It has been said that death is the most important thing in life. How we die – the state of our soul at that critical instant, and the moral choices that affect it – is the only thing we can ultimately control. Everything else in life – worldly successes and failures, reputation, vocation, family, health, business, friendships – is not fully in our grasp to engineer exactly as we want.
The beginning of each year dazzles with new possibilities. New ventures are sought, relationships pursued, improvements planned, so much beckons on the horizon.
It can be a shame to confuse distraction with destination.
When St. Thomas More was approached shortly before his beheading by those encouraging him to acquiesce to King Henry VIII’s demands for a sanctioned divorce and pretend to set aside his deference to Catholic teaching, Thomas simply said: “The way we die is in our own hands.”
Our purpose is to be ready for that heroic moment. The second our soul departs our body, we are met by God on how we handled what He taught and provided us, then are awarded our eternal destiny. And even though He is the final arbiter, we had a lifetime to affect the decision.
It begs the question on how we spend our time and resources, and what comprises top priority. Life can be short or long, well lived or not, valued or cheapened, taken seriously or flippantly.
On a recent morning after Mass, I watched two trench-coated men enter the church to arrange for a funeral. They set up two easels for holding picture-boards of the deceased, whom I saw was a striking young man in his 20s, about the age of my sons … handsome, athletic, with a pretty girlfriend, plenty of social life, everything seemingly going for him. I slid closer to study the photos – he attended a prominent college, had a nice car, and there seemed to be many good times and parties. Life was good.
Then the funeral director placed a small burnished urn on a table between two tall sprays of lilies. Wow, and there he is. I wondered what happened to him, and asked the usher. “He was in a horrible car accident a few nights ago, several were killed instantly.”
His attractive parents walked to the front of church, stunned and tearful. His mom looked at the urn and deftly reordered the flowers, then put both hands over her face and shook. The stark reality of death – like being burned in a fire – peels away layers of protective artifice to reveal our raw longing to know what happens after this life.
“Death is nothing to be feared when we keep ourselves always prepared,” a priest once told me. I’d never thought of it like that, but began to. “Live every day, every hour, like it may be your last,” he advised.
St. Alphonsus Liguori, one of the great doctors of the church, said “time is as valuable as God Himself.” Our soul is our most valuable asset – it’s our bridge to eternity. How we invest in it and preserve its worth is our most important ongoing decision.
CHRISTINE VALENTINE-OWSIK is Legatus magazine’s Editor.