What Will You Say at the End of the Day

As part of programs designed to help people discern their vocation in life, I’ve sometimes asked people to do a version of an obituary exercise. There are many versions of the exercise, but the thrust is to get people to focus on how they want to be remembered.

I thought about the exercise in connection with today’s first Mass reading. In the Second Letter to Timothy, Paul, knowing that the time of his death is approaching, says: “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” Not a bad thing to be able to say at the end of the day.

When asked at the time he retired from the Supreme Court what he thought was his greatest accomplishment, Thurgood Marshall replied: “I did the best I could with what I had.” I’d like to be able to say that also.

And then there is the humorist Erma Bombeck, whose version of Marshall’s sentiment was, “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.” I can’t think of a better way of expressing gratitude to God for all of our gifts.

What will you say to God as the end of your human life? What do you want to be able to say?


Get Outside: It’s Spring

I always love spring. Even after a fairly mild winter like the one we had in the Twin Cities this year, there is something wonderful about walking outside and seeing the daffodils, tulips and other flowers emerge and observing leaves where there were bare branches some weeks ago.

The other day I got an e-mail from the Writer’s Almanac that contained this excerpt from Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl that resonated deeply with me. Anne wrote:

“As long as this exists,” I thought, “and I may live to see it, this sunshine, the cloudless skies, while this lasts, I cannot be unhappy.” The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature, and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature. As long as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be comfort for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances may be. And I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles.

Sure, you an look out the window and see the flowers and leaves on the trees. (My prayer space looks out and gives me a wonderful view of our backyard.) But it is not quite the same. What you really want to do is spend some time outside. Be alone with nature. Walk amidst the beauty of nature. Seeing. Hearing. Smelling. Let God’s creation, the “simple beauty of nature,” bring you comfort and solace.

P.S. Depending on where you are, it may or may not be raining today. A little rain never hurt anyone so go out anyway. (If it is really storming, well, OK – you can marvel at the rain from inside and go outside tomorrow.)

Celebrating a Life

Yessterday we buried my Aunt Bunny. After a two-day wake during which family and friends from came from far and wide to pay their respects, we gathered at St. Clare’s Church in Staten Island for the funeral mass, following which a caravan of cars followed the hearse to Resurrection Cemetary, where my aunt was buried alongside her husband (Uncle Blaise). While there, we visited the graves of my father and uncles Bob and Michael, all of whom are buried within about 100 feet of each other.

We then regrouped at the condo Aunt Bunny shared with Aunt Carol, my father’s other sister. Family and friends spent the whole day there, eating, drinking, talking, telling stories and just being together.

Later in the afternoon, someone brought out some games and several groups sat at various tables playing cards or scattegories or something else. At one point, Aunt Carol turned to me and said, somewhat troubled, “Why are we doing this? Look people are laughing and having a good time. How can we be doing this today?”

My answer was swift and firm: Because Aunt Bunny would have wanted this. Because she would have been happy to see all of us here together. Because she would have wanted us to celebrate and enjoy our love for her and each other. We are all deeply pained at the loss and we have all cried a lot over the last weeks, and especially the last few days. But she would not have wanted us to sit all day glum and silent; that would have done her no honor.

As I answered her, Aunt Carol nodded her head in agreement. She, who knew her sister better than anyone, knew that Aunt Bunny would have wanted exactly what went on yesterday: the family she loved gathered in love and enjoying each other’s company.

Living at the Cost of Others’ Lives

One of the CD’s currently in the player in my car is Danielle Rose’s Mysteries of the Rosary, a two-CD set sent to my some time ago by my dear friend Maria.

As I listened to the CD the other day, I focused on the opening lines of the song titled Crucify Him. The lines, although phrased as a question, are really an accusation the can be leveled against most if not all of us:

We wash our hands of the thoughts that slip through our minds.
Like Pontius Pilate, we blame others for the atrocities of our times.
Do we stay silent while the world screams out its lies?
Sell your body, buy your beauty, live at the cost of others’ lives.

The line that most affected me was the last one. What passed though my mind in an instant was all of the ways we live at the cost of others’ lives.

When we purchase cheaply an item produced by child labor, we live at the cost of the lives of those children.

When we support an industrial agriculture system that distorts food production in lesser developed countries in ways that actually increase hunger, we live at the cost of the lives of starving people.

I could list other examples, but the point is simple: Every decision we make has consequences. Every choice we make affects the lives of others – positively or negatively.

And when we live at the cost of others’ lives because doing so is easier…less costly…more convenient, we are no better than, no different from, Pontius Pilate.

The Space Between Then and Now and Then

We all have different ways of reflecting on our lives – considering both where we’ve been and where we’re going. Sometimes the goal is realizing places God has been operating in our lives where we may not have realized it before. Sometimes it may be a means of dealing with particular places of pain or transition.

I was looking for a particular file on my computer and came across a description of an exercise I (presumably) had considered using in a program at one point or another to help people engage in this reflective process. I share it here with the thought that some may find it a fruitful means of prayer.

