One of many personal stories that I often share is my experience with hospice in Philadelphia. It is one ministry that I will forever be grateful. This ministry opened my eyes to the other side of life, if you will. It is the side that is often swept under the carpet because it pushes us to think about our mortality - yes, the reality that we won’t be around here forever. This stark reality did hit me a couple of weeks ago when a family called to let me know that a one-time parishioner was near death and would appreciate a visit.
I went by the next day to visit with this parishioner, but as I made my way to the lobby of the assisted living facility where she had been on hospice, the family - whom I didn’t know - simply asked if I was Fr. Manny. When I responded in the affirmative, they told me that their loved one passed on a few minutes ago. I asked if I could still visit and say a prayer for her. They said I could, and together we all walked into her room. There she was, lying on her bed and at peace. "Her death came a little too fast," one said. "We thought she would be around for a little longer," said another. I am glad I was there to see her and to say a prayer for her - a gesture for which she would’ve appreciated if she knew I came by to see her, to touch her, and to bless her with a prayer to the God who fashions all of our lives.
There’s a book by Dr. Kathryn Mannix, a palliative care specialist, called With the End in Mind. In this book, Dr. Mannix relies on multiple case studies to describe the possibility of meeting death gently, with forethought and preparation, and she shows the unexpected beauty, dignity, and humanity of a life coming to an end. Her belief is that we approach death not with fear but with clarity, openness, and understanding. And, to a greater extent, that is what hospice is about - an opportunity to embrace the end with grace and dignity.
There’s a parishioner who always reminds me of this with these words: "We begin to die the moment we are born." Yes, our life story begins with our birth. We’re not consulted about our parentage, our ethnicity, the circumstances into which we are born, our gender, our sexuality, or anything else. And all too soon, life is snatched from us just as we were starting to enjoy it; or we’re left to dwindle too long and we get sick of it. Either way, we have no say about the time, place, and manner of our demise. All in all, it seems like a pretty bad deal and disheartening at best.
But that is not the whole story. We learn that life is a gift of grace, and that through the exercise of our free will we can – within the boundaries of whatever life throws at us – shape its disposition. We learn which battles to fight, the things we can change and want to change, and the things we cannot change or would be better off not trying to change.
Does that remind you of the Serenity Prayer by Richard Niebuhr?
God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time,
enjoying one moment at a time;
accepting hardship as a pathway to peace;
taking, as Jesus did,
this sinful world as it is,
not as I would have it;
trusting that You will make all things right
if I surrender to Your will;
so that I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with You forever in the next.
Pray this prayer as often as you possibly can. Let it sit in you and fill your heart, mind, and will.
Truth is, as we shape the disposition of our lives we are also shaping the disposition of our deaths. Leonardo da Vinci thought about this when he wrote ‘While I thought that I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die.’ Each morning sun awakens us to the reality of an ever-approaching end to a storied life. Each sunrise greets us with the gift of another day to make the necessary changes. The point still remains... if we live well, accepting freely and peacefully the things that we cannot change, our lives and our deaths will both be manifestations of the freedom that God has given to us.
With that freedom in mind, learn to enjoy every single moment of your life. Be happy now. Don’t wait for something outside of you or your experience to make you happy. Ponder on the preciousness of the time you have to spend with your family, loved ones, friends and colleagues.
With that freedom in mind, enjoy and savor every minute of your precious life with the knowledge that life is a journey with problems to solve, lessons to learn and, above all, experiences to enjoy.
With that freedom in mind, do not take life for granted. Live it to its fullest glory.