The Texan millionaire had been very specific about his funeral service. He had asked that he be buried at the wheel in his favourite pink Cadillac convertible, wearing his Stetson hat and a cigar in his mouth. They did just that. An enormous hole was dug and a crane lowered the convertible into the hole with the Texan at the wheel just as he had stipulated. One of the grave diggers leaned on his shovel and looked down at the car and its deceased owner. He whistled in amazement. ‘Man’ he said, ‘I call that living.’
Today’s scriptures invite us to consider what we would really call living, or rather, what it would mean to be fully alive. And paradoxically they invite us to do that by remembering that we will die. In our first reading (Eccl. 1.2 & 2.21-23) the preacher reminds us that others will inherit all that we work so hard to accumulate. In the gospel (Lk 12.13-21) Jesus tells a parable which contrasts material wealth and spiritual poverty.
Is it depressing to think that one day we will die? We often flee from this thought and distract ourselves from it. Yet Jesus is not inviting us to be morbid, or lugubrious, or gloomy. Rather, he is asking us to find a fulfilled life by looking at this simple truth: one day we will die. This recollection of our mortality gives us perspective. It invites us to think about what is truly important. Looking at our life from the standpoint of its terminus here on earth, we will find a different set of priorities, not at all like the daily list on the fridge. Here are some suggestions of what happens when we do this.
Healing and reconciliation become important. We would not want to die with resentment or bitterness in our heart. Sometimes as we get older we become aware of hurts that we have carried with us for a long time, and our anger at the people responsible. Whatever the situation, if reconciliation is possible, then we need to set it in motion. Sometimes the people concerned are long out of touch. If so, we have to find the space in our hearts where we can ask God for the grace to forgive. This is to find riches, surely, in the sight of God. And if we are the ones who have acted recklessly, or who have left bruises on others? Here confession is part of healing.
Humility Perhaps you have succeeded in life. Perhaps you have risen far. Perhaps you have a standard of living far above that of your parents and grandparents. Perhaps you have a flourishing career. If so, this is wonderful. But is this all your own doing? The farmer in the parable who wants bigger barns sounds just a little smug, as if all his success is down to his own efforts. But if you and I look back across our lives in a spirit of honesty, I think we will find that our success depended upon factors like luck, for example, being in the right place at the right time. Or connections – someone put in a word for you. Or a gifted teacher at school. Or the sacrifice of your parents who scrimped and saved to give you every opportunity. Frankly, we build on what others give us. This leads to another insight that the fact or our mortality invites us to discover:
Passing the blessing Others have helped us. Would we want to leave this life without helping others in our turn? We have benefited from the generosity of generations before us. If you doubt that, look at the church around you. Past generations of Catholics gave generously so that you could have a church in which to worship, in which you could baptize your children, marry your loved one, lay your dead to rest, hear the word of God and receive the bread of life. We need not only to maintain the church but pass it on as a living, thriving reality to generations coming after us. The same is almost certainly true of the schools and colleges where we studied. Have we given anything back to them for what we received there? Passing the blessing also challenges us to remember those for whom life has not been sweet, through handicap or poverty or sheer misfortune.
Finally, the thought of death induces a certain humility The fact of our mortality reminds us that we do not take our greatness to God. You might be a household name, possessed of fabulous riches, successful sportsman or politician or star of stage or screen. No matter. In the eyes of God you count for no more, and no less, than the poorest person living and dying on the streets of Calcutta. God loves us all equally. God challenges us all equally, to do what we can to love others. That is what will matter at the end.
Fr Terry is Parish Priest at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Brook Green, west London. His new book: Ronald Knox and English Catholicism is published by Gracewing at £12.99 and is available on Amazon, on ICN's front page. To read Sr Gemma Simmonds' review on ICN see: http://www.indcatholicnews.com/news.php?viewStory=16114