The instructions were these: Start by drawing a line lengthwise down the middle of a piece of paper. Then place a dot the bottom of the line, indicating your birth. Viewing the top of the page as the point of your death, place a second dot on whatever spot on the line seems to correctly represent for you the point in your life you are at now.

The line between the two dots you drew indicates the life you have lived thus far. Go through and identify on the line points of significance – events and incidences that have shaped the person you are now. Represent those points with dots on the line, labeling the points you have identified.

As you look at them, consider:

What is it that made those points significant to me?

What do they say about me? My relationship with God? My relationship with others?

What did I learn from those experiences?

After considering the past, look at the line between where you are now and the top of the page, which represents the remainder of your human life. As you look at the line, reflect on:

What do you imagine will be the significant points on that line?

Are there particular things you feel you need to do?

Based on your consideration of the past, are there particular areas in which you need to grow?

Finally, ask yourself: What do you need from God at this point in your life having reflected backward and forward?

Our Choice to Choose Life

At yesterday’s gathering of Weekly Manna, a Christian gathering that takes place on Wednesdays during the noon worship period at the law school, my friend Chato offered a reflection on a portion of the 30th chapter of Deuteronomy (30:11-20). It happens to be a passage that I love.

The passage begins with God’s characterization of his command. God tells us:

[T]his command which I enjoin on you today is not too mysterious and remote for you. It is not up in the sky, that you should say, ‘Who will go up in the sky to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?’ Nor is it across the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?’ No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.

So right out of the gate, God is telling us that he is not placing before us an insurmountable task. No tricks – no hiding the ball or other guessing games. Rather, God makes it very simple for us – all you have to do is carry out that which you already know, that which I have already placed in your heart.

God goes on to tell us something fundamental: we get to choose whether to live in the truth of who we are or to choose something else:

Here, then, I have today set before you life and prosperity, death and doom. If you obey the commandments of the LORD, your God, which I enjoin on you today, loving him, and walking in his ways, and keeping his commandments, statutes and decrees, you will live and grow numerous, and the LORD, your God, will bless you in the land you are entering to occupy. If, however, you turn away your hearts and will not listen, but are led astray and adore and serve other gods, I tell you now that you will certainly perish; you will not have a long life on the land which you are crossing the Jordan to enter and occupy.

And God implores us to choose wisely, because there are consequences to our choice. Although speaking directly to the Israelites in this passage, God lays before us the same choice he laid before them, and implores us as fervently:

I call heaven and earth today to witness against you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the LORD, your God, heeding his voice, and holding fast to him. For that will mean life for you, a long life for you to live on the land which the LORD swore he would give to your fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

As Chato observed, we don’t always choose wisely. Indeed, we are sometimes not even cognizant that we are making choices – that each day in so very many ways – we make the decision to choose God or not God, life or death, love or disregard, and so on.

It is our choice – to live in the truth of who we are, to live in accord with that which God has placed in our heart, choosing life, or to “adore and serve other Gods.”

Life-Giving Water

Today’s first Mass reading is from the Book of Ezekiel. It is a passage I always love reading and hearing proclaimed…but it is not easy for me to put my finger on exactly why that is the case.

It is also a difficult passage to succinctly describe. (You can find it here). Ezekiel describes being led by an angel first to the entrance of the temple of the Lord and then around the temple. At each point he describes the water first trickling out from the temple and then flowing more powerfully so that it rises “so high it had become a river.” The description contains incredibly detailed measurements of the temple and of the water.

After walking around the temple, Ezekiel is led to a bank on the river formed by the water flowing out of the temple, and the angel explains how the water flows into different areas. The angel also explains that wherever the water flows there is abundance.

For Christians, the symbolism isn’t at all subtle. Christ is the Temple, from Him flows the living water. The waters in the reading signify the gospel of Christ, which went forth from Jerusalem, and spread all around, producing blessed effects.

But the lack of subtly doesn’t bother me. The descriptions captivate me completely. As I read, I feel I am with Ezekiel and the angel, and I’m excited as I watch the water rising. And I can see the waters flowing through all the land, creating life. And I feel blessed by that abundance.

I shake my head looking back at what I wrote, feeling it to be a very inadequate explanation of what I experience as I listen to the passage. So my suggestion is: go read it. Let the words wash over you. Feel their power and beauty.

Choose Life

In today’s first Mass reading from the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people of Israel:

Today I have set before you life and prosperity, death and doom…I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live.

And what does it mean to choose life? Moses explains:

Choose life…by loving the Lord, your God, heeding his voice, and holding fast to him….by loving him, and walking in his ways, and keeping his commandments.

We are constantly faced with the same choice as were the Israelites. Each moment is a moment in which we choose life or death, blessing or curse. Each thought, each word, each deed moves us toward God or away from God, toward life or toward death, toward blessing or toward curse, toward wisdom or toward ignorance. Life for us comes from choosing the path of love, from choosing God.

Choose well. It sounds so simple. But we don’t always choose God. Like Paul, it seems like sometimes “I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.”

And each time we do, God is right there, helping us to get up and dust ourselves off, offering us another opportunity…and another…and another.

Isn’t is grand that God is so patient with us?