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Along the Way
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Death and taxes are referred to as the two inevitable realities of life. In the CNMI we have been able to lessen the sting of taxes with the rebate but death remains. It is not a stranger we ignore. The novenas, rosaries, and anniversaries ensure that we do not ignore or try to hide from death, as seems to be the practice in America. Stories of spirits slipping between the worlds are common enough to remind us that it is not a great distance that separates us from the dead. Yet, death is still a leap into darkness, into the unknown. Death related memories sting with the pain of loss. Speculation about death is always seasoned by our own mortality.

Lent is a time to examine our lives. Any reflection on life must include some thought on death. It is death that makes life finite, limited, and thus, precious. It is death that frames what we have done in life. It is against the reality of death that we must judge the value of any individual life.

As we begin Lent, we will reflect on death in this column. Hopefully, death will teach us, helping to prepare us to celebrate Easter with greater appreciation of what we are celebrating.

My first memory about death was of the death of my Uncle Earl. He died in a traffic accident a couple of months before Easter in 1957. My memories of the man were limited to the times I visited his store and was allowed to raid the candy rack. At the age of eight, I had a favorable impression of anyone who gave me free reign of the candy rack. He was my father's older brother, someone who my father deeply admired and loved.

One Sunday morning my father took me aside and explained that Uncle Earl had died in a car crash the night before. I cried with a grief beyond my years. Certainly, I would miss the kind man who gave me candy. I think now that much of my grief was a sensitivity to the grief my father felt, not that he made any display of grief. I learned from that experience that death involved loss and pain.

Others in the family died, yet none of the deaths brought a strong response from me until my grandmother's death in 1962. I was twelve or thirteen at the time. My mother's mother had lived with us the last couple of years and the two of us never got along very well. I was at an age where I was testing the limits of what I could do. She was a first generation immigrant from Poland who had struggled through the depression as a widow with five children. To say that she experienced a difficult life, would be an understatement. She was a tough old lady and cut me no slack. There had been no opportunity for a reconciliation before she died and I carried a great deal of bottled up emotion with me in the years that followed. It showed itself in occasional nightmares and didn't go away until I made a specific effort as an adult to find some reconciliation with her via prayer and a memorial Mass. From my grandmother I learned the importance of making peace with someone while it was still possible.

One of the most difficult deaths I have had to face was the death of a youngster I worked with my first year out of college.

My first job out of college was as a probation officer for the Superior Court in Rochester, New York. I was assigned to work with kids. My job was to do case histories on the youngsters coming into court and recommend to the judge the best sentence for the young person. If the young offender was to be placed on probation, I would also serve as his caseworker.

One assignment I was given involved two brothers, one twelve and the other nine or ten. They were guilty of a string of ten burglaries. These young gentlemen were not your typical burglars. They were nice children from the suburbs who were respectful and well dressed. Very quickly it became apparent that the burglaries were simply a way for them to act out and get help, previous attempts at acting out didn't get the response they needed. The boys were emotional wrecks. Their father didn't physically abuse them but life in than house was like living in a Marine barracks. The father could not deal with his emotions or anyone else's emotions and kept things under control with unbelievable discipline. I recommended psychological treatment for the family and a minimal period of probation for the boys.

The evening before the boys were to appear in court the younger one took his father's shot gun into the basement of their home and blew his brains out. I learned of the incident at work the next day before we were to go into Court. The rest of the day was spent in a daze. That evening I went home and cried more deeply than I had ever cried. There was a terrible sense of waste and loss. There was the nagging thought that maybe if I had done something different with the kid he might not have killed himself.

From him I learned that in social services there are no "clients", only people who are hurting and in need of help. I also learned that I can not control the actions of another. I can only do my best with as much compassion, skill, and common sense I can muster. That boy's death was a tragedy but trying to blame myself for not being able to save his life or for not doing something differently was foolish.

My mother died in 1988 and my father in 1992. My mother died following a long bout with cancer. Her death was no surprise. In a sense, it was a relief from the pain and suffering inflicted by the illness. My father died in his sleep. His death was unexpected, yet, he had lived a full life. Death for him seemed to be a painless and natural end to a good life.

I haven't completely worked through all of the emotions and lessons to be gained from my parents' deaths. Yet, I have been forced to face my own mortality. I won't be in this world forever. There is a limited amount of time available to me and I must make the best of it.

