Friday, May 7, 2010
While everyone wants to live, everyone ends up in death. The experience of a close person dying was brought to me personally when my aunt Victoria died a few weeks ago. When someone you love dies, you think of yourself at least subconsciously. This is why older people go to church thinking of their approaching death so they could repent before they die. Many people I know would want to die, but they do not want to suffer before they die. This is what Victoria hoped for but this saintly woman was not spared suffering - She had to suffer for years. Even when there is no suffering, no one will escape death... From a natural view, death is a threat of annihilation. Since humans are probably the only creatures who can think of death, they have always attempted to overcome it. At least two ways have been attempted since early civilizations: 1) Man begets offspring so as to carry him from generation to generation. This is why in ancient cultures, infertility was considered a curse of God or the gods. 2) Man builds temples, pyramids, and towers to eternalize himself when he is gone in the memory of his offspring. Today medical procedures to reproduce the self have been attempted for the same reason, immortality, but without much success - an example is cloning. In all the above cases, eternalization failed. Offspring do not really carry the person in their lives. They also die. Temples and towers carry only a memory of the past and they too perish. Cloning, if successful, does not eternalize the self. It simply reproduces another copy of the self which also dies. From a socio-economical view, death is a separation of humans. It breaks the family and the community. Survival becomes harder when the breadwinners are gone. From a psychological view, death separates the lovers and the beloved. He dies and she mourns him or vice versa...And the community too mourns the dead. It is a fact that only humans bury their dead. Whether this is because they want to protect them, venerate them, or to simply go on with life and attempt to forget them, is subject to debate. However the fact that love remains after separation of death is a strong evidence that love is stronger than death and accordingly the unselfish lover may hope to find his beloved after his or her own death. This hope is found in many old religions and mythologies. Today scientific research in psychology recognizes the enormous benefits of the hope provided by religion. Near Death Experiences of a survival after death have also been documented in numerous cases. Love seems not only to survive death but has also been found to be naturally strengthened through the brain hormone oxytocin. Sexual intercourse -the act of love between man and woman - is naturally procreative and has the potential of begetting new life.
From a Christian perspective, there is a higher dimension to consider. Christianity alone of all ideologies and religions speaks of both eternal life and eternal damnation after death. The reason for this is that the truth of love carries responsibility and eternal consequences. Early Christians postponed their baptism till their deathbed to ensure they are cleansed of their sins by the water of baptism in which according to St. Paul "We are buried with Christ so that we rise with him." This is the sacrament that brings the baptized into the communion of the Church. It carries the significance of the Resurrection of Christ. The development of the monastic life is a direct result of the admonishment to "die to this world" and hope for the next one. The parable of the rich man provides a strong case when God said to him: "Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be" (Luke 12, 20). Even though monasticism seems to be too harsh for modern lay people to imitate, modern life offers the same harsh conditions at least psychologically due to increased materialism in social conditions. As an example, the effect of materialism is so widespread that divorce and abortion are leaving scars in societies which legalized them in the Western world. In the Middle East, increased Islamic fundamentalist violence has broken loose and threatens human life itself. Death can be defined not only as the elimination of physical life, but also as the decline, isolation and eventual death of spiritual personal and communal life. So great is the loss of Christian faith in Europe and North America that other forms of Eastern New Age spirituality have taken hold of many Christians. In the midst of a civilization of death, Blessed Pope John XXIII hoped that it still produces saints as much as earlier Christian civilizations. Paul says "Where sin increased, grace multiplied" This is a positive outlook that God's love is available to the most wretched. From a Christian perspective, the more life becomes difficult, the more living as a Christian makes those who cling to Christ true saints. Myrna Al-Akhras of Damascus is a living example of such testimony. Taken in this supernatural dimension the meaning of death is more than a physical death but denotes the increasing self-sacrifice for the other and for the sake of the Triune God who inspires love. It is the opening of the self to the gift of God - The word "Islam" itself means submission to God. How is the Resurrection of Christ related to death: The Resurrection of Christ is the basis of Christian faith. But we cannot separate his resurrection from his death. "Where is your thorn, O Death!" St. Paul said after he saw the risen Christ. Most of the Biblical accounts of the Resurrection of Christ tie his death to his Resurrection. Reaching the resurrection is not easy at all. Mother Teresa herself confessed in her letters that she did not feel God's love for her for over 40 years. Yet she persisted in loving him in her services to the dying and in her constant prayers everyday. Although she was surrounded by many sisters she was alone in her inner "death" - She felt no consolation from God. Teresa was "abandoned" by God to the point that she experienced doubts about the existence of God. This mystic shook hands with me in Egypt before coming to Canada and I did not know then the blessing she brings even in her "dark night" of which St. John of the Cross speaks. In the entire history of the people of God, even great saints did not want to die. The Gospel of John gives a vivid picture of the dialogue of Jesus with Peter after Jesus' Resurrection. Peter, the chief Apostle who saw Christ in the Transfiguration surrounded by Moses and Elijah also saw Christ after his Resurrection, yet after Christ made him the chief shepherd of his flock, he said to Peter these words "Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go" (John 21:19). These words ring in our ears today and remind us that none of us wants to really die. But if that is the case, how did the martyrs accept death for the sake of Christ? What made the Apostles, who were so fearful after the Crucifixion, so courageous in the face of death after the Resurrection? I believe the difference lies in the power of the Holy Spirit who urges us to repent and open ourselves to the mystery of Christ risen and glorified. For the Spirit transforms people's hearts when they accept his grace. This, I believe, is what made Paul exclaim "Where is your thorn O Death!" and what made Peter accept martyrdom for the truth of Christ. It is the same Spirit who gave courage to Mother Teresa in order to persevere in spite of her apparent inner loneliness. He is the Spirit of Love. Where love prevails, love bears fruit, because God is Love. Love begets love. Love survives. Love is stronger than death because it springs from God. People ask: What happens after death? According to Catholic teaching, God does not send anyone to hell. God desires all to be in the kingdom of heaven. The person who, with full consent, completely refuses God's grace and love and remains closed upon himself (e.g. completely hating or selfish) until the last moment of his life endangers his eternal salvation. The Catholic Church does not know of any population in hell, yet the possibility of being in hell is real. On the other hand, the Catholic Church has declared over 6,000 saints and hopes there will be many more in heaven. The Catholic Church recognizes the advances in psychological studies and for this reason allows prayer over the departed ones who commit suicide and whose will may have been diminished at the moment of death due to drugs, stress, or other psychological factors. For many reasons including the above ones, we can only pray to God, who knows the hearts of people, for our salvation and that of everyone. However, as Christians we are accountable to bring the Gospel (the good news) to everyone around us and to the world. The Eucharist is a communion of Christ. Prayer is also an important element in the communion of Christ. Reaching out to the needy is one more act of charity (love) which reflects a Christian attitude.
To recap, death is real and unavoidable. A number of phenomena indicate the survival of death.
Christian faith tells us that God is Love. Since we all look to be loved, it is reassuring that the Almighty One loves all of us unconditionally. In view of the Resurrection of Christ, we entrust the departed to God's love and hope to be with the beloved in heaven. He is faithful and will not foresake us.