The Mystery of Death: Lent 2016

We don’t like to ponder our own death. In fact, our culture makes every effort to defy that all of us will die. I believe this denial is toxic to our lives.

Several years ago I went on retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani Monastery, which rests in the bluegrass hills of Kentucky.  At the time I was struggling with my own faith, with my belief in the resurrection, and with my direction in life.  The community homilist at the time,  the late Fr. Matthew Kelty, took time to listen to my story. So, he invited me to the funeral mass of a fellow monk who died same week I was on retreat.  He said “it would do me some good.” 

That night I sat in the balcony of the sanctuary  into the early morning hours before the funeral mass.  I listened as the Brothers prayed the Psalms in tandem over the deceased, whose body lie resting in the center aisle of the nave.  I was moved to tears by the time the deceased was laid to rest.

Fr. Matthew was right.  I can’t really explain it, but one of my most profound encounters with God took place at the funeral of a Cistercian monk I never knew. 

Fr. Matthew said death is the ultimate mystery.  He writes about that mystery in this way:

“For birth and death are perhaps, indeed undoubtedly, the most profound of human experiences. And there is no getting used to them.  We come and we go. Where did we come from? Where are we going? The sort of questions children ask. And everyone with children knows that they can be profound, deep, upsetting.  Hence, being a Christian, being a person of faith, enables us to answer the child, to respond to a sudden encounter, or an anticipated joy, the ultimate.

We come from God and we go to God.

It’s as simple as that. And as beautiful. As profound. It is not only the usual answer.   It is the answer.”

Allow the ritual of Ash Wednesday to linger during Lent. It is a powerful reminder that we only have a limited time in which to experience the creation that surrounds and and the beautiful people that enrich our lives. Be humbled and give in to love. In the words of Ansarit of Herat:

Would you become a pilgrim
on the road to Love?
The first condition is that
you make yourself
humble as dust and ashes.

Mortal Flesh and Ash

dust-from-hand

Ash Wednesday. There is no other day like Ash Wednesday. The proud and the meek, the arrogant and the humble all made equal on Ash Wednesday. The healthy and the sick, the assured and the sick in spirit, all make their way to church in the gray morning or in the dusty afternoon. They line up silently, eyes downcast, bony fingers counting the beads of the rosary, lips mumbling prayers. All are repentant, all are preparing themselves for the shock of the laying of the ashes on the forehead and the priest’s agonizing words, “Thou dust, and to dust thou shalt return .”

Rudolfo A. Anaya