI” retirement party during which was served German cheeses, beers and wine, among other things. We brought our hosts a bottle of wine as well, and would like here to pause to suggest to you that while this is a tradition that has fallen aside in our modern age, I encourage you to (when appropriate) pick up this mantle.

While this little party may sound quaint or nerdy to you and to others I have to tell you that rarely have I laughed as much or heard such wonderful stories and conversation as I did that night. As we sat in their living room the subjects ranged from our favorite Pope Benedict quotes, to trips both domestic and abroad, and to family. One of the couples is expecting twins in May. It was a little over a year ago that they lost a child days before she was to be born. We shared our own story of the loss of your brother Nathan to miscarriage, but like this couple what once was a tale full of tears is now, through the benefit of the passage of time and gaining of wisdom, a story of joy and blessing.

At the end of the evening Jim presented us all with the gift of a Benedictine rosary, each blessed by Pope Benedict XVI and brought back to the States during his recent trip to Rome. Our thank yous were followed by discussions about the various symbols found on the rosary’s protective case, and a group prayer for our soon-to-be ex-Holy Father.

This little party has come at an interesting moment in my life when I find myself reflecting upon my years that I have spent in our parish and among our friends. At the heart of our lives together has been a lived discipleship of sorts. The focus of our lives have not been various projects and events (though there has been a myriad of them) but rather a building up of our communion together by being a band of followers—disciples of Our Lord. The more that we have become disciple friends, the more others have been drawn into our group. It is how your mom and I were drawn in. We saw “something” here. We were witness to it in the lives of those who are now our dearest friends. And the more that others have been drawn in, the more I am convinced that Jesus keeps His promises. We are meant to find God and we are meant to find Him together. I pray that during my time on earth I’ve managed to do that for and with you somehow.

Since that night I’ve been thinking about what it is I wish to give you as physical gifts once I am gone. All of them were gifts given to me, and one day they will pass to you. Jim’s rosary completes a trilogy of rosaries that I’ve received through the years and I can think of no other possessions I have that would mean more to me for you to own. Not my shelves of books. Not any of the baseballs I have from various pitching performances in high school or college. Not even the writings I leave behind in various journals, hard drives or this blog.

three blessed rosaries_cropped

Click to enlarge

The first rosary was given to me quite as a surprise over a decade ago. Doug brought it back from a trip to Rome that he and Nicole had made. It is made of compressed rose petals and was blessed by Pope John Paul II. It still retains its soft rose-scented fragrance.

The second rosary was also a surprise gift, brought back from Madrid, Spain, by Rhonda, Linda and their two daughters after all had attended World Youth Day in 2011. This rosary was blessed by Pope Benedict XVI, and recently I attached a miraculous medal to its tail just below the centerpiece. This medal was also presented a gift by Kirk and had been blessed in Paris at the Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, the very location where in 1830 Saint Catherine Labouré, a novice in the Daughters of Charity, was visited on several occasions by the Blessed Virgin Mary, who wanted Catherine to offer the world this medal. I have worn a miraculous medal around my neck on a sterling silver chain for almost twelve years. The one on this rosary hails from Paris.

The third rosary was (again!) a surprise given by Jim at the papal retirement party. It has been blessed by Pope Benedict XVI and contains a Benedictine medal, cross, and its beads are little silver roses. While at his house I had looked at the rosary given to your mom, and when later that night at home I looked at mine I was initially disappointed to find that mine did not contain four more small Benedict medals as the Our Father “beads”, such as the others had. I’m ashamed to admit that for a very short time I was a little upset by this, but quickly recovered to appreciate what I held in my hands and will hold in prayer many times in the future as a warrior praying for you and us all.

The Anchoress wrote in First Things about Benedict’s plans after the papacy and the power of prayer in the Benedictine tradition:

As Cardinal Ratzinger, the pope sometimes retreated at the Benedictine Monastery of Subiaco, which was founded by St. Benedict of Nursia—the Patron of Europe and father of Western monasticism. In embracing monasticism, the Bishop Emeritus of Rome is perhaps looking at history—at how that other Benedict’s Rule and example once reordered a world that seemed ready to plunge into an abyss of darkness and ignorance—and making a supernatural gambit. In faith he will have delivered the powerful lesson that a life of faith is never without resources, because prayer extends beyond time and space, through darkness and into light.

