Hospice: Reflections on a Dying Life


In my travel experiences in this life, usually to a meeting of philosophers, my activities during my stay were always pointed towards the effect they would have on my life once I left the hotel. Indeed, the very reason why I was at the meeting was to show that I was a member of the club, a practicing philosopher among others of my ilk, and to convey that fact to the great world beyond the doors of my temporary residence, the world that controlled my promotions and salary.

When I delivered a formal paper to the ten or twenty hardy souls who by mistake had wandered into my lecture, the sparse attendance never bothered me because I knew that my name would appear in the program to be read by those beyond the doors who hopefully might come to believe that I did something worthwhile in my days of traveling. Now that I am retired from the fray, I no longer worry about "doing" philosophy. My noble status as "Professor Emeritus" (a grand label with no benefits) creates the impression to the world at large that at least there was a time when I did some philosophy that was worthy of acclaim.

I find that now as I come to the end of my days in this Hospice that is my life, the same concern is growing in my heart. What, after all, have I done with my life that carries any true importance to the world of heaven and hell outside? I don't think I am dying (except in the sense of Augustine's sobering statement that we all begin to die as soon as we begin to live) but now in my eighth decade, it is reasonable to suppose that my time in this Hospice is running out, that I am closer to the end of my stay than to its beginning. And thus I ask myself:

What can I do now in this Hospice that will impress God once I leave? What can I do now that will insure a place in the City of God once I "check-out" of this Inn for Travelers?.

Unfortunately I don't think it will be enough to point out that while in this Hospice I went to philosophy conventions nor that I tried to teach philosophy to the unwilling for forty years. Such information did not even impress the taxi driver who took me to the airport after my philosophy meetings were over. It is unlikely that such declarations will have much effect on those who (in the next life) guard the entrances to God's City. What then am I supposed to do with the rest of my days in this Hospice?

The answer given by my Christian Faith is that I must do my best to bring Christ to the world that I face each day. In someway or other I must try to imitate Mary, the mother of Jesus. Like her, I must be a "Christ-Bearer", bringing Christ to that little piece of reality, that little room in this Hospice where I live out my life. As Augustine instructed his parish congregation:

The mother Mary bore Jesus in her womb; let us bear him in our hearts. The virgin became pregnant through the Incarnation of Christ; let our hearts become pregnant with his presence through our Faith in him. The virgin gave birth to the Savior; let our souls give birth to salvation. Let us not be sterile. Let our souls be a fertile field in which God can grow and flourish.

Sermon 189, 3

The pregnant Mary's example is instructive. She bore witness to that second life living in her long before the wombed Christ could be perceived directly by others. John the Baptist was the only exception. While still deep in the womb of his mother Elizabeth, he felt the presence of the wombed Jesus and he jumped for joy. In a similar fashion, if we could make the Divine Jesus live in us as powerfully as he once lived in Mary, then we would be well on the way to bringing him to our world. He would leap from our life just as he once sprang from the womb of Mary. But first we must say "Yes" to him just as Mary said "Yes" to the angel and received into her womb the Incarnate God.

What does saying "Yes" mean for us? Is this just a pretty pious statement with no content? It certainly does not mean going around all day saying "Yes, Jesus!" and doing nothing more. What it DOES mean is saying

Yes, Jesus, I want you to live in me!

and then going out and doing something about it. This "doing something" begins by learning:

... by learning from Scripture the rules that have been laid down for us as human beings (the ten commandments would be a good start)

... by learning from the story of Jesus how he reacted to the world he faced each day, how he dealt with saints and sinners, how he enjoyed his good times and endured his bad times.

Having learned these lessons then we can begin to try to live the life that they describe.

This is what saying "Yes" to Jesus means: trying to BE Jesus for every person we meet. It seems to be an impossible task, but the good news is that we are not expected to be perfect at it, only that we try our best. Accepting a humble failure says "Yes" to Jesus more than an arrogant success. This is the lesson taught by the story of the Pharisee (the professional saint) and the Publican (the professional sinner). The confessed sinner turned out to be closer to God than the self-proclaimed saint.

The difficulty is that our saying "Yes" cannot be just a sometime occurrence. To truly have Jesus living in us and through us, our "Yes" must unequivocal and permanent. This was Mary's great virtue. She said "Yes!" to God early in her life and she stayed faithful to that "Yes" until the very end. She said "Yes" once and was faithful always. On her good days and on her bad days Mary was able to know that her life was held in the hands of her infinite God. She was able to accept her life and be firm in her commitment to the divine will. As a result, God worked through her more powerfully than through any other human being. Jesus left her womb in nine months but he shone through her life as long as she lived; he reached out through her "Yes" for as long as she walked this earth. St. Peter was the head of the infant church but Mary was the heart. And so she is today, demonstrating that any human being can bring Christ to the world if only they will firmly and forever say "Yes" to God.

The example of the humble Mary shows us that we cannot avoid the duty to proclaim the Lord by the excuse that we are not talented or that we are too crippled by life to do any effective "proclaiming". We do not need great natural ability to proclaim God's word. We may out of humility (or out of laziness) object that we are "dim bulbs", but Christ is still saying to us as he said to his disciples (themselves not naturally "well-lit"):

You are the light of the world. Your light must shine in the sight of men, so that, seeing your good works, they may give praise to your Father in heaven.