My mother knew for several years that death was coming, yet she seemed to go on with life--business as usual. It was difficult to follow her preparations half the world away. A couple of months before she died I brought the entire family to visit. She seemed to enjoy the opportunity to have everyone around the house, a rarity with the family so spread out. Yet, there was no talk of death and little of the progress of the disease. She apparently was making her own peace with God privately. I discovered this after her death when I learned that she had developed quite a prayer life, with a special devotion to saying the rosary. She quickly declined in her health after we returned to Saipan. Two months later she was back in the hospital for the last time. I got a phone call from my dad saying she was in a bad way and would probably not last too much longer. I spoke with her on the phone she expressed her love for me and I told her of my love for her. I began making arrangements to go to the States. The next day I received a phone call from dad informing me that she had died.

My initial reaction was numbness and denial. I arrived in Rochester the day before the funeral at which I was to assist and preach. I was able to focus on my ministerial duties and avoid having to face her death head on during the funeral. The air schedules got me there as soon as possible but late enough in the wake that the only opportunity I had to view her body was just before the coffin was closed for the funeral. I was glad for the limited time. I didn't want to face her death. I wanted to deny that she was dead. I wanted to escape from the reality that this woman who brought me into the world was dead. After the funeral I stayed with my dad for a week to help him get through that empty time and to help dispose of some of mom's clothes. I haven't told this to many people, but after leaving Rochester I didn't come straight back to Saipan. I spent three days at Disney World, trying to recapture my childhood which had just come to its end with my mother's death. Perhaps it was a continuation of my denial and attempt to escape, but I needed the time alone. It was more than a month later before I began to face the reality of her death and start to grieve.

My father adjusted to my mother's death as well as could be expected. He kept his involvement in community service activities and enjoyed old friendships. He traveled more than before, as mom liked to stay close to home. There was a fairly severe illness at one point a couple of years after mom died but he recovered from that and was well enough to travel to Saipan for a visit by January of 1991.

He died in his sleep. His death was unexpected, yet he had lived a full life. Death for him seemed to be a painless and natural end to a good life. While my mother's death had been one that we saw coming but never really prepared for nor accepted easily, my father's death was one that was not expected but prepared for through intimate conversations and shared times before his death. I guess mom's death taught us not to take our relationships with loved ones for granted.

As a think back over the deaths I have described what strikes me is the unexpectedness of death. It comes like a thief in the night to steal our lives and disappear into the darkness. Yet, even when we can see it coming, we dare not look. We dare not admit that it is there. As a result, we do not prepare for it and when it comes so much is left undone.

Death has much to teach us, if we are willing to listen and to learn. Its lessons are not about the grave but about life. Death teaches us that we live in a world of time and each moment is precious. Each moment is an opportunity to share with someone we love. Each moment is an opportunity to make the world better because we have been here. Each moment is an opportunity to simply look about us in wonder, taking in the beauty of Gods creation and simply be content with the miracle of life.

Denying the reality of death tricks us into devaluing the gift of time and of life. It tricks us into wasting those precious moments we have been given. The denial of death is one of the most vicious of the tricks with which Satan attacks us.

Death is difficult enough to speak of when we reflect on the pain that we have felt following the loss of a loved one. It is even more difficult to seriously consider our own death. As youngsters, death is usually the last thing we want to consider. Our bodies are strong and healthy. Except for the possibility of an accident or being caught up in war, death is a remote issue that can be forgotten--at least, that is what we think.

For most of us, advancing age brings with it a growing awareness that death is real, that it will claim us sooner or later. We are more aware of death as the years pass by because we have seen it claim those around us and we can sense its presence in the slow failure of our bodies.

It is certainly nothing that we welcome. There is something in us that rebels against the claim of death and wants to live. We fear death, not because we know what it brings but because it is unknown. For each of us, death is a door and beyond the door we can perceive only darkness. What lies beyond the darkness?

We know that for our bodies death brings decay and destruction. If our brains and bodies are essential for our existence then we shall be no more once death has claimed us. Yet, this fate is not all that frightening. If we simply cease to be, it is not that different from entering a dreamless sleep. This is an end that many an atheist and believer in only what can be seen and touched accept. It provides a frame for one's life and urges one to make the best of the little time available.