And perhaps we will need to learn that lesson well, to face our future, together.

A monastery is a kind of powerhouse of prayer, but with distractions and impediments removed from its functioning; in enclosure, Benedict will become “a house of prayer and a temple of intercession” for us all. His hope and ours may reside, as it has before, in the simple yet profound reach of a monk.

So which of you gets which rosary? I don’t as yet know. I pray you are all “houses of prayer” and realize, as Benedict does, that a life of faith is never without resources. My initial thought was that Sophie would get the rosary of roses since it’s more feminine and her middle name is Rose. And that one of the boys would get the Benedictine rosary since it is known as the “devil-chasing medal” and even contains an exorcism prayer Vade retro satana (“Step back, Satan”). It is for warriors of prayer.

But then I reconsidered. Who is to say that the toughest prayer warrior among you won’t be your sister? And who is to say the most sensitive among you will not be one of the boys? A devotion to Our Mother is not an unmasculine trait, and I would be proud of any of my children who would foster such a devotion. History is replete with brave, masculine saints and martyrs who held just such a devotion. We’re talking about Jesus’ mom, and you all know by now of the importance I stress to you three about respecting your earthly mother. So of course it follows that I would hope you do the same for Mary.

Two personal rosaries_cropped

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I ask that I am buried with one or both of these other two rosaries. Several years ago I made the larger rosary out of garnet stones (my birthstone) and large pewter roses, with a St. Maximilian Kolbe centerpiece and a large penal cross to represent his time in Auschwitz, and the times when all of us undergo trials and endure our own prisons of sin or persecutions by men. I have had it blessed, and cherish its use. The other is one I purchased after my Ignatian retreat in September 2012 and is a Sacred Heart of Jesus devotional rosary with beads made of wood. This devotion was made known to me during my time on retreat and this is a rosary that has already borne much fruit in prayer.

mmedal2

The medal worn around my neck

The miraculous medal around my neck is to be given to your mom. If she wishes for me to be wearing it for eternity or keep it for herself is her decision.

In his book The Looking Glass, Richard Paul Evans wrote about what sometimes happens to those left behind when death comes early:

“We stand here encompassed by winter: the barren trees with their fallen leaves, the silent riverbed. Nothing is more certain in life or in nature than death. We accept it as the way of things. Perhaps we are able because we have faith in spring. Yet somehow it seems different to us when death comes early. Much as we might bemoan an early winter, we feel robbed of something due. We feel cheated. Sometimes we rage. And sometimes we blame. And, in doing so, we say to God, ‘My will be done, not Thine,’ and we forget about the promise of spring. … In the cold of our soul’s winter, we bury our hearts. And then we wonder why it is dark and why we feel so alone. And we risk spending so much of our lives occupied with our loss and what we have not, that we forget the beauty of what is and what we have still. And this is sometimes the greater loss.”

When death comes do not needlessly lengthen the winter that follows. Look to the spring. Look at the beauty around you that remains. This brings to my mind a line from The Tree of Life, one of my favorite films:

Someday we’ll fall down and weep. And we’ll understand it all. All things.

I believe this with all my heart. One day we’ll understand; just not yet. We tend to fear what we do not understand. Do not fall into this fear or despair. Death is a part of life. Embrace both.

Do not fear death, kiddos. Fear nothing in fact. “Fear not! Be not afraid!” But if you insist upon fearing something, fear not living while breath resides inside you. Use your resources of faith. Do not be hollow men and women.

And don’t forget to swing away. I’m giving you the green light. You’ll never get above the Mendoza Line of Life with the bat on your shoulder.

You are my gifts to the world.

I love you so much,

Dad

©2013 Jeff A Walker. All Rights Reserved.

*****

  • To learn more about the awesome meanings behind the front and back of the St. Benedict Medal, go here.
  • Go here for the story of St. Catherine Labouré and the Miraculous Medal.
  • Go here for information about what the symbols on the front and back of the miraculous medal mean.
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