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By Gretchen Crowder

I have to admit, I have spent most of my life uncomfortable with the topic of death.

In particular, I have spent most of my life uncomfortable with discussing my own mortality.

I don’t know why. After all, I have from a very young age believed in heaven and life after death. I have always believed in an existence that extends far beyond the years we share here on earth – that this time we are living now is just a small blip in the larger context of eternity. I have even easily accepted ashes on my forehead year after year at the start of Lent affirming the reminder, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” with a resounding “Amen.” But then, at the end of the day, the ashes fell away, and I easily moved back to putting my mortality and all discussion of it in my rearview mirror.

I was listening to a podcast the other day in which the three hosts were doing their usual casual entrance into the episode chatting about something random. This time it was the question: “If you could, would you like to know the date and time that you would die?” One said “yes, I think it would lessen my anxiety and satisfy my curiosity. Then I could just live.” The second one agreed, but the third one said: “I would only like to know if I also knew the manner of death. Otherwise, I would be constantly trying to figure out if I was planning on one day of potential suffering or for months or years of suffering before the day.”

It’s an interesting question, really. Would you want to know how and when this earthly life will end? If you did know, how would it change how you are living right now?

Jesus knew his answer. He knew how and when his earthly life would end, and in today’s Gospel, he tells his apostles all about it. He affirms what is about to happen and tries to prepare his friends for what is ahead. Jesus knew more, however, than just the how and when of his upcoming death. He also knew that death would not have the final word. He knew that there was life after death with a certainty that perhaps only the Son of God himself could have. Though he knew his suffering would be extreme, he knew it was temporary, and it was important.

Jesus knew his answer, and he was ready. He was ready because he knew who he was and where his story fit in the bigger picture of humanity.

In the last couple years, I have found my comfort with reflecting on my mortality increasing a little. Perhaps it’s because I have practiced one of Ignatius’s suggestions for discernment in the second week of the Exercises that involves imagining you are on your deathbed reflecting back on your choices. Perhaps it’s because I have been reflecting on my true self versus my false self more through the work of Thomas Merton and others. Perhaps it’s because I’m getting older and wrestling with the deaths of people I know is becoming more a regular part of my life – deaths due to old age or illness, expected and unexpected deaths due to a myriad of circumstances. Perhaps it’s because of those I have been gifted to know in recent years who, like Jesus, were deeply committed to the bigger picture.

Last year, I lost a good friend, a Jesuit of the USA Central and Southern Province, Fr. Wally Sidney, SJ. During the seven years we knew each other and worked together, he and I would have occasional conversations about death and dying. He would always chuckle a little at my discomfort with the topic. He, unlike me, was not afraid of talking about death. He was deeply committed to the bigger picture, and he influenced my understanding of death and everything after. This year, I have had many moments when I think “I should call Wally and tell him…” In these moments I forget for a brief second that he is dead, and I am always struck by the absurdity of it when I remember. But maybe it’s not absurd. After all, Wally was deeply committed to the larger picture – the picture in which he lives on in communion with all those who have gone before us.

In today’s Gospel, I see two distinct invitations with regard to death:

  1. To get comfortable talking about our mortality: Jesus gives us a great example not only in this Gospel but throughout all the Gospels of having conversations about death. As we acknowledge on Ash Wednesday, “We are dust, and to dust we shall return.” We are, in fact, all going to die someday.
  2. To shift how we prepare for death: Jesus was his truest self and was principally other-focused throughout his life, even to his death. A focus on discovering our true self, the unique person God created each of us to be, will help us live into the bigger picture.

I think a focus on the second invitation will make the first invitation a bit easier to accept. But how do we do that? Father Richard Rohr, OFM, in his book Falling Upward, writes that we have to change our frame. Reflecting on the words of Thomas Merton on the true and false self, Fr. Rohr writes: “When we do not know who we are, we push all enlightenment off into a possible future reward-and-punishment system, within which hardly anyone wins. Only the True Self knows that heaven is now and that its loss is hell-now” (Rohr 63).

He goes on to say: “A person who has found their True Self has learned how to live in the big picture as a part of deep time and all of history. This change of frame and venue is called living in “the realm of God” by Jesus, and it is indeed a major about-face” (63).

How does responding to these invitations fit into leaning into and accepting our belovedness?

Focusing on discovering our true self is a large part of leaning into love. Fahter Rohr also writes this in a reflection on his Center for Action and Contemplation website: “Your True Self is Life and Being and Love. Love is what you were made for and love is who you are. When you live outside of Love, you are not living from your true Being or with full consciousness.” As we work to discover our true selves, the selves that live into the Kingdom of God here on earth, death loses its power.

So, will you join me in accepting the invitations of Jesus in today’s Gospel?

Will you spend time this Lent reflecting on your True Self and your mortality not as something to fear but something that unites all of us in the bigger picture?

Prayer Suggestion 

This week as you consider the twofold invitation from Jesus in the Gospel, the invitations to get comfortable talking about our mortality and shift how we prepare for death by focusing on discovering our true selves in God, I invite you to engage with me in an imaginative colloquy with Christ in his Agony in the Garden. At the start of the video, I explain a little more what colloquy is and offer you prompts to engage in an intimate conversation with Christ.

 

Gretchen Crowder

Gretchen Crowder wrote Leaning into our Belovedness, an introduction to her theme this Lent. Full of inspiration and prayer suggestions, you can download it as a PDF to pray with throughout the Lenten season. Gretchen is a campus minister and educator at Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas, as well as a writer, retreat director and podcaster. You can find her at gretchencrowder.com and on Loved As You Are: An Ignatian Podcast, available anywhere you get your podcasts.