Yesterday was Ash Wednesday and so I went to a church near work for my obligatory ashing. During his homily, the priest described Lent as a time when we should pause, step back, and focus on whether or not our lives are on the right path. That path is the one we begin when we were born and continue on through our lives as part of the journey home. Home to God.
Last night, while catching up on my back issues of First Things, I caught this at the end of Father Richard John Neuhaus' On The Public Square jottings in the February 2009 edition (sub req):
As of this writing, I am contending with a cancer, presently of unknown origin. I am, I am given to believe, under the expert medical care of the Sloan-Kettering clinic here in New York. I am grateful beyond measure for your prayers storming the gates of heaven. Be assured that I neither fear to die nor refuse to live.
If it is to die, all that has been is but a slight intimation of what is to be. If it is to live, there is much that I hope to do in the interim. After the last round with cancer fifteen years ago, I wrote a little book, As I Lay Dying (titled after William Faulkner after John Donne), in which I said much of what I had to say about the package deal that is mortality. I did not know that I had so much more to learn.
And yes, the question has occurred to me that, if I have but a little time to live, should I be spending it writing this column. I have heard it attributed to figures as various as Brother Lawrence and Martin Luther--when asked what they would do if they knew they were going to die tomorrow, they answered that they would plant a tree and say their prayers. (Luther is supposed to have added that he would quaff his favored beer.) Maybe I have, at least metaphorically, planted a few trees, and certainly I am saying my prayers.
Who knew that at this point in life I would be understanding, as if for the first time, the words of Paul, "When I am weak, then I am strong"? This is not a farewell. Please God, we will be pondering together the follies and splendors of the Church and the world for years to come. But maybe not.
In any event, when there is an unidentified agent in your body aggressively attacking the good things your body is intended to do, it does concentrate the mind. The entirety of our prayer is "Your will be done"--not as a note of resignation but of desire beyond expression. To that end, I commend myself to your intercession, and that of all the saints and angels who accompany us each step through time toward home.
Father Neuhaus did go home to God on January 8th of this year. As we begin this year's Lenten season, we realize just how wise he was in understanding the truth of the ultimate matters of life and death and just how much he will be missed in this world.