Happy birthday. Since the end of September we have had four birthdays, with another one next Sunday, out of a community of fifteen. One of the novices reached the milestone of thirty years on Thursday, the day some of us went to a talk that asked the question “Is there life after death?”. The speaker said that at seventy two, this question was becoming an increasingly urgent question. The birthday boy did not appreciate these reminders of how quickly time is moving.
My birthday passed by on Saturday without deep existential questioning, but I have been facing mortality in other ways: a friend died recently, I am aware of some members of my family getting noticeably older. It is not always about approaching death. My sister had a baby a few months ago, and another sister is getting married in a few months. Even though having a baby is generally very safe in England compared with some parts of the world we were also aware of the fragility of individual lives as it is a vulnerable time for mother and child.
Each Thursday the novices are sent out to do some voluntary work. Since the beginning of the new novitiate year in September I have been going to a local care home for the elderly. A couple of residents have told me how difficult they have found aging – when
they suddenly found themselves unable to do some things and becoming dependent on other people. For years they took for granted being able to be independent and being able to move at will and pick things up when they felt like it. They have already lost the ability to do some of these things and can’t be sure when other activities get beyond their ability. I also see some people who were used to living in their own houses and deciding what and when to redecorate, now finding themselves dependent on the decisions of the care home management. Some also lose their memories and find the world a confusing and threatening place.
These things can be painful and frustrating for them to experience and for others to watch.
Is there any value in this process? is the question I have been asking myself. It may not be a helpful question. It has challenged me to reconsider how much I value life – by when I produce or do, what about the value of being? But this being isn’t a blissful state of ease, but a ceaseless struggle to walk, eat, drink, breathe. If life after death is moving into closer relationship with and in God, which means less of my own independence, perhaps one value of the weakening of life before death is another preparation for life after death? I trust that life after death will not be painful, frustrating, confusing or threatening. However, our preparation for the fullness of the life to come may not come immediately and may need some more struggle. I am preparing a homily to be given in a couple of weeks time and have been reminded of an image of our hope from the last verse of the sixteenth psalm:
You will teach me the path of life,
unbounded joy in your presence,
at your right hand delight for ever.