[This essay was originally published at the National Catholic Register in 2015.]
Happy new year! You’re going to die. And my five-year-old can’t wait.
It’s possible that this eagerness comes because I did a little bit too good of a job of helping her get over her fears about death, which were coming to haunt her every evening when she got tired. But when you’re dealing with a weeping kindergartener, the right choice is to err on the side of reassurance.
It’s a difficult balance to strike, when our kids worry about death. We want to comfort and reassure them (and stop the howling!), but at the same time, we don’t want to lie to them, and give the impression that there’s a guaranteed happy ending on everyone’s final page. Death may be a beginning, not an end — a doorway to eternity, not a trap door to oblivion — but it’s still an evil thing, something which was never meant to be in the world.
So to my daughter, I spoke mainly about the joy of the Second Coming; about the glory of our resurrected bodies; about the rejoicing as every wound will be healed, every sorrow erased, every loss restored. She and her sisters now hold enthusiastic conferences about how great it’s going to go be to see their grandfather again, to never get a sore throat again, to be able to stand on their hands as long as they want to. As long as no one’s going to go marching off to the crusades to hasten their entrance into heaven, I’m not too worried.
Soon enough, she will figure out soon enough that if death is a door, it’s still a fearful one. She will understand that yes, it really is possible for people to decide to irrevocably turn away from the good, to shut out forever God and all the good, true, and beautiful things that proceed from Him.
And she will figure out that, even if we don’t choose Hell, the end of our earthly life is often an ugly thing.Those commercials showing old men and old women ending their lives in a golden glow of comfort, security, and contentment? They are lying, trying to sell something. Almost nobody ends that way, and most of us die surrounded by pain and sorrow (if not our own, then our families’). Death is not the final word. But it is evil, all the same.
My daughter will realize this soon enough, in her own time. In the mean time, I’m telling her the brightest version of something that is true, and something that we all need to remember: that the best way to deal with death and the afterlife is to remember, always, that it’s our behavior right now that decides which path we’re on. It’s a good thing to spend some time thinking about death, not to terrify ourselves or to revel in dark things, but to shed some light on our present choices.
This is what the Pope was saying in his New Year’s homily, which he used
to stress life’s fleetingness.
The spiritual leader said, “How we like to be surrounded by so many fireworks, seemingly beautiful, but which in reality last only a few minutes.” …
New Year’s … is a time to reflect on our mortality, “the end of the path of life.”
A few secular folks will no doubt snicker over this dour, killjoy message that only a Catholic could love; but even most secular people should know better. What better time than New Year’s Day to remember that there’s really no point in making merry now — no point in making resolutions now — unless our future matters? And why would our future matter if our present life isn’t significant?
In other words, there is no gross, unfathomable divide between who we are now and what eternity holds for us. The very first thing we learn about ourselves from the Catechism is why we are here. I remember the sweet, profound formula: we are here to know God, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next. It’s all part of one continuous story.
Death is an evil chapter, but it is by no means the final one. And so it makes good sense, while we are alive, still thinking, still choosing, still setting our course, to write the story of our lives like a good author: with some plan in mind. The details and the characters need to work themselves out, but the major plot points ought to be settled ahead of time.
Image: AnonymousUnknown author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons