Recently, while giving a retreat at a Trappist monastery, an old monk came to talk to me. He shared with me at length about the ups and downs of more than 50 years of monastic life.
At the end of all that he said to me: “Give me some hints on how I should prepare to die! What should I do to make myself more ready for death?”
The bluntness and heaviness of that question is, of itself, enough to intimidate a person with a spirituality deeper than my own. But when it is asked by someone twice your age whose heart and spirit seem already deeply charitable, faith-filled and well-mellowed out through years of quiet prayer, then perhaps one’s best response is silence.
I was not so naive as to offer him much by way of an answer, his eagerness notwithstanding.
But his is a good question. Indeed, how can we prepare to die? How should we live so that death does not catch us unaware, “as a thief in the night?” What should we do so that we do not leave this world with too much unfinished business?
The first thing that needs to be said in response to these questions is that anything we do to prepare for death must, if it is not to be a morbid and sick thing, be something that does not distance us or separate us from life and others here and now. We do not prepare for death through any kind of withdrawal.
The very opposite is true. What prepares us for death, anoints us for it, in Christ’s phrase, is a deeper, more intimate and fuller entry into life. We get ready for death by beginning to live life as we should have been living it all along. What do I mean by that?
I would like to flesh this out by quoting two phrases from two of my favorite authors: John Shea and John Powell.
In his poem, The Indiscriminate Host, John Shea writes: “The banquet is open to all who are willing to sit down with all.”
There is a whole lot contained in that line. What Shea suggests here is that the single condition for going to heaven is to have the kind of heart and the kind of openness that makes it possible for us to sit down with absolutely anyone—and to share life and a table with him or her.
For Shea, then, the best way we can prepare to die is to begin to stretch our hearts to love ever wider and wider, to begin to love in a way that takes us beyond the natural narrowness and discrimination that exists within our hearts because of temperament, wound, timidity, ignorance, selfishness, race, religion, circumstance and our place in history.
We prepare to die by pushing ourselves to love less narrowly. In that sense, readying ourselves for death is really an ever-widening entry into life.
John Powell, in his book, Unconditional Love, tells the story of a young student of his who was dying of cancer. In the final stages of his illness, he came to see Powell and said something to this effect: “Father, you once told us something in class that has made it easier for me to die young. You said: ‘There are only two potential tragedies in life and dying young isn’t one of them. These are the two real tragedies: If you go through life and you don’t love . . . and if you go through life and you don’t tell those whom you love that you love them.’
“When the doctors told me that I didn’t have very long to live, I realized how much I have been loved. I’ve been able to tell my family and others how much they mean to me. I’ve expressed love. People ask me: What’s it like being 24 years old and dying?’ I tell them: It’s not so bad. It beats being 50 years old and having no values!”
For Powell, we prepare ourselves for death by loving deeply and especially by expressing love, appreciation and gratitude to each other.
Jesus says much the same thing. When the woman at Bethany poured an entire bottle of expensive ointment on his feet and dried his feet with her hair, he commented on her lavish expression of affection and gratitude by saying: “She has just anointed me for my impending death.”
What he meant by that should not be piously misinterpreted. He wasn’t saying: “Since I am going to be dead in awhile anyway, let her waste this ointment!” No. He was saying rather: “When I come to die, it is going to be easier because, at this moment, I am truly tasting life! It’s easier to die when one has been, even for a moment, fully alive.”
I think that had the old monk cornered Jesus and asked him the question he asked me, he might have heard something like the following: “Prepare for death by living more fully, work at loving more deeply, less discriminately, more affectionately and more gratefully. Tell someone close to you today that you love him or her.”