There is a health insurance ad on TV that makes me catch my breath every time I see it. An attractive 60-year-old woman is walking in the woods. "I'm only in my 60s," she says, "I have lots of living ahead of me."
I hope so, I think, remembering the words of Jesus, "You know not the day nor the hour" (Mt. 24:42), or as the Muslims might say, God willing.
But it's not just that ad. I've been thinking a lot about death recently. My son tells me these are dark Irish thoughts and I should not dwell on them. He's right, but I have experienced the deaths of many contemporaries over the past year.
Ironically though, thoughts of death can enhance our living. They can focus us on the values that really matter. They can sober us up; turn our greed into generosity; our selfishness into compassion; our lust for pleasures into service.
After all it was the psychiatrist Karl Menninger, not a theologian, who told us, "The central purpose of each life should be to dilute the misery of the world."
Or contemplating death Tim McGraw would sing,
"Someday I hope you get the chance
"To live like you were dying"
John Henry Newman warned us, "Fear not that life shall come to an end, but rather fear that it shall never have a beginning." What did the good Cardinal mean? That many waste the time between their birth and death in uncaring activity, but remembering our ultimate end can steer us back to goodness and generosity.
The author Steven Vincent Benet tells us pointedly that, "Life is not lost by dying! Life is lost minute by minute, day by dragging day, in all the thousand, small, uncaring ways." I think the American author and the English Cardinal would agree.
Be that as it may, we deny death. Even when we read of bus, train or airplane accidents that kill many, or the hundred thousand dead in Syria's civil war, we dismiss it as being far away. Instead, when we read of these deaths, we should remember the words of John Donne, "Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
Even when death is closer to home like that woman falling to her death from a rollercoaster at Six Flags over Texas, we think that it happens to others and not to us. It's as though we are at a picnic and hear distant thunder and tune it out. We are unconcerned. The food and the drink, the banter and laughter, the pleasures of the moment mute the thunder. We imagine that the storm will never touch us, but of course, it will. We'd be better people if we remembered that.
I once knew a priest who said he forced himself to do things immediately, for he did not know if he would live another day. As it turned out he lived a long life - more productive because of his thoughts of death. We might charge him with obsessiveness, but no one could ever accuse him of procrastination - and he accomplished much in his lifetime.
For believers though, this life is not the end. At a requiem Mass Catholics hear, "Life is changed, not taken away." After bodily death we move on to something better. John O'Donohue, the late Irish poet priest said, if the baby during its last month in the womb could speak it would tell us that it was comfortable, warm and loved. It would say that it had everything it needed: food, shelter and affection. If we described to the baby its upcoming birth: the rupture of the amniotic fluid, the contractions, the pain and forced passage, the baby (if it could speak) would say that it sounded much like death. And yet after birth - a much richer, fuller existence than its limiting life in utero awaits the newly born.
The approach of death frightens even the believer. Listen to a prayer from that mystic, scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. It's from his book "The Divine Milieu."
"When the signs of age begin to mark my body
(and still more when they touch my mind);
when the illness that is to diminish me or carry me off
strikes from without or is born within me;
and when the painful moment comes to which I suddenly awaken
to the fact that I am growing ill or growing old;
and above all at the last moment
when I feel I am losing hold of myself and am absolutely passive within the hands
of the great unknown force that has formed me;
In all these dark moments, O God,
grant that I may understand that it is you
(provided only my faith is strong enough)
who are painfully parting the fibers of my being
in order to penetrate to the very marrow
of my substance and bear me away within Yourself."
Such a reflection is not just about life after death; it can help us live more fully.
Retired from the administration at State University of New York at Fredonia, Daniel O'Rourke lives in Cassadaga. His column once appeared regularly in the OBSERVER. A grandfather, Dan is a married Catholic priest. His book, "The Spirit at Your Back" is a collection of his previous columns. To read about that book or send comments on this column visit his website www.danielcorourke.com/