By FATHER THEODORE BOOK, Commentary | Published November 2, 2006
I have always felt sympathy for those in the medical profession: they face an impossible task. We have charged doctors with preserving life, but every patient a doctor sees will invariably die—the best he or she can hope for is to extend the life of the patient, making it more pleasant or full of greater potential. In the great battle against death, the doctor will lose in every single case—only hoping to delay the inevitable.
Sometimes it seems that in our shared sympathy for doctors, we like to pretend that this isn’t the case. We speak of the lives that would be “saved” by a cure for cancer or heart disease as if those individuals would not succumb to some other malady but somehow live forever. Perhaps, beneath our affections is a secret hope that we will somehow be exempt from this universal law of humanity—if we do not speak of death, somehow we might avoid it.
In sharp contrast to our modern taboo against speaking of death, the Church has always believed that the awareness and honest assessment of the end of life is not something to hide from or ignore but a necessary part of appreciating and living this life—indeed, she sees the contemplation of death as something very much life-giving.
While Hollywood stays at home for the funerals of her stars, the Church celebrates the deaths of her saints—their birthdays into eternal life. November, in particular, is the month set aside by the Church to pray for all her dead and begs a focus on that great mystery of death: a mystery the world ignores because the secular way of life could not withstand the contradiction, but a mystery that believers can contemplate with hearts full of wonder, knowing that they, too, will pass where so many have tread before.
What can we say about death? Its certainty marks the import and urgency of our lives—we are given a limited number of days, each one unique and precious, a badge that we will wear for eternity. If life ends with death, then it is of little value—whatever pleasure, pain, triumphs or defeat it brings do not matter; they have no lasting memory or effect. If life extends beyond death, however, then life is full of purpose—and that purpose is to be found in whatever is enduring, in whatever will not pass away.
As Christians, we know that after death there will come a judgment, that those who walk the narrow way that leads to salvation will be separated from the many who trod the road of damnation. This, too, lends urgency and beauty to life—our Lord could have made us slaves, unable to choose our eternal destiny, but instead He made us free, that through an epic struggle against our passions, the world, and the devil, we might accept His gift of eternal life; or by refusing to seek Him, reject Him and that gift.
Each day, then, has eternal value because in this day I can reject evil and choose God, I can seize the great dignity that God has given me: the freedom to choose heaven.
At the same time, knowledge of death gives new fire to my love of neighbor. Here is a fellow being created for eternal life, and somehow God has given to me a role in his life; somehow I will play some part, today, in his choice or rejection of eternity. What great responsibility He has placed in our hands. What great dignity He has given us.
Doctors then, important as they are, can only add some length or ease to our few days on earth. Christians can do something far greater. They can choose a treatment whose value is perennial, whose return is unlimited. They can grasp eternal life.
Father Theodore Book is chaplain of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home, Atlanta.