Throughout history most people and cultures found this understanding inadequate, as it did not speak to their experience of death. In a variety of ways they continued to experience the presence of their dead loved ones. The wall between this world and another grew thin at times and a sense of something beyond became overpowering. Indeed, many report interactions of one type or another. Serious researchers have begun to map out this borderland with studies of "near death experiences."

Cultural traditions have offered their own maps of the borderland and what lies beyond death. These maps take us past demons and angels, beautiful gardens and lakes of ice and fire, some speak of rebirth in a seemingly endless cycle and others offer us only one passage through the experience of flesh.

While Catholic tradition is rich in images of what death is like for the person making the journey, our Catholic faith says relatively little. It speaks of life beyond this physical existence to which death is only a bridge. It speaks of reward, especially the presence of God as the greatest reward possible. It speaks of the possibility of pain and suffering, particularly the absence of God. It speaks of a place of learning, growth, and purgation as well.

What all traditions have in common is the insight that what ever death brings the time we have right now is critically important. Our lives have a meaning and purpose. If we fail to explore the possibilities, to reach after what God created us to be that failure will have consequences that reach beyond the border of death.

Much of what we value in our lives must be measured by the "deadline" against which we race. Are we devoting our lives to what is trivial? The activities into which we pour the precious hours and minutes of our lives will be the standard by which we shall be judged. Can we face this judgment.

We are strange beings. God has given us the ability to create ourselves. We can become what ever we decide--a creation of grace and beauty or a malformed mound of clay. What determines the result is the manner in which we shape and form our lives. The material with which we work are the moments of our lives.

It is not terribly difficult to speak of death in the abstract. We can draw on the wisdom of past generations and pass it along. It is more difficult to speak of the deaths of those whom we have loved and love still, for the shadow of death draws closer. It is most difficult to speak of our own deaths. Our minds instinctively reject the topic. Yet, death is not some abstract concept from which we can distance ourselves. It is the most personal of experiences. It is a reality that each of us will experience. Even Jesus, the Christ and Second Person of the Trinity, who was born and lived as one of us tasted death.

It is instinctive as well to fear death. Death is an unknown. Certainly we can appreciate that death is the frame of our life, giving it quantity and limits. Thus, any reflection on death is not so much about death as it is about life and what we do with it. Yet, there is a point when, even if we have made the most of our lives, we are faced with the reality that our time is at an end. What is it then that we fear as death approaches?

Herb Kramer spent most of his seventy years helping people. He was a writer, a lobbyist for worthy causes, and had administered several foundations. As administrator of the Kennedy Foundation, he was one of the people who helped to create the Special Olympics. He raised three children. He nursed a wife with cancer and eventually buried her. Later, he remarried and got on with life.

The time came when aches and pains resulted in him seeing the doctor, having some tests, and finding out that he had prostate cancer. It was treated and went into remission. Two years later it was back and spreading.

Every one of us knows that he or she is going to die. Herb Kramer realized that he would be dead within two years. He had a very limited period of time left to him. He used that time to co-author, with his wife, a book about dying.

The book reveals a man who spent much of his life concerned with the practical needs of others. He was a good man; saintly, in many ways. He was still concerned for others but knowledge that death would soon claim him forced him to look within. He shares his thoughts and concerns with the reader, as the days go by we see him letting go of his ties to this world and finding peace with his approaching death. While having a normal fear of death, his last days reveal a life that was rich in love and compassion. The closer he approached death, the greater was his experience of receiving love and compassion as well. Death came for him as a gracious and gentle passage from this world to the next.

Death is the unknown. We have stories that suggest that it is merely a transition. Our Faith tells us that death is a beginning, an awakening more than an eternal sleep. As much as we instinctively pull away from death, there is an persevering hope in our hearts that it is not the end. There must be something more.

We have many sources of knowledge to which we have grown deaf. They include revelation, intuition, the stories passed down to us from our ancestors, those experiences beyond words that burst into our lives for a few moments and then are gone. In our age of science, we listen only to knowledge that will submit to statistical analysis or the chemist's reagents. Death will not submit easily to such means of analysis. Death reveals its true nature to us in those means of knowledge that instruct our hearts.

Bob Fosse was a Hollywood choreographer and director who was famous for musical comedies. He died about five years ago. However, about ten years earlier, he suffered a heart attack which almost killed him. He had what is called "a near death experience" and turned it into a successful play and move called "All that Jazz." Death did not frighten him after his brush with it. In "All that Jazz" he portrays death not as anything fearful but as a beautiful woman.

