I visited Fr. Bill O’Brien in Charlottesville this past week. For those who do not know him, Fr. Bill holds the record for being pastor at St. John the Evangelist church the longest—11 years. David, Fr. Bill’s older brother, still lives in Fishersville. David told me to tell you he is doing fine, except that he doesn’t like getting old. His body isn’t as flexible as it once was, but his mind is in excellent shape. So it helps to shift his attention to more cheerful things. He welcomes visitors. He fears if he goes into a nursing home, people will stop visiting. So if you see him, try to alleviate his anxieties. Bring flowers. Bring balloons. Bring chocolate. Talk about how your faith enriches your life, and the things he is passionate about. Make him smile. And keep coming back.
Anyway, Fr. Bill moved to Hospice House of the Piedmont in Charlottesville last Monday. An email from Richmond said he was in hospice care; and that troubled me. Not many people transition out of hospice care into independent or assisted living. I knew he had a serious heart condition. But I hadn’t spoken to him much since he came back to the area from Williamsburg. I invited him to the dedication of our Family Room downstairs in his honor some years ago. He was not well enough then to travel, but I let him know we were thinking of him.
So I came to Hospice House with flowers and chocolate. I had to wait since he was being given a bath. And when I did see him, he was fast sleep. His case worker said Fr. Bill was finally settling in since arriving two days before. He ate a big meal earlier, and was in good spirits. There was no treatment plan; they were only managing his pain. It was okay to wake him, she said, but no luck. I looked around, spoke with somebody from a Charlottesville parish, was assured he had been given the anointing of the sick, and someone was visiting him. I tried again, and this time he woke up. I told him the parishioners of St. John send him their love. I brought him greetings from his brother David. He was very gracious. I asked if he had a message I might take back to you. He said that God loves you very much, and that you should stop fighting. I didn’t know what he meant. Was he reliving a past memory? Did he know something I didn’t? I decided I would leave it at that. If the shoe fits, you tell me. Lastly, I asked for his blessing, for myself and for everyone at St. John. And I took my leave.
This time of year, with the chill in the air and dead leaves littering the lawn, with our remembrance of our departed relatives and friends at all masses in November, and the scriptures directing our attention to the end times, with Fr. Bill at Hospice House, and David lamenting his physical challenges, and with thousands of reported casualties in the wake of a monstrous typhoon in the Philippines, I find myself pondering our earthly existence and how fragile our lives are. Every birth sets in motion a series of events, some inevitable, some possible, to span the duration of a life. A college professor once said that being born is definitely a traumatic experience. I have no memories of that time in my life. But it would have been a warm and comfortable existence, a self-contained universe with everything one would ever want or need, in total darkness, and a total lack of pain or personal responsibility. Birth is exactly what shatters our warm and comfortable existence. It forces us into a world where there is suffering and cold and light and personal responsibility.
First, we would have to breathe for ourselves. We’ve never had air in our lungs before, and would probably choose to skip that slap on our bottom. We get prodded and poked by strange people. They count fingers and toes, and examine every square inch of our body. Then we are wrapped tight in a blanket to keep warm. We soon discover our need to eat and drink and digest, and then that trauma affectionately referred to as potty-training. If we knew we had to give up our pain-free, carefree, perfect existence, would we willingly be born? Unfortunately for us, and most fortunately for our mothers, being born is not a choice. And we soon discover that this life is not all bad. We could never have imagined what life would be like because our experience up until then was so limited. We would only have been able to describe it in terms of the existence we knew before being born. And knowing what we now know, most of us can safely say we would not choose differently, that this existence is far better, that this life is so much more fulfilling.
But at the end of our life’s journey, we face yet another difficult transition. We call it Death. And we fear Death because it is the absence of everything we hold dear: life, movement, consciousness, relationship. Death takes us to a place we have never been to before, from which no one has ever returned to tell us what we might find. So we concoct ideas of Death that we glean from faith, superstition, literature, fantasy, and popular culture. We use images we know to explain realities we do not know. And as long as we do not possess certainty of the nature of Death, we will continue to fear it, and dread letting go of our present existence. Eventually, we will each pass from our present existence into a new reality that will blow away what we thought we knew, and will escape description in the language we now speak. It will be like being born all over again. All our certainties will turn out to be too limiting, our words less than adequate.
We can understand Jesus’ frustration dealing with the Sadducees, explaining to them that life after the resurrection will be different. It will be nothing like the present, he tells us. If we think only in terms of life as we know it, we limit our understanding and will be unable to grasp what lies beyond. “[We] can no longer die, for [we] are like angels; and [we] are the children of God because [we] are the ones who will rise.” We will come to know a new life like those who live in God—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Our faith teaches us that this present existence draws meaning from a better life which is yet to come. We have been created to share God’s very life, a reality we cannot even now begin to describe or imagine. And if we truly desire the life God prepares for us, the way we live now must point to the resurrection. Like the seven brothers we read about in the book of Maccabees, we are encouraged to value our eternal salvation above the passing glory of Madison Avenue and Wall Street. And with St. Paul we “pray that we may be delivered from perverse and wicked people, for not all have faith. But the Lord … will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one. We are confident of you in the Lord that what we instruct you, you are doing and will continue to do. May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the endurance of Christ.”
So take the long view. What awaits us beyond this life is even better still.
Rolo B Castillo © 2013