Several years ago, at retreat, an elderly monk shared with me about the ups and downs of 50 years of monastic life. At the end of this he said to me: “Give me some hints on how I should prepare to die! What should I do to make myself more ready for death?”
The heaviness of such a question is enough to intimidate a person with a spirituality deeper than my own, and when it’s asked by someone twice your age whose heart seems already deeply charitable, faith-filled, and wonderfully-mellowed through years of quiet prayer, then perhaps the best answer is silence. I wasn’t so naive as to offer him much by way of an answer, his trust in me notwithstanding.
But it’s a good question. How do we prepare to die? How do we live so that death does not catch us unaware? What do we do so that we don’t leave this world with too much unfinished business?
The first thing that needs to be said is that anything we do to prepare for death should not be morbid or be something that distances or separates us from life and each other. We don’t prepare for death by withdrawing from life. The opposite is true. What prepares us for death, anoints us for it, in Christ’s phrase, is a deeper, more intimate, fuller entry into life. We get ready for death by beginning to live our lives as we should have been living them all along. How do we do that?
John Shea once suggested that the kingdom of heaven is open to all who are willing to sit down with all. That’s a one-line caption for discipleship. In essence, the single condition for going to heaven is to have the kind of heart and the kind of openness that makes it possible for us to sit down with absolutely anyone and to share life and a table with him or her. It that is true, then the best way we can prepare to die is to begin to stretch our hearts to love ever wider and wider, to begin to love in a way that takes us beyond the natural narrowness and discrimination that exists within our hearts because of temperament, wound, timidity, ignorance, selfishness, race, gender, religion, circumstance, and our place in history.
We prepare to die by pushing ourselves to love less narrowly. In that sense, readying ourselves for death is really an ever-widening entry into life.
John Powell, in his book, Unconditional Love, tells the story of a young student who was dying of cancer. In the final stages of his illness, he came to see Powell and said something to this effect:
Father, you once told us something in class that has made it easier for me to die young. You said: “There are only two potential tragedies in life, and dying young isn’t one of them. These are the two tragedies: If you go through life and don’t love and if you go through life and you don’t tell those whom you love that you love them.”
When the doctors told me that I my cancer was terminal, I realized how much I’ve been loved. I’ve been able to tell my family and others how much they mean to me. I’ve expressed love. People ask me: “What’s it like being 24 years old and dying?” I tell them: “It’s not so bad. It beats being 50 years old and having no values!”
We prepare ourselves for death by loving deeply and by expressing love, appreciation, and gratitude to each other. Jesus says as much. When the woman at Bethany poured an entire bottle of expensive ointment on his feet and dried his feet with her hair, he commented on her lavish expression of affection and gratitude by saying: “She has anointed me for my impending death.” What he meant should not be piously misinterpreted. He wasn’t saying: “Since I’m soon to die, let her waste this ointment!” He was saying rather: “When I come to die, it’s going to be easier because, at this moment, I am truly tasting life. It’s easier to die when one has been, even for a moment, fully alive.”
What makes it difficult for us to die, beyond all the congenital instincts inside of us that want us to live, is not so much fear of the afterlife or even fear that their might not be an afterlife. What makes it hard to die is that we have so much life yet to finish and we finish it by loving more deeply and expressing our love more freely.
Had that old monk cornered Jesus and asked him the same question he asked me, I suspect, Jesus might have said: “Prepare for death by living more fully now. Work at loving more deeply, less discriminately, more affectionately, and more gratefully. Tell those close to you that you love them and death will never catch you like a thief in the night.”