Christ teaches us that God is Our Father; not a vengeful disciplinarian of a father but a daddy. Christ reveals to us a God who is willing to undergo suffering and death for our sake. Christ reveals to us a God who is gracious. Christ reveals to us a God who desires nothing more than to save us from the folly and destructiveness of our own poor choices. It is this understanding of God that gives us the courage to live fully, making each moment rich in God's love. When the time comes to die we are not escaping from a burden that has worn us down. Rather, our cup has been filled to the brim with life's riches and we can hold no more.

Death, for the one who has lived in love, is the passage from this world into the arms of a compassionate and loving God.

The Baltimore catechism told us to keep always the four last things in our thoughts; death, judgment, heaven and hell. We have reflected on death, perhaps we should move on to the others.

Judgment refers to the fact that our actions have meaning. They shape and form us into the person who will present himself or herself to God when death strikes. It will not be necessary to make any subtle determination of our sanctity at that time. Our actions throughout life will stand in judgment, either for or against us.

C.S. Lewis was a British scholar and writer. He gained a reputation as a popular author of Christian literature. One of his stories is called, "The Great Divorce." It describes the experience of death and a passage into purgatory using the image of a bus ride. The people in the bus arrive in purgatory and discover that the way they had lived their lives determines their physical characteristics in purgatory. The kind and loving person is tall and beautiful. The mean person in life is small in purgatory. The more loving a person is the more substantial they are in purgatory, while those who never learned to love are wispy and insubstantial, easily blown about. While the story is merely a humorous metaphor for our individual judgment, it reflects the truth.

We read in the Gospel how Christ did not come into the world to condemn it but to save it. He brought the light of truth into the world, so that its penetrating light would fill the world and expose the evil, that it might be eliminated. Christ brings us to judgment at death not to condemn us. It is we who have lived in the light in this world or who have preferred darkness. We will continue in the light in the next world, or continue in darkness. The judgment is made now by our actions.

A few years ago I wrote a story that was published in the Bulletin Guma' Yu'us as part of my column. The story described the death of a young man and his adventures in the afterlife. Most of the action took place in my image of purgatory. I saw purgatory as a place to learn and grow, to make up for what we needed to learn in this life and did not. It was pictured as a pleasant place, for purgatory is the waiting room of Heaven. yet, there was a certain amount of difficulty and suffering because these are the tools by which we learn.

We all have our individual image of what heaven is like. I think of heaven as a place of happiness, continually learning new and wonderful things, as well as a place to enjoy friendships. For me these things are heaven. We know that heaven is a place of happiness. It is a place of communion with God. It is a place of community with the saints.

What ever heaven is like, we know that it is the fulfillment of our dreams and the experience of the greatest joy. We can not go very far in describing the details of heaven because it not within our grasp while we remain in the world. We are wise to acknowledge its reality and to yearn for it at the completion of our earthly pilgrimage, but not to be overly specific about a reality that is still beyond us.

Dante Allegeri is the foremost of the classic Italian poets. His greatest work is the Divine Comedy, of which "The Inferno" is the best known section. This epic poem describes a vision in which Dante tours hell guided by the ancient Roman poet, Virgil.

Hell is an equal opportunity destination, according to Dante, and many a king, pope, bishop, and priest, along with thieves and other criminals, are seen as he tours the infernal regions. The punishment given to each inhabitant varies depending on the sins to which one had given greatest control over his or her actions during life. The tortures each person experienced were little more than a continuation of what one had inflicted upon oneself in life.

Many a mystic and saint of centuries past included a vision of hell among his or her writings. A loving God who saved us in Christ overwhelmed them. They wrote of hell to illustrate for us why Christ suffered and died. They also hoped to remind us that while we are capable of rejecting Christ, there is a price to be paid.

The poets and writers of this century have had little need to imagine tortures befitting hell. This world has provided them ample experience of hell. It is difficult to imagine an experience of hell more gruesome than warfare in this century, or the death camps of Nazi Germany, or the terrors of living on the streets in any large city. The ravages of disease, such as AIDS and cancer, provide additional images of pain and suffering that hell would have a difficult time to match.

This is not to say that suffering in itself is the equivalent of hell. For the person who is rooted in God and who has hope, suffering is the test that strengthens one and burns away the pollution in one's life, as fire purifies gold. The suffering of hell is needless suffering, that teaches nothing and achieves nothing in the one who suffers.