Matthew, 5.14-16

We need not worry about being "dim". The light that illuminates those we meet is not our light; it is the light of God shining through us.

Augustine took seriously the story of the servant who hid away the wealth given him by the master for investment. (Cf. Luke 19: 11 ff.) Although he himself would have dearly loved a quiet life of reflection, he felt the force of the Jesus hiding inside him. He cried out:

Lord, you frighten me! You will not allow me not to preach. You demand from me what you gave me. You gave me my talents because you want to profit from them. You don't want them hidden away in some secret place. If I don't invest them in serving you, if I stow them away in some hole, you will complain "Why did you not put my money out on loan, so that when I return I could at least get it back with interest?" It won't do me any good then to point out that at least I did not LOSE anything. You don't want to get back only what you gave me. You want more. Your are avaricious. You want back ALL your money, every coin that bears your image: that is, every human soul that ever existed.

Sermon 125, 8

You don't need to be as "smart" as Augustine to bring Christ to your world. Indeed, you do not need to be particularly strong. As I type these words, I see before me a picture of a painting done by an artist friend of mine, Marion Wittenhagen. It is a head of Christ as he looked just after he had heard the terrible words of Pilate:

Nothing more can be done!

I suggested these words as the title for the picture because they seemed to fit both the painting and the artist. After Marion had been crippled by an unsuccessful operation on her back, she had heard those same words from her doctors when she asked for some relief from the pain. They told her:

We are sorry, Marion. Nothing more can be done to relieve your pain because you are not terminal.

Marion had to live out the rest of her days in unremitting pain but it did not stop her from painting. She had to paint from her bed mostly, though sometimes she would work propped up on a crutch until the pain got too bad. The portrait that resulted is especially striking because of the eyes. Instead of the dark eyes you would normally expect in a man of Christ's human lineage, the eyes are bright blue. The explanation for the unusual color is simple. One day Marion, after a series of unsuccessful attempts to get the eyes as she wanted them, dragged herself and the painting into the bathroom. Standing in pain before the mirror, she propped the unfinished canvas on the sink and painted her OWN eyes into the face of Jesus. Thus as I sit looking at this picture of the swarthy face of the suffering Jesus, I see looking back the blue, blue eyes of the pain-filled Marion.

I think Jesus is pleased with his picture because it symbolizes the union he would like to have with every human being. He wants to live in us so powerfully that he can look through our eyes and see the world we face each day. He wants to live so powerfully in us that others will look in our eyes and see the eyes of Jesus Christ looking back.

If he truly lives in me to that degree, then I am certain that he will not be ABLE to condemn me on judgment day because he will look at the sin-weathered face of "Donald" and see looking back at him his own eyes: the eyes of Jesus Christ.

There is no question that it is not easy bring Christ into our daily life to that degree, but that is what he expects of us. Whatever we do, wherever we go, he expects we will bring him to our world. When we try to do that, we give him an opportunity to bury himself deeper and deeper into our being. In seeking to convert the world, we convert ourselves.

This may be happening to us right now. There are few outward signs. Carrying Christ does not necessarily make us feel any better. It does not make us smarter or a better preacher or a better teacher. It should not make us feel any more virtuous. Indeed, if we FEEL too virtuous, that is usually a sign that we are not. If we try to bear Christ to the world that only we face each day, most of the time we will feel like cracked pots no matter how faithful we try to be to our calling.

The essential virtue needed by the Christ-Bearer is what might be described as energetic humility. Energy prevents us from falling into pseudo-pius sloth. Humility prevents us from burning ourselves out by trying to do more than we are capable of. Frustration coming from trying to be more than we can be may lead to despair and through such despair we may destroy ourselves eternally. Giving up on ourselves because we failed to do what we were incapable of doing can lead to giving up on God.

To be a Christ-Bearer in this world does not demand that I perform miracles, merely that I try to make the best of the day that is given to me. In doing so ...

... I must try to help others make the best of theirs and, if I cannot, then at least I must not get in their way.

... I must realize that not every one of my days will be good and productive and satisfying. When such good days come, I should enjoy them to the hilt but not try to hold onto them. They are passing as I am passing.

... I must realize that not every day will be bad and seemingly wasted. When such bad days come, I should bear them and not let them crush me. They are passing as I am passing.

... I must realize that just now my life is in flux but that this is not a sign that anything is wrong, that Jesus is not with me. It is simply a sign that I am still living my days this side of death and that I am still too close to my beginnings to overcome my corruption. I am still touched by the nothingness that is my root.

And above all, I should remember that I have not yet become Jesus Christ. I am still in flux and so too is he in me. He is still fighting like the good doctor he is to stabilize my vital signs. He is still fighting to become more of my life. He is still fighting to purge my life of my weakness so that I can begin to live in strength in him. My task just now is to say "Yes" to his wish to be present in me. If I do only that to the best of my ability, then whatever else happens to me,

I will have proclaimed the Lord!

Having done only this as best I could, I can be sure that my life has been worthwhile and that Jesus waits for me just beyond the doors of this Hospice, this Inn for Travelers where I live out the remainder of my waning days.

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