(Letter to Frieda Begue, continued)
In my last thrilling installment I said that the Catholic life involves 10 commandments, 5 precepts, 14 works of mercy. There are a lot of other things, like the Bible, the Catechism, the Rosary, Sacraments and a lot of other interesting things like the Communion of Saints and the Queen and Mother of the Saints. Mary the Blessed Mother of our Lord and our Mother. These are not to be thought of as requirements. They are, in a sense exercise, spiritual exercise that St. Paul talks about in his first letter to St. Timothy, the 4th chapter the 8th verse (1Tim.4:8) He calls it godliness, or piety and contrasts it with bodily exercise. If you want six pack abs you are going to have to do some crunches. (I myself am quite content with the complete keg look) If you want to look like Jesus, it’s going to take 10 commandments, 5 precepts, 14 works of mercy and a few other things. You can’t earn heaven. It’s a gift of grace, but if you refuse to allow grace to conform you to Christ’s image, well good luck!
It all seems quite a lot of restrictive nonsense, this Catholic way of life. If it were just a philosophy, or a club that one could join, fine, but precepts and rosaries and the Sacrifice of the Mass? It seems like quite a commitment. Why should one even bother with it in the first place?
Simple. You are going to die. There is simply no way around it at the present time. It is inevitable that the body you schlepp to the health club is going to be six feet under sooner than most of us anticipate. All the stuff you have accumulated will end up in a yard sale because your ingrate grandchildren are uninterested in the finer things of life. Then the little philistines will divvy up your stock portfolio and certificates of deposit and spend your hard earned cash on good times with their pierced and painted neo-pagan friends from that horrible biker bar they frequent and that little gold digger your grandson married in a druidic, neo-pagan ceremony on some flea bitten, mosquito infested beach that you attended just to be “supportive.” She will waste your bequest on heaven knows what. You never could stomach her or her low-life relatives. Now they are going to be your heirs and there isn’t a darn thing you can do about it because you are as dead as leftover meatloaf. I suppose you could try to haunt them, but I’m not sure it’s that easy to haunt someone. If it’s possible, I bet it’s unpleasant. You’re going to die. I’m going to die. That is unless Jesus is who He claimed to be......
Death is inevitable, but there may be a loophole. We know more about the experience of death than any other generation of history. I’m talking about those beyond and back things. They’re getting so common they have TV shows about them. I’ve met perhaps a hundred or so people who claim to have had the experience. I remember a priest who I met on retreat. We were talking about the topic. He said, “That happened to me.”
He was visiting his doctor for a routine physical when he had heart attack right on the examining table. The doctor, who was from India, sent the nurse running for the things needed to resuscitate the priest and between resuscitation attempts, the doctor prayed over the priest. When they got the old priest revived and in the hospital, the doctor went to see him. The priest said that he didn’t know the religion of the man but nonetheless was grateful to him for praying over him while he was dead. The doctor was amazed.
He said “How did you know I was praying for you? You weren’t unconscious, you were dead!”
The old priest said, “No, I was standing over in the corner waiting to see what would happen.”
I have heard enough of these kinds of stories to suspect that at the moment of death something really does happen that allows us to see and know things we have no right to see or know. I will never forget the first man I met who had this experience. I’d read a book about these experiences by a sociologist named John Moody. The book was a collection of case studies of people who had been “beyond and back.” I was newly ordained and having read the book I decided I was an expert. I had a talk to give at a women’s group the next day, and desperate for a sermon, I decided to talk about these experiences and what they might mean in relation to our belief in the survival of death.
After the talk, a tall, thin man came up to me and extended his hand. As he shook my hand he said, “It’s all true. I know because I died.”
I took a step back. His wife, a woman about half his size looked up at me and said “It’s true, Father. He’s not crazy. He dropped dead of a heart attack at home and they didn’t get him breathing again ‘til they got his body to the hospital.”
He told me the most amazing story. He said that he found himself floating on the ceiling. His wife was hysterical and his kids were calling the emergency number. He thought, “why is everyone so upset? I feel fine!” He said that then he felt himself drawn into a long dark tunnel, but it wasn’t frightening. He felt perfectly safe. It reminded him of the 23rd Psalm, “ Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil...” He came out onto a city of light. It was a city, but it wasn’t a city. It was light but it wasn’t light. There was really no way to describe it. There, in front of the city was the Lord, whom he had known and loved for years. It was Jesus, a person of perfect light and love. He said that he could hear all our prayers rise to heaven and become like one prayer before God. He said, “Not only did our prayers rise to heaven but that when we prayed from the heart, “in the Spirit” were his exact words, our very spirits stood before God and became like one spirit.” He said the only thing that bothered him about the whole experience was that there was a kind of judgment in which he knew the answers before he was asked the questions. I wonder if that isn’t what it must be to experience timelessness. Here we live in time. There we have no time. We, like God are eternal, timeless.
In the midst of all that beauty, he heard one prayer that bothered him. It was his wife praying, “Lord, you have to send him back!”
He was only in his early fifties, and the Lord turned to him and said, “Your work in the world isn’t done yet. You have to go back.”
He passed back through the same tunnel. He woke up on a gurney in the emergency room of the local hospital; and when he had enough air in his lungs he yelled, “Why didn’t you leave me there?”
He was so angry about being alive that he wouldn’t talk to his wife for the next three days! There she stood nodding her head as he spoke. After a day or so he got on with the business of living. I’ve told that story innumerable times, and have heard many stories just like it. Some, however are not so pleasant. I’ll get to those later. But there is something beyond this life and, as St. Paul said “If we have believed for this life alone, we are the sorriest of men.” (1 Cor. 15:19)
To live as if this world were the only reality is a prescription for eternal unhappiness. There is more to live for than what we can get our hands on. There is more to live for than our pleasures and desires. There is more to life than even life. So, the first reason to live the Catholic life? Hope. Christ offers real hope, hope in the face of inevitable death.