The Church teaches that hell exists. It is an experience of suffering that is rooted in hopelessness because there is no end to it. It is a hopeless and endless suffering that we have chosen. Indeed, some poets imagine the gates of hell being wide open, allowing anyone to walk in or to walk out. Yet, those who are in hell have chosen to be there and refuse to walk out of the darkness of hell into the light of heaven.

No matter what image we may use to understand the truth, the bottom line is that in God we are happy. Apart from God, we are miserable. This truth is the same in this life or the next. Heaven is to be with God. Hell is to be apart from God. Whether we are with God or apart from God is our choice. It is a choice we make through our actions in life. If God is part of our lives every day and an important factor in every decision we make, there is little chance that we will depart from our Lord and find ourselves in hell. If God is distant from us, through our own choice, there is always the hope of conversion but we have already begun to take up residence in hell.

On Easter Sunday in 1957 my grandfather died. Grandpa had been in and out of the hospital for months, so we all knew that he would not be with us much longer. Still, it was not easy to lose him. As a child of eight, he was a real life hero to me.

He was "larger then life", a link to a different era. His brother had been a soldier of fortune in Latin America. He had been a medicine show pitchman, among other professions, selling "Doc Shewman's" liniment on street corners in large cities and in small towns. He sold herbal medicines to the Indians on nearby reservations. He had also been a member of the American Expeditionary force that went with Dewey to Manila during the Spanish American War. He lost his right forearm in that episode. He also married my grandma and helped bring 12 children into the world, for whom he provided a comfortable living.

Grandpa wanted to stay with his family until Easter. I dont know the reason. His will was strong and he never gave up. He fought death for weeks, then early on Easter Sunday morning he settled back and gave up his spirit.

He was not a very religious man in the traditional sense of regular Mass attendance or devotions, which were grandma's department. Yet, at his funeral there were hundreds of people from all over upstate New York who were not known to his family. These people told stories of the kindness of grandpa, of the help he had given them when they were in need, of joy he brought into their lives through his stories and conversation. His sense of justice and compassion helped to shape my father. Through him, I feel grandpa's guidance even to this day.

I have always imagined that it was important for Grandpa that his death not be viewed as a sad event but as a passage to greater life. Perhaps, that is why he held on to this world until he could rise with Christ on Easter morning.

Easter is the most sacred of the Christian holy days. It is the centerpiece of the Church calendar. It is event we remember weekly in our Sunday celebrations. Christmas pales in importance next to Easter.

Obviously, it celebrates Christ's victory over death. Jesus is not simply a Jewish prophet who got in trouble with the political and religious power structure of his time and was killed. Easter reveals to us that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh; for death comes to all creation, yet it could not contain within its grasp the Creator.

Easter is not just a celebration of Christ's rising from the grave. Its wonder is that it is our celebration as well. As I look back on the lives of many people who are gone-grandpa, my mom and dad, Msgr. Ben- as well as many who are still with us in this world, I see Christ at work. In their faithfulness, in their compassion, in their sacrifices for those in need-both family and strangers, in their sense of justice and honesty I see the risen Christ.

The Gospel stories would be meaningless for me, if it were not for these people who brought Christ into my life. Christ taught me the importance of justice through grandpa's friendships with the Indians and my father's work on the Human Right's Commission in the city where I grew up. Christ taught me the meaning of pastoral care as I watched Msgr. Ben minister to the people of this community over the years I knew him. Christ teaches me the meaning of fidelity in the lives of people such as Sr. Bertha, the other sisters and clergy. These people have spent much of their lives in service to this community. I also see the meaning of fidelity in many of the couples I know who struggle with the demands of marriage and do not give up.

Christ's Resurrection is not simply the breathing of life again into the crucified and beaten body of Jesus. It is the transformation of that body into the glorified body of Christ. It is Jesus Christ living and present in the world until the coming of the Kingdom of God in His Mystical Body-the Christian Faithful.

Also read A Course in Christian Spirituality by Deacon Shewman that is available through this link.

(c) 1997-2008. Richard Shewman. All stories, articles, reflections and other written material contained in this website are the creative fruit and property of Richard Shewman. All rights are reserved. The written material contained in this website may not be reproduced or published in any form, except for the individual and personal use of the reader, without the express consent of the author.